Number four in the Bantam Series is the first real saving grace we have had since the very first book. The Road of Kings was published in 1979, and interestingly has no continuity with the books that came before it, and is usually placed chronologically after Conan and the Spider God, which was published right after. It again focuses on Conan in his earlier years, though not so youthful as he was in Sword of Skelos. This seems to have been right before he headed out to sea and became a corsair, leading to the events of “Queen of the Black Coast”.
It is obvious from the very beginning of the story that we are, thankfully, in the hands of an adventure writer who knows what the fuck they are doing. Karl Edward Wagner commences literally in the middle of a fight, with Conan dueling with a notorious guard captain. His wanderings have led him to Zingara – Howard’s rough analog of Imperial Spain – and he is once again a mercenary. After killing the captain in bloody fashion, he is summarily arrested and chained in the dungeons to await execution. Zingara, you see, is ruled by your textbook cruel tyrant.
We are only six pages in when Conan and his fellow prisoners are led to the gallows to be hanged, and he makes friends with a bookish revolutionary named Santiddio, whose friends launch a rescue attempt mid-execution. The action here is expertly done, with the rebels hacking through the guards, the crowd running and trampling itself, chaos in the air, all while the hangman continues his work, strangling one prisoner after another, and even falling across the mechanism and killing one last prisoner as he dies, in a nicely macabre detail.
Conan and his new friend are rescued by Mordermi, a kind of king of thieves in the city of Kordava. Wagner lays out a fantastic setting for his book, with the central part of the city built over the ruins of an earlier city wrecked in an earthquake, creating an entire undercity hidden from the sunlight. There the swashbuckling Mordermi holds court in a buried manor house over a population of cutthroats, beggars, whores, and thieves.
Conan falls in with them, lending his strength to their finesse, and the setup is so good it almost begs for more books about it. However, Wagner is not shy about skipping ahead in time to get to the parts of his story he wants to tell. Normally the use of time skips is a big tension killer, but he always manages to crank it back up again.
The thieves stage a daring robbery of the king’s costume ball, netting a vast treasure but also drawing too much attention, and their refuge is attacked. They turn for help to a feckless half-Stygian wizard, who is able to conjure up an army of undead stone soldiers from a sunken crypt offshore, and with that they are able to fight off the enemy and then seize the kingdom itself. At that point, we’re only halfway through the book, and the character’s troubles really start.
It says a lot that my only real complaint about this book is that I wish it were a trilogy, as Wagner has to elide past a lot of story beats to get to the ones he wants to land on. As a general, Conan conducts a whole military campaign to subdue the countryside, which I would have liked to see more of, and the early period when they are all just being bandits in the hidden city is so cool I could have done with a lot more of it. The action is intense and bloody, from the brutal street fighting when the Pit is attacked to the savage slaughters worked by the stone-skinned Final Guard.
Wagner doesn’t pull punches, and he doesn’t try to make things family-friendly. Death is easy, life is cheap, and violence is bloody and imaginatively gruesome. I really, really wish this was not Wagner’s only Conan pastiche, because it is far and away the best one I have read yet.