The fourth book should be called 'Hour of the Dragon'. It is an excellent title; while 'Conan the Conqueror' has a certain ring to it, it doesn't really describe the book particularly well. Conan doesn't conquer anything in the course of this story – instead, he reclaims the kingdom that has been stolen from him by trickery and deceit. This, regrettably, was the only full-length novel featuring the Conan character that Howard ever wrote; regrettably because I generally prefer the longer Conan stories. Something I'm planning for the end of this piece is to design 'my perfect anthology'...but that's another eighteen reviews away.
It is apparent by this time that Howard is comfortable with Conan and his world. There is a confidence in this work that is perhaps not quite so much there in his earlier pieces. In this piece, Aquilonia is even more medieval Europe than before; knights in shining armour ride across the landscape, and the political situation is strongly feudal. That this meshes so well with the more exotic areas of his world should be no surprise; the analogy here is simply medieval Europe and the Middle East, two cultures that existed at the same time quite happily. Well, by happily, there were the Crusades, of course, but that's another story. (And Howard wrote some good ones, but more on that later. I'm in danger of rambling.)
Conan here has become King; we get the backstory of his rise to power quite quickly, and he does mirror King Kull in some respects, while still being his own man. He's at the end of his life – as an adventurer, certainly, and there is an air of contemplation over his past. At the start of the book he dreams of the trails he once walked; over the course of the book he once again walks some of them, with the temptation of simply returning to his old ways.
“I wont go as a king of Aquilonia, or even as a knight of Poitain, but as a wandering mercenary, as I rode in Zingara in the old days. Oh, I have enemies enough south of the Alimane, in the lands and the waters of the south. Many who won't know me as king of Aquilonia will remember me as Conan of the Barachan pirates, or Amra of the black corsairs. But I have friends, too, and men who'll aid me for their own private reasons.”
There is an air of finality, and I think this was definitely meant to be the last Conan tale, chronologically, by Howard; I suspect that if he had lived longer, future stories would have been set in the past. He's done 'Barbarian King' before, remember, and he stopped exploring the Kull character. (Could this have been written as a Kull story? Yes, but not as well. Kull didn't have the wealth of history that Conan has by this point to the fan. That extra dimension would have been missing.)
Then...Zenobia. A name rich in history – a Queen who for a time defied the Romans, one of the last great foes they defeated, and an exotic character from the east...here used to describe the slave girl who ultimately becomes Conan's wife. This character is only seen in a few scenes in the book, but there is little sense that she is bolted on; she takes a big risk to help free Conan in one of his darkest hours, and he keeps his word to return for her at the end of the book. There is a logic to taking a foreign wife; he then is beholden to no faction at court, which makes some sense. It's a good scene, in any case, and actually shows how Conan's character has developed as he has grown older.
Conan has changed in another key way from his earlier self. The barbarian warrior who sought to lead a horde of Afghuli tribesmen against the cities of Iranistan has now evolved into a ruler who rejects an offer to lead an army on a war of conquest for far greater rewards, instead opting to return to what has been taken from him. This evolution of his character indicates that responsibility has crept into his soul; it is time for him to settle down, and the throne of Aquilonia is as good a place as any to do that. That – and there is still room for revenge in his soul.
In a sense, the plot of this book almost 'hits the high points' of Conan's career – with rulership, intrigue, thievery, action on the high seas, dark sorcerers from exotic lands – one can easily imagine Howard deciding to write a novel, and consciously playing to his strongest elements from this past. Not that this steals from earlier works, not in the least, it's all meshed together well, and with the 'this I once did' element to add poignancy, but it's certainly an element to consider – and had he done another Conan novel, it would have been interesting to see what he did with it.
The book ends with Conan once again on his throne, the conspirators defeated, and the slave girl Zenobia rewarded by becoming his wife – though this is something that 'he will now do', it isn't how the story ends – which is certainly as it should be. Conan ends on a high. This one gets nine out of ten, without question. So far, so good.