Well, after a slight hiatus, we return with Conan the Freebooter, a five-story collection pretty much slap-bang in the middle of the actual Howard stories collected in the Sphere series. I apologize for the delay, by the way – I managed to pull muscles in both arms – long story – and it made writing a bit painful for a while! Fortunate I wasn't in the middle of something; it was frustrating enough as it was! Anyway, on with the show – after all, I'm in this to learn from the master, and it's more than time for my next lesson...
We open with 'Hawks of Shem', a title that has nothing at all in common with 'Hawks over Outremer'. No, really – it's based on 'Hawks of Egypt', a very different story. It's a good piece, not the best but a solid tale, and that actually says something interesting about Howard to me – he really likes his 'oriental' pieces. There is nothing at all wrong with that, they are some of his best works, but the clash of cultures definitely attracted his attention, as well as the lavish imagery such settings possessed. His copy of the Arabian Nights must have been extremely well thumbed. The tale itself is a good one, Conan almost literally stumbling into the plot, but still a nice solid piece, and the De Camp changes don't really show. If I hadn't known the story originated for another character, I wouldn't have seen it in a casual read.
Next we come to 'Black Colossus'. This story once again showcases Howard's amazing descriptive sense – paragraph after paragraph of rolling prose pulling the reader into the world, giving the sense of taste and feel that is required. It always amazes me that Howard was able to pull this off, without ever getting to see the places he was writing about himself. Imagine if he'd made it out to Egypt, somehow, or to Assyria...what stories would we have had then! The character that opens the book, a thief named Shevatas, does not even get a line of dialogue – but we just don't need it.
This story has such rich prose that it really draws you in, Conan fighting dark sorcery the only way he knows how, sword in hand with an army at his back. It's notable how often Conan is perceived as a lone warrior, somehow, but from his earliest days he has been strongest as a leader of men, and often sought to gather followers from some great quest. The ending is an interesting one – in another world, this would have been the end of a grand 'Conan' saga – after all, he essentially gets the girl, and with her, the kingdom – yet he carries on his wanderings.
'Shadows in the Moonlight' follows; a very Sinbad-esque tale, somehow. It almost feels at times as if this era in Conan's career should have been covered by Burton! Another pirate piece, set on a strange island, but this one with a far more 'Arabian' feel than his earlier pirate piece. This ends with him acquiring a 'Queen of the Blue Sea' in the form of the former slave Olivia, as well as a huge man-ape chasing them...so the influences in this one are pretty apparent. It's not a strong story, in comparison to some of the others; I have the feeling that at times Howard didn't quite know the story he wanted to write.
'The Road in the Eagles' feels in many ways more like a collaboration between Harold Lamb and de Camp; it's a very Lamb-style story, strongly influenced by him. Another original non-Conan story, and this time it shows. It just doesn't feel like it fits in the world of Conan, despite the references to lands such as Iranistan. Again, it isn't a particularly bad story, it just isn't a Conan tale, and Lamb is a bit too near the surface here.
Finally, the jewel in the crown, 'A Witch Shall Be Born'. Now this one is one of my all-time favourites, and would be a strong contender for favourite; it says a lot that this story, for me, beats 'Black Colossus' down to second place. This one explores the evil twin motif, introduces the concept of a crucified Conan to the world, sees him riding with steppe nomads to avenge himself and free a desert city-state – it is just an absolutely classic story that is well told, perfectly outlined, with all the strengths of Howard and none of the weaknesses. His ending mirrors another tale, as he heads off to raid civilized lands rather than becoming a king – really, Conan gets offered an awful lot of thrones before he finally picks Aquilonia.
This one is just generally strong. Two absolute classics in this one, pushing it up to a '9'.