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Conan the Barbarian
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 5 July 2011
I have read and own the first set of Conan books by R E Howard and have read them many times over.
I have also been very disappointed with other author's attempts at Conan.
Not so with this author, Michael Stackpole--just an awesome job sir.
Love the book it captures the ture Conan.
Fans of Conan will love this book --and new fans will arise.
I love it.
Ian Duckett -Author.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
With the new film hitting the screens on the 19th August (2011) people are going to be seeking out the tales of the original barbarian that stormed castles, robbed keeps and above all else made himself a king. Whilst dated to a certain degree (well they were written originally in the thirties) they've been bound together in this unique volume for the reader to get the full effect of this battle hardened warrior.

It's a great way to introduce fantasy and with one of the most enduring characters of all time it clearly demonstrates why its loved the world over by fans. Whilst, for me, the nicest volume will always be the Centenary edition (released by Gollancz back in 2006) this is a great way to pick up the stories for a great price and will entertain readers as they await their latest fix as well as introduce newer fantasy fans to the hero. All in, this is a great piece of fun and one that will stand the test of time.
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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 29 August 2011
Conan the Barbarian, the new collection from Gollancz, is equally unapologetic in its focus on first-time readers of Robert E. Howard. The collection comes with a minimum of extra features and relies heavily on its cover (in this case, a movie tie-in) to lure in the new fish.

Alas, there's no grim element - no "grittiness" - in contemporary fantasy that wasn't already present in the works of Howard sixty years ago. In Conan the Barbarian, the collected stories contain all the hallmarks of "gritty" fantasy - descriptive violence, ambiguous heroes, pyrrhic endings, fruitless quests. Even a few of the shock value tropes can be found in these short stories, including (but not limited to) torture, incest and sexual violence.

However, there has been some evolution in sword & sorcery (although a few books are trying their best to regress). Robert E. Howard often relied on appalling racial stereotypes and his female characters are laughable (eeeeeeeevil witches or vapid maidens, either way, don't get too attached to them). As far as technique goes, Howard's settings, language and themes (the "philosophy", for lack of a better term) are unmatched, but his characterisation was often one-dimensional. Conan grows over the course of the stories (Howard didn't write them in order, which makes this a particularly nifty trick), but he's often the only memorable character in each tale. Even then, Conan spends most of his time either angry or wily; very little in-between. Howard wrote a cunning hero, not an intelligent one. This limited the range of the stories and kept Conan defined as an escapist character, not an empathetic one.

All this, for better and for worse, is contained in Conan the Barbarian, as the collection includes many of the barbarian's defining moments.

The first story in the volume features the young Conan exploring "The Tower of the Elephant". With its gloriously science-fictional explanations, this is a beautiful example of the genre-crossing beauty of the truly Weird text. "Rogues in the House" is a similarly-structured adventure, down to its fulfilling (if unrewarding) ending. Like the characters in Joe Abercrombie's series, Conan never seems to gain much for his troubles. At key moments, he holds all the jewels in the world, but by the end, he's invariably back down to sword and (if lucky) horse.

Although the decaying jungle of "Queen of the Black Coast" may be Howard's most breath-taking setting, both race and gender issues rear their ugly heads. Conan's special lady-friend is an evil and lusty pirate queen, with a crew of savage and superstitious dark-skinned warriors. The adventure itself is good (and Conan again ends his quest no better off than he began), but the cast borders on the spectacularly offensive.

The highlight of the collection is my favorite Howard tale, "Beyond the Black River". Howard breaks his own narrative tradition for "Black River", with the story following not Conan, but an overwhelmed young settler named Balthus. Civilisation has over-reached and the dark, barbaric, unknown forces of the wilderness are lashing back. Conan is the child of both worlds. He's allied with the settlers, but his tactics and outlook are barbarian. I believe this is one of the defining short stories in fantastic fiction.

Howard's importance, as noted above, is too often forgotten. This makes it a shame that the editor didn't take advantage of the wealth of secondary material. The collection includes Howard's world-building essay, "The Hyborian Age" and a short (<1 page) biography, but it feels like a missed opportunity to link the master of yesteryear with the stars of today. As much fun as I have explaining waving my arms around and bellowing about Howard's importance, this is something that proper scholars and authors have all done much more articulately.

Still, Conan the Barbarian is an excellent starting point; packed cover to cover with some of the best in timeless fantasy. This book has little value to existing Howard readers, but would make an excellent gift for those in need of pulpy enlightenment.
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