The first Conan novel – indeed, the first Sword & Sorcery novel – was Howard’s own The Hour of the Dragon, which was serialized just before and just after his death, and later put out in book form in 1950 by Gnome Press. The first post-Howard Conan novel was The Return of Conan by L Sprague de Camp and Bjorn Nyberg, also put out by Gnome. Though Gnome was a giant among fan publishers, it was a tiny press that put out less than a hundred books over fourteen years in business, and thus these made little impression on the public at large.
After Lancer and then Sphere took up the Conan business, there was more money and exposure to go around, and so de Camp and Carter tried again to create a genuine Conan novel with the 1968 release of Conan of the Isles. The novel is rather interesting, as it seeks to add the one thing Howard never got around to doing with his barbarian hero – a capstone. Every great legend needs an ending, and while Howard simply wrote tales in the order they occurred to him, without much thought toward a larger continuity, he did at least contemplate Conan’s end.
The book is set some twenty years after Conan’s usurpation of the Aquilonian throne. His wife Zenobia – who he met in Hour of the Dragon – has died in childbirth, and his son Conn is of age to take the crown. The authors clearly wanted to get Conan off his throne and back to wandering, so they cooked up a boring magical plot device called “red shadows” - phantoms who come from the sky and carry people away. Conan has a dream where he gets told only he can stop the magical bullshit and to sail west.
With that out of the way, the book actually gets kind of fun. Conan rounds up a ship and a crew and sails off into the mysterious western ocean in search of bad guys to kill. There’s a pretty vivid sea battle, and when he gets plunged underwater, he gets in the middle of a battle between a giant squid and a giant shark that is pretty bad ass.
Coming ashore, he finds he is in the mysterious Antilles, where the last remnants of ancient Atlantis built a civilization that is essentially depicted as being Aztec. It’s pretty obvious the authors did some research, and the depiction of the city of Ptahuacan is vivid and well thought-out. Conan’s crew was taken prisoner and are due to have their hearts ripped out, and so he sets off to rescue them. This mostly takes the form of blundering around in tunnels under the city, trying to find a way to the main temple.
On the way, he discovers a cave where giant lizards are kept to eat the bodies of the sacrificial victims, and turns them loose on the priests and the city in a rather gleeful scene of mayhem. He rescues his crew, they steal a ship and sail away, heading westward for new adventures. The whole “red shadows” nonsense is resolved in typical Carter fashion. The evil god who controls the phantoms is confronted by the god Mitra, who comes out of an amulet Conan got in a dream and the ensuing battle ruins the entire temple. It’s boring and stupid, and even the narrative doesn’t spend much time on it. It’s a standard Lin Carter deus ex machina where the good magic bullshit defeats the evil magic bullshit, while the hero stands and watches.
That aside, this is not badly done. Conan actually spends some time waxing melancholy about his past adventures, and we see him starting to decline a bit, physically – he’s not the iron-armed young man in his twenties any longer. The pacing is pretty good, and the action actually has some grit to it. The major problem is that it needs a silly magic plot device to get the story moving, and then uses another stupid plot device to resolve the first one, without much of any involvement from our hero.
As a pirate tale, this is agreeably breezy and entertaining. As an attempt to set an ending for Conan it fails miserably. If Howard were going to put finish to Conan’s story, he would have done it in a furious battle with rivers of blood, and Conan would go down fighting and he would fucking die at the end. You can’t tell me Howard the fatalist would have shied away from that. So de Camp and Carter get points for attempting to tie up the saga, but lose them all for not having the nerve to actually kill their hero off at the end.