The Siege of the Black Citadel by Chuck Dixon, Castalia House, February 23rd, 2023
Although I’ve been supporting Castalia House since it began, it has been a long time since I reviewed a book from the publisher. Almost seven years in fact as the last and (and in fact only one) was a review of Cuckservative: How “Conservatives Betrayed America by Vox Day and John Red Eagle. I was stoked that Vox even responded to the review on his blog. I have reviewed quite a lot of books that I’ve liked and disliked and it is more likely I’ll review one I dislike or want to offer commentary on. As I have tended to simply enjoy Castalia House releases, I often don’t have much to say though promoting good work is important.
To begin to rectify my lack of support, I will be reviewing this new Conan story by “The Legend” Chuck Dixon which is available now from Arkhaven.
Anyone who follows this blog regularly (if there is anyone who does), would know that I have been slowly working through the Robert E. Howard stories and have made quite a number of posts on the subject of Robert E. Howard and related works. Although I have been aware of Conan from his appearances in other media for a long time, I have only in the last few years read through the original Conan stories and am now well into a second reading which I am enjoying as much as the first. It has been this enjoyment that has made me reluctant to read any pastiches by other authors — of which there are a great many.
The exception to this was the comics of which I have read a lot (likely including some by Dixon). These were only the collections available at my local library and I didn’t read them in any sort of coherent order though I enjoyed most of them — especially the ones originally published by Marvel. Reading the comics is one thing but taking a chance on prose by an author other than Howard is quite another. Chuck Dixon has the distinction (for what that’s worth) of being the first and I’m happy to say that he lived up to my lofty hopes.
Howard was a master at quickly introducing the scenario for his stories and the highest praise I can give Dixon is he executes this aspect brilliantly. You don’t have to take my word for it either as the novella’s beginning pages are available at Arkhaven Comics. Conan is a hired mercenary working for the rogue prince Xathomidas to overthrow King Strabonus of Koth. These two characters are only mentioned as background to the narrative and Conan is mainly taking orders from General Scythis; usually through his captain Danix, who is charge of the mercenaries. Dixon sets this all up in the first few pages with the stylish brevity of Howard himself. In Conan‘s unsettled chronology, this would be set well after his days as a thief and pirate and when he has had command experience among brigands and in large scale battles such as in The Black Colossus. I’d actually be interested to find out where Dixon has placed this story overall.
Conan is tasked with finding a secret entrance or weakness to the titular Black Citadel which has become the main obstacle to overthrowing the mad king. The siege has been slow and the threat of both the winter season and the arrival of troops to relieve the besieged fortification leads Scythis to try alternatives and Conan is uniquely placed to assist. He is soon off with a select group men to find alternative means of achieving the objective. Conan and his sword brothers are naturally more interested in enriching themselves than fighting for this cause which leads them through events that include most of the staples of Conan: eldritch horrors, sorcerers and visceral action sequences.
I only really have one major criticism and that is with how confident Conan remains despite the series of setbacks he is put through. He often acts as if all is going to plan when it clearly couldn’t be and seems completely unfazed by every problem he encounters. There is no lithe, ivory-limbed beauty in silk to rescue or drive him through the dangers he faces either. Only the pursuit of wealth which even from Conan’s perspective, could have easily been found more safely elsewhere. I can’t recall Conan acting as unwisely as he does at times in this in later stories though I do allow that he isn’t a consistent character under his creator’s pen either. This is a minor blemish though as despite this, the story is engaging to the end and I have already re-read half of it as I write.
Unlike most of my reviews, I have deliberately chosen to avoid plot details as this is a new release that I want to see it fully enjoyed. I will also add that this is about as politically and culturally sensitive as Howard’s work was which means it would have never been published outside of Castalia or another independent publisher.
So does Dixon equal or exceed Howard? He doesn’t but he certainly comes close and I am very much looking forward to the forthcoming Caravan of the Damned and at least one more story he is writing beyond that. It will now be interesting to try some treatments from other authors and see how they compare to Dixon as well as Howard. I know there has been another recent release titled Blood of the Serpent, which is set before the events of Red Nails. For now, The Siege of the Black Citadel gets my recommendation to anyone who loves Robert E. Howard and his most beloved and enduring character.