Robert E. Howard’s THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON is now available on Project Gutenberg for free, so this seems like a good time to post a review of this classic novel.
THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON the original sword & sorcery novel, and indeed one of the best.
The plot: a band of disaffected nobles and a fallen priest gather together to overthrow King Conan of Aquilonia. The fallen priest uses sorcery to summon up Xaltotun of Acheron, once the chief sorcerer of a hellish empire now three thousand years dead. The conspirators plan to use Xaltotun’s powers to overthrow Conan and divide Aquilonia among themselves. With Xaltotun’s aid, the conspirators succeed, but quickly discover that Xaltotun has own ideas, and plans to resurrect his ancient empire of horror and necromancy. Conan manages to escape from Xaltotun, and it’s up to him to save both his kingdom and indeed the entire world from Xaltotun’s infernal grasp.
Howard wrote with a vigor and an energy that few modern writers can match. The popular image of “Conan the Barbarian” is of a muscle-bound Schwarzenegger-esque dullard, but the real Conan is cunning, prone to gloomy pondering, and a man of action. No postmodern angst for him; if Conan were to encounter postmodern angst, he’d split its head with his broadsword, loot the corpse, and keep going.
Consequently, the books crackles with narrative tension. Conan’s up against enemies his sword cannot harm, but he’s not about to let that stop him, and he jumps from greater danger to greater danger in his quest to save his kingdom. Xaltotun makes a formidable foe for Conan; the conspirators who summoned him from the dead seem to represent every idiot politician who conjured up a force (war, demagoguery, reform, whatever) that he can no longer control.
Interestingly, the novel replays Conan’s entire plot arc over Howard’s original stories. Conan went from a penniless wandering thief to King of Aquilonia, and when Xaltotun’s minions overthrow him, Conan once again become a penniless wanderer – but this time he’s going to get his throne back. THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON replays Conan’s entire arc in one novel, so if you’re going to read just one of the original Conan stories, THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON is the one to read. Though better by far to read them all.