Thursday, November 29, 2012

"If we succeed, and live, we can fight it out to see who keeps her."

There are certain cliches in adventure fiction that--as long as the surrounding story is well-written--I am a sucker for.

For instance, I love it when circumstances force guys who would normally kill each other on sight to team up with one another. It's a trope that Robert E. Howard seemed to enjoy. I just re-read the Conan novella People of the Black Circle (1934), in which this happens. I can think of three other Howard stories without even trying in which something similar occurs.

I'll probably do entries on the other three "enforced team-up" stories, since thinking about them makes me want to read them again. In fact, I briefly considered making this part of my "Read/Watch 'em in order" series, but each of these stories features a different character and aren't directly interconnected.

In Black Circle, Conan has become leader of a tribe of barbarian warriors who live near Vendhya, the Hyborian Age analog for India. He's hoping to weld other tribes together into an empire.

But there's other plots afoot as well--one of them involving spies from the nation of Turan teaming up with a sect of ancient and evil wizards to kill the king of Vendhya. (And not just kill him--but to steal his soul while doing so.)

Circumstances allow Conan to kidnap the Devi--the now-dead king's drop-dead gorgeous sister. Despite being pampered royalty, she soon proves herself to brave and intelligent, allowing her to rise above being a stereotypical damsel-in-distress.

Which is always a good sign in an original Conan story. The best of Howard's Conan tales often included a strong female character, while the weaker ones would sometimes involve whiny cry-baby girls who just scream a lot until they are rescued. I've nothing against damsels-in-distress. I just like it better when they seem to be worth the effort of rescuing.

Howard manages to weave several plot threads involving several different characters together to keep the story moving, inserting his typically awesome action sequences along the way. Eventually, the Devi is captured by the evil wizards and taken to their mountain fortress. To rescue her, Conan must team up with a Turanian spy named Kerim Shah, who has been searching for the Devi for reasons of his own. Though they would normally kill each other on sight, Conan, Kerim and the spy's small band of henchmen must team-up to rescue the girl. They figure they can kill each other afterwards to see who gets to keep her.

The motley crew must fight their way through both magical dangers and more prosaic threats to reach the fortress. Once there--well, they face even more horrific dangers. Howard's Conan stories often include elements of horror as well as adventure tropes.

But messing with Conan the Barbarian--even if you have nigh-godlike powers--is never a smart thing to do.

People of the Black Circle is one of the best Conan yarns. It's particularly notable in that at one point Howard has at least three sets of characters plus at least three large armed forces wandering around the Vendhyan border, but he keeps track of all of them quite nicely. The overall plot is not that complex, but there's enough going on so that it might have gotten muddled and confused in the hands of a lesser writer. But the various elements involved are sorted out and explained to us with Howard's typical skill. That guy really knew how to spin a yarn.

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