Saturday, September 21, 2019

Book Review - The People of the Black Circle

I have vague memories of the Conan movie(s) from the 80s starring Arnold but beyond those spotty memories, I have had no interaction with the character or stories of Conan. And yet, I felt like I had a pretty decent sense on him just based on his permeation into popular culture. Still, I've always wanted to dive in and read some of the original books about the famed barbarian.

Rather than starting at the beginning, I started with The People of the Black Circle. I found many people claiming it to be one of the best stories written by original author Robert E. Howard so I felt like it was a good place to start. The term "sword and sorcery" as a subgenre was largely created for Howard's work such as the Conan stories. This story has a large focus on the sorcery part.

The first many pages don't feature Conan or any swordplay at all. Rather we are introduced to some evil wizards known as the Black Seers of Yimsha. Supposedly these wizards normally don't interfere with matters of non-wizards but through a series of intrigue and machinations (that we discover later) they assassinate the emperor of Vendhya. The emperor's sister, the Devi Yasmina, becomes the new queen and she vows revenge.

Since no one in her kingdom dare take on the Black Seers, the queen's revenge involves a plan to get the famed warrior Conan to infiltrate the mountains and kill the wizards. She has captured 7 of Conan's chiefs and is holding them hostage with the hopes of convincing Conan to do her dirty work.

After that build up, we finally get our first glimpse of Conan as he sneakily infiltrates the palace and kidnaps the queen, thus turning her ransom plan on its head. As he escapes the army that chases after them, he is driven through an adventurous path of interactions with would-be-allies and would-be-enemies before eventually being confronted by the wizards and deciding to go after them.

The plot is action packed and filled with as many twists and turns as the treacherous mountain passes that Conan journeys across during this adventure. From Conan's kidnapping of Yasmina until the final confrontation with the Black Seers, the stakes are constantly being raised and adrenaline is kept high. Just when our hero seems to be making strides forward, some new obstacle appears to bar his way. The plot largely centers on Conan but takes the occasional detour to give us glimpses of other characters and situations. These transitions felt fluid and natural.

Based on my limited view of Conan, I envisioned him as an uneducated brute just rushing in and swinging weapons with brute strength. Instead, Conan is a well spoken leader who choses his words and his actions wisely. In some cases those words and actions come instinctively but those instincts are based on the experience and wisdom of his character. From what I gathered, Conan is barbarous and uncivilized only in the sense that he lives a more rural existence amid other tribesman rather than in the confines of a palace. At one point in the story Conan remarks on how Yasmina has gained humanity by changing out of the costumes and trappings of her palace life. That sensibility seems to be a commentary on the way society limits our freedoms while claiming to raise us up.

The other characters feel less nuanced and developed. Devi Yasmina receives by far the most development of the other characters. As a female character in an early 20th century story, it's not surprising that she's a secondary character with limited influence or dialog. Perhaps more surprising are the moments where she tries to stand up to Conan. The author presents her as a strong leader of her kingdom though still wallowing in grief for her brother and consumed with the need for revenge. It's unclear what her strength and direction will be as a character once she accomplishes her desire. In spite of her fortitude of character, she takes on the foil of the blushing damsel in distress and Conan willingly steps in as the hero to save her.

This, among other cliches, felt very familiar but I reminded myself that many of these now common techniques were likely very new, fresh and potentially shocking to the original readers of the story. In spite of the feeling of banality of some elements of the story I had a lot of fun racing along on this adventure with Conan.

I found the writing to be fluid and elegant. Howard has a great command of language. The descriptions of the world, the characters and the actions were engrossing. Even though many of the characters felt a bit flat, I found their actions and motivations to be clear and believable. The dialog was solid and fun. I enjoyed the banter between Conan and Yasmina and was again surprised at the wit and intelligence of the barbarian.

My biggest gripe of the story was the ending which I think is largely due to the heightened pacing. Since the tension and stakes just continued to raise from scene to scene, that meant the by the time we reached the climax, we had reached a very high point such that the resolution felt slightly abrupt. Still, I did enjoy the staging and the artistry of the climax and the conclusion. I also enjoyed that even after the main confrontation was over that the author continued the journey and even introduced another mini conflict as a sort of afterthought. That allowed for a final bit of commentary from Conan on the state of the world and the nature of his character.

Overall I really enjoyed this read. I found the writing to be very solid and the storytelling thoroughly enjoyable. The world was engrossing and I was pleasantly surprised with Conan as a character. It's a great bit of escapism and while slightly dated in nature it's still an enjoyable way to spend some time. Based on this read, I can see myself seeking out opportunities to read more Conan adventures in the future.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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