There's loads to like about Robert E. Howard's classic stories of Conan the Barbarian. They're hugely entertaining, pulpy tales of great deeds and high adventure, and they see Conan himself take on practically every adventuring role under the sun. Thief, pirate, mercenary, soldier, all the way to king of Aquilonia, you name it and Conan's probably done it at some point.
In spite of that, though, there are plenty of things about these stories which haven't aged well, and can be quite awkward to a modern reader. Naturally, one has to bear in mind that they were written in the 1930s and a certain amount of datedness is to be expected, but there are still aspects of Howard's writing which are problematic. Certainly, there's nothing that's anywhere near as bad as the horrendous - even for the time - racism which you'll find in H. P. Lovecraft, but the treatment of ethnic minorities, and especially women, in Conan's saga tends to leave a lot to be desired.
Which is one of the main reasons why Queen of the Black Coast is one of the best of the Conan stories, if not the best: because its principal female character is consistently depicted as an equal to Conan, and who actually gets to be an actor in the story rather than being acted upon. The queen of the title is Belit, a pirate of the southern seas, the mere sight of whose ship causes abject terror in the merchant sailors who work the region. When she first meets Conan, she could easily have him killed if she wanted to, but she chooses not to.
In these stories it's almost invariably Conan who sees a woman, desires her and takes her for his own - he doesn't go after women against their will, but these relationships are still very one-sided. In this case, however, it's Belit who wants Conan and chooses to make him the king to her queen. It's a subtle difference, and it doesn't significantly change how the story plays out, but it makes it clear that the two of them are equal partners in this relationship. Belit isn't anywhere near as strong as Conan, but she is much smarter and craftier than he is, and so their relationship actually makes a lot of sense: she identifies the targets and plans the raids, and he attacks and plunders the other ships. They're literally partners in crime, and it's brilliant.
Even the part of the story which initially seems problematic - which we shan't mention due to spoilers, though it's not hard to see coming and is quite clearly telegraphed - is almost entirely undone by the climax, which involves what must surely be the most moving display of love and affection between two characters in Howard's entire body of work. It really can't be stressed enough how amazing the finale is: it's a thrilling conclusion to a great adventure story in its own right, and it further cements Conan and Belit as people who complement each other, where it's usually the women of these stories who are utterly and one-sidedly dependent on Conan.
There's a reason why they borrowed the ending for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie when that film had basically nothing else to do with the original stories. It's a rare Conan story which isn't enjoyable to read, but this ranks easily among the very best of them simply because it has a capable female lead. So often, writers take the easy, lazy option of writing women as helpless damsels who can't do anything for themselves, but Queen of the Black Coast is a textbook example of how much better a story can be for having a woman at its centre who's equal to a man.