This story opens years after the previous left off. Conn, Son of Conan is king of Aquilonia and is busy trying to pacify the borders of his land which abut the Pictish Wilderness. A minor nobleman who has been stationed in these newly colonized lands is investigating a cave when he finds something which shocks him. A statue of King Conan, deep in territory where Conan never ruled but also supposedly never visited. This then is a mystery.
The story then jumps backwards in time, back to Conan following the death of Belit and the destruction of the Tigress has been living in the dense jungles for some weeks. He has been taking offerings left to appease him by a superstitious tribe of fisher folk, and generally trying to sort himself out and decide what to do next. It isn't long before this choice is made for him when he runs across a group of Bamula warriors out hunting boar. Recognizing him as Amra, though not quite trusting him, the Bamula's invite him to their village where he quickly begins gaining prominence.
While this is happening various animals and creatures are appearing in the surrounding jungle and Conan and the Bamulas decide to investigate. They discover that there is a gateway, known as the Demon's Gate, which is allowing these creatures access to the lands of the black kingdoms. This gate must be closed, but in the attempt Conan and several Bamula warriors are transported through it into the vast Pictish Wilderness where they must not only fight for their lives against the hordes of barely human Picts but also defeat a Stygian sorcerer who is powering the Demon's Gate, in the Pictish lands looking for an artifact of great power, the dread Crystal of Thraz.
It takes days, requires allies of Bossonians and a few Aqulionians to eventually defeat this sorcerer before their plans can come to fruition and unleash greater evil on the world. The power of the crystal transforms an ordinary stone into a replica of the Cimmerian and imbues it with powers, while dread, are soon able to be controlled by Conan who commands it to cease its attack and go dormant.
At the end of the story, Conan opts to return to the black kingdoms which he has now come to think of as as new home, due mostly to the strength of the warriors and the embraces of the women, and the jungle beer which a man could drink quantities sufficient to float a ship yet never get drunk, ready for more adventures in new lands.
The story then flashes back to the Aqulionian nobleman investigating the statue, he finds out from some extremely aged Bossonians more or less rumors of what had happened.. King Conan leading a band of black skinned warriors against the Picts years ago, and commanding an army of stone statues. The nobleman deduces that, though the statue is obviously some sort of powerful weapon, only one person, King Conn, likely has the ability to control it, and so opts to ignore investigating the mystery any further and forget about the statue as nothing more than a quirk or relic destined for some later purpose.
Now this was an interesting book. I felt that in spite of it's strange plot, the demon's gate functioning as a portal between two completely different yet equally dangerous locales, that the writing of Conan himself was very good. Further, the book showed a great deal of details about the Bamulas, a group which got lots of mentions but not a whole lot of time on the page being fleshed out. What emerges is a warrior society which has very well established orders and a good bit to be admired and for Conan to learn from.. while also still not doing much to disabuse him of his more cynical observations of the human condition.
The frame story set during the reign of Conn is interesting but ultimately un-needed.. it didn't need to exist other than to add some sort of permanence to the expedition through the Demon's Gate. It also served to show that, though the people of Conan's day are mostly unaware of the relics of the past which still litter their world, they clearly exist and often have a great potency and capacity for ill use by those so inclined. This book also yet again shows how far flung the machinations of the Stygians really extends. Destabilizing the Hyborean kingdoms, hunting for powerful relics, directly interceding in conflicts to ensure lucrative outcomes.. it all feels as if this is building up to something, vengeance against the Hyboreans maybe, more than likely just an attempt to grab at the remnants left behind when Stygia's sister empire Acheron fell thousands of years before.
Over all though this was an enjoyable and fast read, and was a complete change from the previous Roland Green book that I read set in Argos.
Up next, back to Robert E. Howard, with " The Vale of Lost Women "...