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Monday, July 23, 2007

Bran Mak Morn: The Last King

Bran Mak Morn: The Last King (Paperback)
by Robert E. Howard
Publisher: Del Rey (May 31, 2005)
ISBN-10: 0345461541

While the rest of the world was obsessively reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this weekend, I was taking the time to finish off my latest venture into my growing REH collection. Nothing against Harry, mind you, but I had already started on Bran Mak Morn, and wanted to finish it off before I moved on to other things. Besides, the idea of over-caffeinating myself just to obsessively force myself through the end of the book sounds dreadfully unpleasant to my ears, and reading is supposed to be a pleasurable activity, last I checked.

Anyway. Bran Mak Morn.

This particular collection of REH stories contains a number of stories about Bran Mak Morn, the last king of the Picts; in REH’s mythos (for lack of a better term), the Picts are an ancient, ancient race, which was once powerful and prominent in Europe, but has slowly degenerated into a race of savages. Bran Mak Morn is a descendent of their royal line, making one last attempt to unite them and raise them out of darkness. Standing against him are the vast forces of civilization, most notably the Romans, who are slowly conquering Gaul and Britain.

Only a few of the stories in this volume feature Bran directly: the first, "Men of the Shadows", is a first-person account of a solider that meets Bran, and eventually joins him in his battle. In “Kings of the Night” and “Worms of the Earth”, Bran takes the center stage. Both stories are excellent, though very different in flavor/tone. “Kings of the Night” is a story of battle and magic, where Bran’s wizard summons King Kull out of the past to help Bran in a great battle against the Roman legions. “Worms of the Earth”, by contrast, is a moody, incredibly creepy piece, where Bran seeks out the aid of a foul race straight out of Lovecraftian horror (not surprising, since Howard and Lovecraft were frequent correspondents, and Howard loved Lovercraft’s work). It is easily one of the creepier stories that I’ve read from Howard, and brings an interesting element of horror into the king’s story.

The final stories in the volume don’t feature Bran at all, at least not directly. Instead, they are stories of Celtic warriors discovering Bran, or his descendents, and interacting with them in strange ways. Both are good pieces, but I was disappointed to not get more Bran himself. He’s a very interesting and conflicted character, desperately trying to salvage his people, and willing (as “Worms of the Earth” shows) to go to any length to succeed. I wish Howard had written more about him.

The miscellanea in this book contains a whole lot of interesting things, including some fragmentary stories (some of which are really excellent), a few poems, some correspondence between Howard and various others (including a few of his letters to Lovecraft), and some of Howard’s notes on his views of history. The history is…well, it’s very thirties, and by modern standards, horrifically inaccurate, but it’s interesting, and it’s cool to see the thought processes that lead Howard to create Bran and similar characters.

As much as I enjoyed it, this is probably the weakest REH collection Del Ray has put out that I’ve read so far. There just isn’t enough material on Bran himself to really fill a book, and while the miscellanea is interesting, a lot of it feels like padding thrown in to justify a full-length book. Anyone who enjoys REH should pick it up, but the casual reader would be better of starting with the Coming of Conan the Cimmerian or the Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. Both books are a bit more complete, and offer greater exploration of the characters.