I'll start this review with two words. Red Nails. The first collection started with one of my favourite Conan tales; this starts with another; definitely De Camp knew what he was doing in starting each collection with a strong story, if nothing else! (I am curious, actually, what the selection process was for each anthology; no doubt there is something on it somewhere. If it was to follow some sort of chronology – and the little 'chronological notes' that set each story in Conan's career are evidence of that – then surely Tower of the Elephant would have been a better place to start.)
Well. Red Nails. This is another of the classic Conan stories – a venture into a lost city, this one with extremely strong Mesoamerican themes (a character called Olmec, for a start), but a sample of more of the amazing Howardian imagery. This features Valeria, famous for the movie – who in this is an extremely strong female character. (The movie is a matter for discussion at another time, I reckon.) This is one of those that is often talked about, and with extremely good reason. Howard manages to fit an entire culture into this story, painted with strong vivid tones that make it come to life.
In addition to this, with have the strong theme of eternal war, more sorcery in the form of an enchantress who caused the whole war in the first place – and Conan and his companion moving in to deal with the problem in a typically permanent way. In addition to the setting of the story itself, the tale is filed with references to the wider world, which can occasionally appear obtrusive, I confess, but which do serve as a reminder that there is a bigger world out there. This story dominates the collection, as indeed it should...
...But this time, is better supported by the other two stories. Only three in this collection, with the second being 'Jewels of Gwahlur', which took me four attempts to type correctly. The female lead in this one is far weaker; being used to imitate a goddess due to a coincidental resemblance – in effect, Conan is stumbling on a huge religious confidence trick that he uses to his advantage. I can see why this story was put in with Red Nails, it feels rather similar in tone at times, though...somewhat lesser formed, somehow. The ending with the beasts is strong, but somehow, in this, it feels as if Howard simply had less to say. I take back what I said; it might have been better to put this elsewhere. It's another lost world piece that perhaps sits a bit in the shade.
Finally, we finish with 'Beyond the Black River', and well – I'll start by quoting the ending lines. “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind...Civilisation is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” Here once again Howard is pushing a strong philosophy, and it shows in a strong story. This concept meant much to him; it is all through his correspondence, so it's unsurprising that this tale of barbarian Picts overwhelming Roman soldiers on the frontier is a good one – even if the source material is obvious at times. This smells of a story originated for another character, one of the historical pieces Howard enjoyed writing so much. Yet Conan fits seamlessly into the piece, because this fits his character so well.
Despite Conan's help, the barbarians win; Aquilonia's border is pushed back to Thunder River at the story's end, the implication being that this is the first stage of a longer process, and that the civilized empire will not dare try its luck in the Pictish Wilderness again. Shades of Hadrian's Wall, obviously, and Germania – but it works well. In another collection this might have been the signature story.
A stronger second book than the first; I'm going with a '9'.