What immediately strikes me about the four stories in this book is that they are all set in the exotic fringes of Hyboria; not that any part of it is not exotic and strange, but it highlights that Howard was always extremely interested in his 'Oriental' work – with one tale among the Afghulis, two in the Black Kingdoms, and one as a corsair in the Western Ocean; that last we'll get to in a minute. I'm not attempting to analyse the 'contributions' made by de Camp in these reviews, I should clarify; I simply intend to take each story at its own merits. Others are far more qualified than I to work on a more textual analysis, and I'm reading these for inspiration, primarily. About which more later.
The first book in this collection, 'The People of the Black Circle', is one of my favourite Conan tales, and I think an excellent introduction to the character. It's a classic tale that shows Conan as a leader of men, at the height of his power, with ambitions not to rule – but to lay waste. He is not Alaric seeking to found a Gothic Empire on the ruins of Rome, he seeks loot and wealth for its own sake, and has little regard for where he does his ravaging; he speaks of returning north to other lands, should his plans with the Afghulis fail.
We have a classic combination here, therefore – Conan in an 'Eastern' setting, complete with large doses of mysticism and laced with the opulent wealth of the area, mentions of seraglios and power struggles beyond, huge battles against difficult odds – though not all of them are described, and even encounters with old allies from the past. Can you tell I really enjoy this one?
'The Slithering Shadow' fares less well, but it is standing in something of a shadow of its own, so perhaps this is not to be wondered at. Again, this is classic, with Conan exploring a lost city with a female companion, but she is treated in such a limp fashion that one almost wonders why he doesn't simply accept the wiles of the evil sorceress he meets in the lost city of Xuthal. This one takes quite a while to truly get going, and while a good story, fails to meets the heights of the first one; though the descriptions are as lavish, a true Howard mark.
Third, we have 'Drums of Tombalku', and already I am forced to break the rule of the first chapter – because this is really obviously written from a Howard fragment, and I would probably have known that without any other knowledge. The story takes forever to get moving, the pacing way off, and the focus on a character who essentially just wants to settle down and raise a family; we never really get engaged with Amalric, and are constantly wanting to see more of Conan. Now, having a Conan story with the 'lead' another character can work, but the character in question has to engage the reader, and this one doesn't. I did like King Sakumbe, I must admit, but again – we see too little of the story to truly engage us. The weak one of the selection.
Tortage? Sigh. Howard didn't write much fiction set in the pirate age, despite his exposure to Sabatini through 'Adventure', and his obvious familiarity with at least some of the old materials; I find it hard to believe that he hadn't at least read 'The Buccaneers of America', at some point. (Truly excellent book, by the way.) This adventure features Conan attempting to swim across the Western Ocean – yes, swim across the Atlantic, basically – and could easily be set in the 17th century Caribbean. Right down to him ending up on a yacht. Having said that, Conan as a character is strong in this story, even if at times he seems to have swum backwards in time. (In the book, it is suggested Conan is in his mid-thirties; I agree with other reasoning that this is meant to take place considerably earlier in his life.)
The collection starts strong, but doesn't really stay that way; but they're leading with one of the best stories in the canon – in my personal opinion – so it's only likely to descend from there in any case. I'm going to give this one an eight out of ten as an opener.