Echoes of Valor (1987) – Part 2: The Black Stranger (review)

As mentioned in my previous post about “The Black Stranger”, Echoes of Valor was the first time this story was published in its original form. I must have read this story at least twice out of my trusty copy of Del Rey’s The Conquering Sword of Conan but for some reason, I couldn’t remember which story this was. I figured that was because it must have been inferior in some way, boy was I wrong. This story was a great adventuresome piece.

The story takes place mainly in and around a fort sandwiched between the pirate-infested coast on one side and an ominous Pict infested dark forest on the other. The self-exiled Zingaran Count Velenso is beset by the Barachan pirate Strom who recently entered the bay in his famous pirate ship The Red Hand. The Count is saved at the last minute by a mysterious Zingaran Buccaneer named Zarono. Both Strom and Zarono imply they know the real reason Count Velenso is there, it is to find some sort of treasure hidden in the surrounding woods.

After a series of events involving a storm and a supernatural prowler, the three men decide to all make an uneasy alliance to find this treasure, the treasure of Tranicos. At this point, Conan arrives and becomes the fourth partner in the group. Through a series of double-crossings as well as sabotage by a mysterious person from Count Velenso’s past, the plans for retrieving the treasure all come crashing down in spectacular action.

One of the things I liked about this story is something I think of as very Howardian. When writing stories, in this case a Conan story, Howard will sometimes leave the titular character out until the end when they swoop in to either push the story forward into the final act or save the day. Howard uses this technique sparingly, and though other writers use it, reading his stories was the first time I noticed it. In this particular story, we get a taste of the Cimmerian in the opening and then don’t see him again until page 66! Howard leaves Conan in a cliffhanger the last time we see him and when he appears safe and in mysterious garb it gives me the sense, as a reader, that there are multiple things afoot going on behind the scenes of what I’m reading. It gives the story a multi-faceted feel. I think Wagner used the technique himself multiple times with his Kane novels. I’m thinking of the absence of Kane in the middle of The Dark Crusade in particular. In both Wagner and Howard’s writing, it opened up the narrative to other points of view.

I enjoy mighty thews as much as the next guy, but I absolutely love to read Conan when he’s being clever. Reading this story you can tell it’s later in the Cimmerians career and he’s at the top of his game. We get to see not just his fighting prowess, but also his tracking, planning, and quick decision making. Watching him outsmart the three men in “Chapter 5: A Man From the Wilderness” was incredibly pleasing.

The adventure aspect of this story is also top notch. I am a sucker for siege combat in literature and this story has not one but two separate siege scenes. We also get some close quarters scuffling inside the treasure cave as well as infiltration and sneaking in the woods. The story also features some supernatural combat which again displays Conan’s intelligence and experience.

In addition to bringing this work to light, I think there are several gothic elements to this story that may have attracted Wagner to it. We have the menaced women in Belesa and Tina (the niece and servant of the Count), wild foreboding nature as seen in the storm and the woods, the beachside fort made of shipwrecked wood, and the supernatural Black Stranger who is connected with the Count’s past. I can definitely see why this story appealed to Wagner.

I have to mention there is one moment that has not aged well. Conan’s motivation for not abandoning his fellow treasure hunters to the Picts, after the deal has already gone south, is because they share the same color skin. The intention, I believe, was not to let them be ruthlessly slaughtered by the Picts. I still enjoyed the story but this moment brought me out for a bit.

I’m shocked I didn’t remember ever reading this story before. I absolutely loved it. It shows a move on Howard’s part to keep expanding the world of Conan. I’m glad Wagner included this as the first story in his collection. It was a great way to get things started. In one week I’ll be covering the next story in Echoes of Valor, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser yarn, “Adept’s Gambit”.



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