Monday, June 20, 2011
There's a lot to like in "The People of the Black Circle," from its complex, interwoven plots to its characters to its setting. They all, in my opinion, mark this story as Howard at his best. If you read other reviews or retrospectives on this story, you'll see that everyone seems to have their favorite element and I find it hard to disagree with most of them. Take, for example, the settings of Vendhya and Afghulistan. They've got a terrifically exotic flavor to them that helps to distinguish "The People of the Black Circle" from other Conan yarns and yet they aren't so exotic that they become the focus of what is, at base, a fun adventure tale that pits the Cimmerian against multiple memorable enemies.
For me, though, the central appeal of this story is the relationships between two couples: Conan and the Devi Yasmina, sister of the murdered king, and the apprentice wizard Khemsa and Yasmina's handmaiden Gitara. These two couples both drive the plot and provide much of the story's dialog, particularly (as one would expect) Conan and Yasmina. Early on, Yasmina vows revenge against the Black Seers for her brother's death, but soon finds herself kidnapped by Conan, who hopes to ransom her in exchange for seven of his own men held captive by Vendhyan authorities. Of course, the Vendhyans send soldiers to rescue Yasmina from Conan, who does not realize that two other groups are also seeking the Devi -- Kerim Shah, an agent of the rival kingdom of Turan and the young sorcerer Khemsa, goaded into this action by Gitara, who believes it the first step on their glorious future together.
Conan and Yasmina make an interesting pair. Often bickering and testing one another's resolve, they would seem to be a perfect example of a Hollywood-style "odd couple" destined to fall in love with one another despite -- or because of -- their differences. And while there clearly is a growing affection between the two characters, neither one allows their feelings to stand in the way of their own destinies: Conan to one day become a king by his own hand and Yasmina to avenge her brother's death and restore order to Vendhya. I consider their parting at the end of the story one of the best such scenes in all of Conan's appearances and good evidence that Howard's portrayal of both female characters and of Conan was far more nuanced and sophisticated than many give him credit for. Similarly, Khemsa comes across as a very different kind of wizard than those usually seen in Howard's fiction, being motivated by genuine love for Gitara, even to the point of foolhardiness. He's quite the change from fiends like Xaltotun or Thoth-Amon, who scarcely share any motivations with ordinary human beings.
In the end, what I like best about "The People of the Black Circle" is that it's long and complex and yet isn't an epic. That is, it's just another episode in the life of Conan as he attempts to make a place for himself in the Hyborian Age. In short, it's an adventure and a very good one at that. I find it the perfect antidote to the trends in post-Tolkien fantasy that try to invest every event with greater significance beyond the immediate.