‘Conan Volume 15: Nightmare of the Shallows’ - Advance Hardcover Review

Brian Wood’s third installment of his adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian story, Queen of the Black Coast, for Dark Horse is thrilling, engaging, and emotionally rich. Titled The Nightmare of the Shallows, and collecting issues thirteen through eighteen, the story starts off some time after the tragic and incredibly intimate events at the end of the previous volume, The Death.  Conan and his love, the pirate queen Bêlit, have become emotionally distant, and Wood conveys a great sense of loss and self-alienation, especially on the part of Bêlit, and we get the feeling that not only is she holding Conan at arm’s length, but also life itself.  Her actions and words carry a plethora of painful and complex emotions.  This saddens Conan, because he feels in some way responsible for the tragedy that has torn their love, and his lover, asunder, and yet there is nothing in Heaven or on Earth that he can do to repair the emotional and psychological damage that has befallen his queen, or him. 

While the other volumes of Wood’s Conan have also been emotional, this is the most vulnerable he has been with the Barbarian’s feelings.  Before, the emotions came from a sense of power, visceral and intense, almost uncontainable in their veracity. They were love, lust, and rage.  Here, Conan is dealing with loss, regret, fear, and the possible crumbling of the life he has created with Bêlit, and it is all completely out of his control.  In the past, even when he has been imprisoned, Conan has always been able to control things, if not through his resolve and cunning, then through pure brute strength.  Bêlit is the one thing he cannot and has never tried to control.  Now in self-imposed exile to her homeland of Shem, he is afraid her grief and her circumstances may keep them apart forever, and he has no power to make it otherwise, and that frightens him.  We also learn of Bêlit’s past, an element of her life that has been a mystery to Conan and to us, as well. Beyond this, we are actually given various glimpses into the past and into the future, though these future scenes are visions, conjured by Conan and Bêlit partaking of the hallucinogenic yellow lotus flower, sending them into a strange, flowing dreamscape, where they each deal with their own personal demons and dreams. 

The last few issues, which submerge us into the lovers’ psyches, do not feel as cohesive as the rest of the book, and I think this is partly because we are not given the framing of the yellow lotus at the end and beginning of the fifth and sixth issue, and the way in which dreams and visions simply spill into one another, slipping in and out and around each other.  While the last three issues may feel slightly fractured or disconnected, I believe there is a level of intention behind that structure, or lack thereof, and even in the more cohesive, time-jumping final issue, there is still an ethereal, otherworldly quality to it that pulls at the edges of the story in a hopeful, yet almost unnerving way.  I must admit, though, that I may have felt more vexed reading the yellow lotus story as single issues, as even a month would be a long time to go between the emotional tableaus and fleeting memories and visions.

Another exciting and intelligent aspect of the Queen of the Black Coast story, and I imagine much of this comes initially from Robert E. Howard, is how Conan and Bêlit come from remarkably different pasts, and even landscapes and geological regions. Here, in this volume, we get to see exactly why Cimmeria, with its harsh and biting cold and blinding, blowing snow was so difficult for the pirate queen, because her home of Shem is a place of desert, with hot, blazing heat and violent, inescapable sandstorms.  Just as Bêlit had a hard time in Cimmeria, so does Conan have a hard time in Shem, and this requires each to lean on the other, and that makes for strong storytelling.  There are so many wonderful lines of dialogue and poetic scenes that shine and bathe this story in beauty and give it real meaning and purpose, even when it explodes into graphic and brutal violence.  Which leads me to the art, which is undertaken by a bevy of talented artists, from Mirko Colak to Andrea Mutti and Pierluigi Baldassini and finally to Davide Gianfelice, who is a returning artist from previous issues.  All of these artists are excellent, their skills coming through in Wood’s elegant storytelling style, and they mesh wonderfully together, no one artist standing out above the rest or adopting an entirely different look that draws you out of the narrative.  Also, the covers and chapter breaks by Massimo Carnevale are vivid and draw you into the book, whetting your appetite for the excitement and emotion waiting within the coming pages.

Overall, The Nightmare of the Shallows is a thought-provoking and entertaining journey into what makes us into the people we become, and how our lives are shaped by our pasts and by our dreams and longings for the future.  This is a story of introspection, of regret, of guilt, and of fear, as much as it is story of loss, love, and terrible, incredible action, all unfolding in gorgeous and exotic locations that say as much about the characters as their choices.  If you want to see intense passions played out with dramatic intensity, with the truth, or the search for it, always at the forefront, then it is time for you to indulge in the elegiac wonders of Conan and his queen of the Black Coast.

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