I think the best way to read this book is to try and forget everything you know about Conan before you start it. If you are like most people you probably only know Conan from the movies. Or maybe the comics. The guy you saw on film or read about in the comics isn't really Conan. The real Conan only existed in the fiction of Robert E. Howard, and it is small wonder most people have not read his Conan stories. For years they have been very hard to find, at least in their original versions. I have no wish to go into the long, tortured publishing history of Conan. It is enough to say that until this book was published ten years ago the Conan stories had never been presented as Howard wrote them in the order he wrote them.
Robert E. Howard was a pulp writer. There were better writers who wrote for the pulps, H. P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett for example, but they were not purely pulp writers. Robert E. Howard was and he was the greatest who ever lived. He towered over the rest like a great mountain over low hills. He used the language of the pulps and turned it into poetry. One does not so much read a Robert E. Howard story as experience it. He lived those tales as he wrote them and that is why they have such power. That is why they will live forever.
By the time Howard created Conan he had been writing for a few years and had gained valuable experience in the craft of telling stories. He had already created Solomon Kane, King Kull and Bran Mak Morn. By the time he wrote the stories in this book he was at the top of his game. Not all the Conan stories are his best, but most of his best were Conan tales. With Conan he had created a fully rounded character and a believable human being. Howard made him so much more than the loincloth wearing brute most people think they know. He was violent and dangerous but he felt a great sense of responsibility for those who depended on him and could be moved to great pity by the suffering of others. He raised himself up from a teenage thief to the greatest King of his world; the Hyborian Age. It was a world that existed before the dawn of our history, with a vast landscape of dangerous and fabulous kingdoms. He fought terrible monsters and evil sorcerers who wielded dark magic (the magic in the Conan tales was always dark). His saga was a hugely epic one. When Howard dreamed, he dreamed big.
This volume has some of the best of the Conan stories, starting with his first; The Phoenix on the Sword. The Tower of the Elephant and The Scarlet Citadel are the real standouts in my opinion but there are many more great ones here. There are a couple not-so-great ones also but thats OK. Howard was writing as much as he could during the depression so he can be forgiven a few flops, especially when his flops are so entertaining. These are tales of Conan as a teenage thief, a pirate, a mercenary captain, an outlaw and the King of Aquilonia. After reading them you will feel like you have been to the Hyborian Age yourself.
I should mention that the art in this book by Mark Schultz is fantastic. He really did a wonderful job interpreting these stories. The illustrations alone make this edition of Conan the one to get.
This book was followed by two others; The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan. The three books include everything Howard ever wrote about the Cimmerian.