Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard, Sword and Sorcery

The Frost-Giant’s Daughter

The Frost-Giant’s Daughter (first published in 1976)

by Robert E. Howard

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This very short story opens with the last two warriors stand over the snowy field of battle between viking-like fighters, one side with blonde beards and the other hair as red as flame.  One of the tall combatants is a red-headed Vanir named Heimdul, the other is a youthful man with mane of black different from the others as Cimmerian named Conan.  After a brief exchange, Conan slays Heimdul and is the last man standing in this bloody battle of eighty men on frozen fields.

Yet he spies a woman with milky white skin and completely bare of clothing despite the freezing temperature.  She posses an elfin beauty with fair of neither Vanir red nor Aesir but a blend of each.  Conan remarks he knows of no village nearby she could be from.  The beautiful woman leads across plains of hoar-frosted snow to low hills that give way to towering mountains.  It is these silvery mountains of blue ice that the woman springs her trap upon the barbarian warrior.  Her brothers, giants seemly carved of snow and ice with thick armor and frost covered axes, strike  at Conan with the fury of a winter storm.

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This story was originally rejected by Weird Tales hence the publishing date of more than 30 years after the author’s death during the 1970’s fantasy and sword and sorcery boom.  This tale is perhaps the earliest account in Conan’s adventurous life as he is younger than most of Howard’s original stories.

As for the story itself, I can partly understand why it was rejected.  It comes in at a scant seven pages making it the shortest of the Conan stories.  Additionally, there isn’t a whole happening in this story as well.  Conan is the last warrior in a battle of eighty men (which comes off rather incredible even for Conan).  He follows a strange naked beauty for several miles in some strange lust-fueled obsession only to be attacked by frost giants.

For me, The Frost-Giant’s Daughter may be my least favorite Conan story between The Black Stranger and Vale of Lost Women both which are better stories but have elements I dislike more than any of The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.  With The Black Stranger it is swashbuckler/pirate Conan which just seems out of place for the character.  While Vale of Lost Women is one of Howard’s more racist stories though it does have Conan fighting a creature seemly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft.

Bottomline, this is not a particularly good Conan story though it is serviceable and short enough to read without leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

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Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard, Sword and Sorcery

The Phoenix on the Sword Review

The Phoenix on the Sword (first published Weird Tales 1932)

by Robert E. Howard

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by Andrew Robinson

The first novella of Howard’s iconic character is a startling contrast to the image Conan the barbarian has in popular culture.  In this first story Conan is king of Aquilonia with his adventuring days long behind him.  The story starts with a conversation between the Stygian sorcerer turned slave Thoth-amon and his current master Ascalente setting up the exposition for the basis of the story of The Phoenix on the Sword.  Asalente along with four other men (Dion the fat baron of Attalus, Volumana the Count of Karaban, Gromel the Black Legion Commander, and Rinaldo a fiery poet-minstrel) seek to overthrow King Conan.  Ascalente knows each of his fellow traitors reasons: Dion has royal blood and believes that gives him the right to the throne, Volumana seeks to return to the old regime where the nobles could collect and keep far more taxes than today, and Grommel seeks to be commander over the entire army of Aquilonia.  Only Rinaldo has no personal ambition; he sees Conan as a barbarian tyrant that wrongly claimed the throne by slaying King Numedides and taking the crown for himself.  Soon these men will assassinate the King and their coup will be complete.  However, Ascalente worries that Dion’s nerves with show the traitors intentions early, or worse yet, turn the traitors in.  For that reason, Ascalente send the Thoth-amon to watch over the fat baron.

In Chapter two King Conan speaks of his laments to Prospero, Seneschal of Aquilonia, the work being a ruler is far more difficult that fighting any man in combat.  Conan speaks of when he sieved the crown of Aquilonia he was greeted as a liberator.  Now the people spit on his name and burn him in effigy.  Led by Rinaldo, the people sing songs about old King Numedides and even placed a stature of him in the temple of Mitra in his memory.

Chapter three involves Thoth-amon under of the guise of serving Dion.  Dion is indeed starting to crack and Thoth-amon reassures the rotunt noble that the plot cannot fail.  Thoth-amon even attempts to ally himself with Dion to rid himself of the yoke of Ascalente by warning the baron that once Conan is murdered, Ascalente with Imageturn on him.  However, Thoth-amon being a formerly powerful magician could help Dion if agreed to help him find his magic ring.  Dion mostly ignores Thoth-amon for the lowly slave he is but shows some interest in the his story about a ring.  Thoth-amon describes this ring which Dion states he has something much like it.  Producing his lucky ring from a secret compartment in his seat, Dion actually possesses Thoth-amon’s ring of sorcery.  The Stygian slave springs onto the blubbery noble plunging a dagger deep into the Dion.  Thoth-amon contacts his true master Set and uses the magic of the ring to summon a shadowy misshapen baboon-like monster to destroy Ascalente.

Chapter Four begins with Conan in a strange dreamland where he encounters the sage Epemitreus who had been dead for 1500 years.  Epemitreus warns Conan that he is betrayed and something monstrous not of this world is loose.  The sage enchants Conan’s sword with the outline of the Phoenix.  Conan wakes confused with his sword in hand, the phoenix etched on its blade.  He takes no time putting on his armor.

The rogues and traitors burst in on King Conan’s bed chambers to find the King party armored and for their assassination attempt.  Conan standing one versus twenty men knows that he will be slain this night, but he will take as many as he can before he dies.  Grommel charges first, his head smashed but not before shattering the King’s blade.  Rinaldo screams and attacks like a mad man ignoring Conan’s attempts to persuade him.  Reluctantly, Conan also finishes off the minstrel.  Bloodied, Conan continues to fight slaying Volema.  However, during the conflict with Ascalente, the murderous traitor is killed by the talons of Thoh-amon’s nightmarish beast.  The beast then turns on Conan who instantly kills it with the broken blade of the Phoenix Sword.

     The Phoenix on the Sword is an action-packed story that Robert E. Howard clearly knew he was going to write many more stories about the character Conan and the world a Hyboria.  What did surprise me was I was expecting a later story with Thoth-amon as the villain that never manifested.   This story is far from the best or even one of my favorite Conan stories it feels very much like Howard was still trying to figure out what he wanted out of Conan and his world.  My biggest complaint would be this story has many characters a few of which could easily been edited out (Volema for one) especially for such a short tale.  Almost none of which make a second appearance in a Conan story written by Howard.

Bottomline: I’m appreciative that Weird Tales bought this story and Howard did create this world, but The Phoenix on the Sword is a long way from his best writing and story telling.  It is average fantasy pulp.

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