Not on the Topaz Throne at the front of the regal Tower of Splendor sat Kull, but in the saddle, mounted on a great stallion, a true warrior king. His mighty arm swung up in reply to the salutes as the hosts passed. His fierce eyes passed the gorgeous trumpeters with a casual glance, rest longer on the following soldiery; they blazed with a ferocious light as the Red Slayers halted in front of him with a clang of arms and a rearing of steeds, and tendered him the crown salute.Despite the exultant shouts that greet Kull and his soldiers as they return home from war victorious, not everyone in Valusia is pleased:
"Kull! Ha, accursed usurper from the pagan isles." -- "Aye, shame to Valusia that a barbarian sits on the Throne of Kings."More worrisome than such sinister whispers against him is the news that Ka-nu, an advisor to the king of the Picts, the traditional enemies of Kull's own Atlantean people, has requested a private audience with Valusia's barbarian ruler. Though suspicious, Kull puts aside his prejudices against the Picts and agrees to this meeting, going alone to meet with Ka-nu, a "soft and paunchy" old man seemingly "fit for nothing except to guzzle wine and kiss wenches!" After the two men feel one another out, Ka-nu comes to the point:
Little did Kull heed. Heavy-handed had he seized the decaying throne of ancient Valusia and with a heavier hand did he hold it, a man against a nation.
I see a world of peace and prosperity -- man loving his fellow man -- the good supreme. All this can you accomplish -- if you live!"Ka-nu warns Kull of a plot against his life, fomented with the help of Baron Kaanuub of Blaal, a former rival of Kull who still seeks the throne of Valusia for himself and his shadowy allies. To ensure that Kull does not die -- and a glorious future along with him -- Ka-nu promises to send along a bodyguard, a Pictish warrior named Brule the Spear-slayer, who will stand with Kull against the secret enemies who seek his death. As a show of good faith, he entrusts Kull with a green gem stolen from the Temple of the Serpent, possession of which means execution. If what he has said is untrue or if he in any way betrays him, Kull need only accuse Ka-nu of the theft of the gem and be rid of him. This gesture on the part of a Pict intrigues Kull and agrees to his plan, even though there is much the barbarian king still does not understand.
What follows is a superb fantasy tale that includes equal parts palace intrigue, feats of derring-do, and eldritch horror. It's a heady combination that, while sharing many similarities with Howard's later work on Conan, nevertheless strikes a different tone, one that is more melancholy and thoughtful about the inevitable decline of civilization than many might expect.
"You are young," said the palaces and the temples and the shrines, "but we are old. The world was wild with youth when we were reared. You and your tribe shall pass, but we are invincible, indestructible. We towered above a strange world, ere Atlantis and Lemuria rose from the sea; we still shall reign when the green waters sigh for many a restless fathom above the spires of Lemuria and the green hills of Atlantis and when the isles of the Western Men are the mountains of a strange land.Kull himself is similarly melancholy and thoughtful despite his rough heritage. He cares about Valusia and her people and acts accordingly. His willingness to believe Ka-nu and accept Brule as his companion is motivated as much by a desire to see that his kingdom does not fall into the hands of evil men -- or worse -- as by his desire to save his own life. Kull is thus a sympathetic figure and one with whom I found it easy to identify. He's also a subtle counterpoint to Conan, another barbarian turned king of a civilized but decadent people. Though both are unmatched warriors, Kull lacks Conan's bombast and bluster. Kull also seems less interested in the pleasures of this world, being more focused on ideals and a sense of duty to others. No one could mistake the two characters, despite some surface similarities between them.
"How many kings have we watched ride down these streets before Kull of Atlantis was even a dream in the mind of Ka, the bird of Creation? Ride on, Kull of Atlantis; greater shall follow you; greater came before you. They are dust; they are forgotten; we stand; we know; we are. Ride, ride on, Kull of Atlantis; Kull the king, Kull the fool!"
I've seen it said, with some merit, that a writer's earliest works are often his best, even if they lack the polish and sophistication of his later efforts. I think this holds true for "The Shadow Kingdom," which I like a very great deal. The writing is a bit more stiff and formulaic in it than in, say, most of the Conan stories, but I think its characters and ideas are very strong and possess a kind of inchoate energy to them that I sometimes find lacking in the lesser Conan tales. Perhaps I'm biased because I find Kull more like myself than I find Conan, I don't know, but I genuinely love this story, which, regardless of its position in Howard's overall literary corpus, is a great story in its own right and well worth a read.