The Roman Empire has stretched in Britain. One race of people fights Caesar at every turn, the Picts, led by their king, Bran Mak Morn. But the Picts, rulers of a vast empire themselves in the days of Atlantis, have long since degenerated into brutish barbarism. Bran knows that his battle against Rome and his own people's extinction is a lost cause, and fights on, nonetheless.
I was unfamiliar with Bran Mak Morn before Wandering Star and Del Rey began reprinting Robert E. Howard's work. Since I had enjoyed the Conan and Solomon Kane volumes, I added "Bran Mak Morn: The Last King" to my library eagerly. However, after reading the volume, I must admit that this isn't my favorite example of Howard's work. I was surprised, as most scholars consider Bran Howard's most personal character. Bran arose from Howard's interest in his own Scots-Irish ancestry. Bran also represents Howard's own ideas about the nature of humanity, the ever-present barbarian struggling against the hypocrisy of civilization. Unlike many of his other stories, however, Howard's Bran stories place substantial emphasis on mood more so than on action.
Bran's people, the Picts, are a common fixture in Howard's writings. They appeared frequently to plague Conan years after Howard had left Bran behind. Howard's version of these people is a romanticized one, with an elaborate, mythical history of their spectacular empire built in the long-forgotten past. But he also presents them as a disintegrating people, who long ago forgot most of the basic skills necessary to maintain and build a civilization. Howard is also able to examine some of his own racialist points of view, as Bran is an exception, maintaining the majestic Aryan qualities that had marked the Picts in the ancient days.
Howard only completed six stories about Bran. Howard experimented with techniques with Bran more than he did with his other characters. The first story "Men of the Shadows" is a first person narrative of a Roman soldier and his capture by the Picts, and his meeting with Bran, who is simply referred to as a chief. The most important aspect of this story is that it sets the stage for who and what the Picts are. It was not published until after Howard's death.
The second story, "Kings of the Night" is one of the two truly stand-out stories in this collection and certainly one of Howard's best stories generally. Bran is attempting to build an alliance with various tribes against an impending Roman assault. One tribe refuses to fight unless led by a king. A wizard summons forth Howard's own King Kull from the past. This story is interesting as it explicitly connects Howard's various series of fiction. Bran is the descendent of Kull's ally Brule the Spear-Slayer and Kull himself plays an important role. The action of the battle is gleeful and ferocious, and the atmosphere is chilly and foreboding.
In "Worms of the Earth", which is certainly one of Howard's most intense and creepy tale, and the other real stand-out story. The only story told from Bran's point-of-view sees the monarch make an unholy bargain with another race the Picts forced underground generations past. The bargain: vengeance against the Roman procurator. The imagery of sub-human creatures skittering around in the dark waiting to drag unsuspecting souls to their deaths is delicious in its horror.
The last two stories are interesting in that Bran isn't physically in either story. In "The Dark Man", Turlogh Dubh, an outcast Celt, pursues a young princess of his clan and her Viking captors. On his journey, he discovers a large wooden statue, and carries it with him on his pursuit. The statue is an image of Bran Mak Morn, long dead, but still thirsting for battle. "The Dark Man" is an entertaining yarn, as the statue plays a pivotal and magical role in Turlogh's quest. I also found it fascinating that Howard had allowed one of his characters to have definitive end.
The other story "The Lost Race" finds another Celt, Cororuc, in a battle for his life when he is captured by the last remnants of the Picts, long driven underground. It's an interesting story providing a coda to the Bran saga, but at the same time going back over the Picts history and their tragedy without providing anything new or insightful. Bran has long been dead, and no trace of him appears, only his magical descendent.
"Bran Mak Morn: The Last King" is probably my least favorite collection of Howard's work thus far. While I liked the character, there is so little complete Bran material that I never felt connected to the character. The bonus materials are fascinating, but at the same time, they feel like padding. A small part of me wondered if perhaps, instead of the various unfinished drafts and the like, the Bran stories might have been better served in a more general collection of Howard's work. That having been said, Howard's storytelling skills are in top form in these stories, and anyone who has enjoyed Conan does owe it to themselves to read Bran Mak Morn.