Serialized in five parts in Weird Tales -- December 1935 through April 1936 -- "The Hour of the Dragon" is the last Conan yarn published before Robert E. Howard's death. It's also the only tale of the Cimmerian lengthy enough to be considered a novel. Howard wrote it over the course of several months at the behest of a British publisher, whose business went bankrupt before the proposed book could be published. Once all the legal wrangling was done, REH submitted it to Weird Tales, which accepted it and commissioned a Margaret Brundage cover depicting Conan in chains being aided by the slave girl Zenobia -- a surprisingly tame cover compared to many of the others associated with Howard's WT appearances.
In "The Hour of the Dragon," Conan is 45 years old and is king of Aquilonia, a title he seized by slaying the previous king, Numedides. The heir of Numedides, Valerius, joins forces with the new king of neighboring Nemedia in a plot to overthrow Conan and put him on the throne instead. The conspirators use an artifact called the Heart of Ahriman to resurrect an ancient Acheronian wizard named Xaltotun to aid them in their plot -- which succeeds, resulting in Conan's capture and imprisonment. The bulk of the novel consists of describing Conan's escape from captivity and efforts to return to Aquilonia to reclaim his rulership of the proudest kingdom of the Hyborian Age.
"The Hour of the Dragon" is a peculiar story, as it's quite reminiscent of an earlier tale, "The Scarlet Citadel," in which Conan is also captured and imprisoned through the assistance of a powerful wizard. However, "The Hour of the Dragon" is lengthier and less focused, by which I mean that it consists of many individual episodes that, while occurring within a larger narrative of Conan's escape, aren't always directly connected to that goal. The result is something that feels a bit disjointed and almost picaresque in nature. Of course, Howard keeps Conan -- and the action -- moving so that, regardless of the content of each individual episode, the reader doesn't lose sight of the purpose of it all.
Even so, I can't deny that "The Hour of the Dragon" isn't my favorite Conan story. It feels less polished than Howard's best creations. I can't shake the feeling that the greater length demanded of a novel worked against REH's genius for concision, producing an uneven tale. Still, there's a lot to like here, particularly the character of Zenobia, whom I've long regarded as an under-appreciated female of the Hyborian Age. True, she's no Valeria or Bêlit, but that may be why I find Zenobia so intriguing. She's not a warrior woman and yet she manages to save the Cimmerian's life and is rewarded like no other woman in Conan's saga.
I'll admit I have a soft spot for King Conan, an aspect of the character Howard obviously considered important too, given that his very first appearance also features him as king of Aquilonia. Seeing Conan fighting for the kingship of the most powerful and sophisticated realm of the Hyborian Age is a nice antidote to caricatures that paint him as an unthinking brute, unchanged by his many years of adventuring in civilized lands. I regret there are so few REH-penned tales of Conan's kingship, which is why, despite its flaws, I nevertheless enjoy "The Hour of the Dragon" and recommend it to anyone looking to better familiarize themselves with the stories of Conan.