Book Discussion: The Siege of the Black Citadel
When a nation forgets her skill in war, when her religion becomes a mockery, when the whole nation becomes a nation of money-grabbers, then the wild tribes, the barbarians drive in… Who will our invaders be? From whence will they come?
-Robert E. Howard
I was born into a world where an average boy’s upbringing would be viewed as terrifyingly savage by today’s standards. It was a world without the leash and safety net of a cell phone. We rode gravel byways on our bicycles freely without the encumbrance of bike helmets. Indeed, wearing such a thing, had they existed, would have been viewed as a mark of cowardice and you would have been expected by your family to refute such a shameful charge with physical violence. We rode in the backs of pickup trucks without any kind of restraining device except for gravity itself, we laughed heartily whenever we heard the unmistakable snapping sound of a June Bug impacting into the face of a friend at seventy miles per hour. We laughed because it hadn’t happened to us that time but certainly had in the past. We climbed a maze of steel called “monkey bars” and danced atop them (sort of). Only the strongest of us survived, or at least those of us weren’t terminally stupid, and quite a few of us didn’t.*
My boyhood was also a place where the only imaging software in existence was what you were born with, in your head. The treasure chest for our boyhood visions of glory and adventure was contained within the dime store. Not that anything inside one of those cost a dime by the 1970s. The most cherished prize of all was The Savage Sword of Conan magazine by Marvel. What made it a magazine was that its artwork was in black and white. It being a “magazine” it wasn’t covered by the Comic Book Code’s censorship rules.
This was where I first discovered the barbaric world of Conan the Cimmerian. A savage land that I dove into each month with every new issue (or at least as often as the new issues made it out to my corner of the boondocks.
For a long time, Savage Sword was it for me. I didn’t start reading genuine Robert Howard until I got to college. It took some work back then to find authentic Howard. At that time the inferior pastiche works of L. Sprague De Camp still predominated the market. In that pre-internet world, there were works of Howard that were considered lost media, fortunately, that has changed with time.
During the 1990s, Baen Books decided to do the world a massive favor and publish a huge library of Robert Howard stories in their original un-De Camped form. I was struck by the unexpected quality of Howard’s work. I’d heard a lot of criticism of Howard’s original stories by De Camp, Stephen King, and several others. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. It had nothing at all to do with Howard’s prose and everything to do with politics. Although in King’s case, it could have been opinions generated by the mountains of coke he was snorting back then.
Howard was more than capable of subtly and subtext; his Conan was a complex hero. While taciturn and stoic, he would never leave a helpless innocent to the hands of those who found joy in cruelty.
Robert Howard had a great respect and indeed love for ancient history. He wanted to tell stories set in remote antiquity, but he also wanted them to be accurate to period. This presented him with a fundamental problem. In his hometown of Cross Plains, the resources of the Texas oil boom town’s library were it and they were obviously insufficient for his needs. So, he did the next best thing and created a completely fictional world from whole cloth. One that was a reflection of the ancient world but was not constrained by it. In so doing, Robert Howard invented an entire genre called Sword and Sorcery by Fritz Lieber.
Think about that for a second, this pulp writer in a small Texas boon town created an entirely new category of fiction and he’s been despised by all right-thinking people for it ever since.
Who in this modern world could hope to do justice to the works of a man born at the turn of the last century that venerated the purity and strength of the barbarous?
The Legend Chuck Dixon, that’s who.
Chuck Dixon is long familiar with the mighty Cimmerian having written numerous stories for The Savage Sword of Conan magazine under the name Charles Dixon in the 1980s when he was also working on Evangeline for Comico/Eclipse. Savage Sword was where I first became a fan of “Charles Dixon” as he styled himself back then. You can see reflections of Conan in his later work on Punisher and Batman. Dixon’s writing, like Robert Howard before him, was quite at home in the world of wonder, mystery, and ferocity where Conan dwelt.
And now after a decades-long career in comic books, writing for Marvel, DC, Eclipse, Dark Horse, numerous independents, and Arktoons, Chuck Dixon has come home to the Hyborian Age in The Siege of the Black Citadel.
In this splendid return to the land of high adventure, Conan has signed on to the mercenary army of Prince Xathomidas in his revolt against his cousin the mad emperor Strabonus. While the war has gone well for Xathomidas, he is now tied down in a siege against the mighty Black Citadel. He must take the fortress soon before the emperor’s forces arrive to lift the siege. In the meantime, his men fritter away the hours and their substance in the unending boredom of the garrison camps that is relieved only by the whores and gambling pits set up by a second army of camp followers.
Conan and his freebooters are chosen for the critically important mission of discovering another way into Talas K’rith.
What Conan discovers is a path to not just to untold riches but sanity-shattering horrors as well.
Speaking with Bounding Into Comics, Dixon explained why he wanted to write this story, “I wanted to write a straight up war story of Conan’s time as a mercenary. But I also wanted to throw in a Lovecraftian monster as well as a depiction of dark sorcery in the Hyperborean Age with all its dire consequences.”
Dixon also relished the challenge to write in what he describes as Howard’s bravura style, “I was totally immersed in Howard’s bravura writing style as an adolescent. I liked the challenge of creating a new Conan story written in that style.”
He added, “So, much of Howard’s prose relied on the reader to create vivid images in their own imaginations as they read. I really wanted to see if I could inspire that same brand of wild visuals.”
Take my word for it, Dixon came through on that part. He has indeed recreated the vibrant scenes of bloody conquest, supple flesh, and mind-bending horror that were the hallmarks of Robert Howard’s writings. Siege of the Black Citadel is a fantastic Conan yarn, one that will return you to the days of high adventure, and a place where a man could hack his way in the world by the speed of his sword and strength of his will.
I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I see not beyond death. Let me live while; let me know the rich juices of red meant and the stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less than an illusion, being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.
THE SIEGE OF THE BLACK CITADEL is the first in the new series from The Legend Chuck Dixon, Chuck Dixon’s Conan, which is based on the public domain character of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Available directly from Arkhaven, soon to be available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine booksellers.
*Sorry, reading Conan always affects my prose.