The Hour of the Dragon (Howard, R., E., 1935-1936)

The Hour of the Dragon is fantastic Conan tale. I'd even say it's one of the best stories Howard wrote during his short career. It has everything you'd hope to see in a sword and sorcery tale like this: combat, treachery, evil villains, magic, secrets from the eons old murky past, adventure and triumph. It also is the only full length Conan novel Robert E. Howard wrote as well as the last of his published stories in his lifetime before his suicide in 1936 (he was only 30). The Hour of the Dragon has also been published with a title Conan the Conqueror.

The tale begins with a resurrection of an ancient wizard Xaltotun. He's been brought alive by a group of conspirators, who seek to use his talents inoverthrowing Conan, who's now a king of Aquilonia. Xaltotuns dark arts render Conan helpless and during a battle with Aquilonians rivaling nation, Nemedia, his troops are slain and he himself is captured. This leads into a military occupation of Aquilonia as the people believe that Conan has perished as well and he had no heir, so the people weren't willing to start rallying under the old lords of the realm.

Conan soon learns of the ancient evil raised against him as well as he learns of means how to battle against him. After he escapes from the dreary dungeons of Nemedia, he soon heads on the road to find the Heart of Ahriman, a magical artifact from the forgotten past, which was used to resurrect Xaltotun and which power can be used to render him back to where he came from.

Howard has two points of narration he uses during the tale, the first being the perspective of Conan, the second being the perspective of the usurpers. This makes the tale more compelling, as it saves Howard the trouble of giving out long explanations of how Conan finally rallies his allies in the end. What we see of Conan in the tale are the more interesting tidbits of his voyages in the search of the jewel. And when he finally finds it the perspective goes to the villains of the tale, who finally begin to hear rumours of Conan's return and start to rally up their own troops in order to defeat Conan for once and for all. During the final battle we see only glimpses of Conan on the battlefield, but the main focus is on Xaltotun and the Nemedians until the moment Conan finally triumphs.

If you are more familiar with Howard's work, you might notice some similarities with some of the situations in the story. That's because he did re-use bits and pieces from his other Conan stories, like the Scarlet Citadel. This does probably explain why some of his ideas in the tale do seem so well thought of in the end, as he was fleshing out material he had already toyed with.

While  The Hour of the Dragon is a full length novel, some of it still could have used some more fleshing up, as it does tend to throw Conan from one situation to an another and some characters are left underutilized and under explored. It might be the serial nature of the original publication or the fact that Howard was more accustomed to shorter form of writing.
So, if you are in a mood for some good sword and sorcery fantasy, the Hour of the Dragon is a great starting point, especially if you want to go towards Conan the Cimmerian. While it takes place on his later years, it still gives out enough information about him, so that even a new reader isn't left in the dark of what kind of a man he is and what kind of a world he lives in. Go read it and thank me later.