The Hour of the Dragon (1936) is the only Conan novel Conan creator Robert E. Howard wrote, as well as the only novel of any kind that he ever finished. It is set late in Conan’s chronology, where his adventuring and opportunity has crowned him King of Aquilonia.
A group of conspirators resurrect the ancient wizard Xaltotun through the mystic jewel called the Heart of Ahriman and enlist the undead warlock in their scheme to seize the throne from King Conan. The warlock helps one of the conspirators assume power in neighboring Nemedia and then crushes Conan’s army through his magicks.
Then the barbarian begins a quest to reclaim his kingdom, through the aid of his still loyal subjects, an old witch woman, and a secretive order of priests allied to his cause. Along the way he retraces the steps of his life in a race to find the Heart of Ahriman so that he can use its untold power to topple Xaltotun and his evil allies.
The Hour of the Dragon is a fantastic sword and sorcery novel, and a fittingly epic (near) conclusion to the Conan Saga. After Conan’s throne is stripped from him, we watch him pass through the various phases of his career (and previous stories): we see him stealthy and rogue-like (“The Tower of the Elephant” or “Rogues in the House”), watch him don the guise of a mercenary-for-hire (as he was for much of his life), and witness his capture and take over a slave ship in a return to his pirate past (ala “Queen of the Black Coast”).
In many ways, this novel is a remix of all the previous stories. Major plot elements are borrowed wholesale from “The Scarlet Citadel”, where Conan’s throne was also seized and he was also captured. Even beyond that, the barbarian’s adventure takes him through a series of episodes reminiscent of his hard but lusty life. He fights hellish ghouls and giant snakes and sinister wizards and (more negatively) there’s all the requisite damsel-in-distress and racism I’ve come to expect from Mr. Howard.
In the powerful and satisfactory end, Hour of the Dragon feels like a fitting finale to the entire cycle, although it wasn’t the last Conan story published in the author’s lifetime – that’s “Red Nails”. This is a fantastic story, well told. I’d recommend any fan of fantasy read it but I’d further recommend them to first read the previous Conan stories by Howard. For the fullest effect.