Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Swords from the East by Harold Lamb

NOTE: Swords from the East was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by Bison Books.

Adventure fiction comes in all shapes and sizes, and one of those is historical. Many authors have played with historical adventures, from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (Scott being more or less the inventor of the genre) up through today. One of the major authors to work in that genre, and who is sadly not well known today, is Harold Lamb. Writing a large number of pieces set all over the world, he captured the historical adventure tale in the era of pulp magazines. Editor Howard Andrew Jones is working with University of Nebraska Press and Bison Books to bring his fiction work back into print, with one of the newest volumes being Swords from the East, a collection of Lamb’s tales of the Mongols. Excited about the chance to dive in, I did, reading the forward by editor Howard Andrew Jones and the introduction by fantasy author James Enge. Below are thoughts on the stories, followed by overall thoughts.

“The Gate in the Sky”: Maak, a reindeer herder, spends a night in the camp of some traders, only to have his precious reindeer stolen. Maak sets out to find the thieves and recover his reindeer. This is an excellent beginning to the collection, giving us in a short space a character driven to stop the thieves, with excellent setting, plot, and action.

“The Wolf-Chaser”: Hugo, a former French count, has traveled into the mountains of central Asia in search of his brother, who had travelled there in an attempt to spread Christianity. After finding his brother had died, Hugo hangs around, and when a vast army comes to threaten the people he has been living with, Hugo leads a small group in the defense of a mountain pass that he must hold if the city of Kob is to be won back by its citizens. This is an exciting piece of a brutal last stand in the mountains, continuing Lamb’s excellent characterization and writing style.

The Three Palladins: A novel length tale of Mingan, a prince living in Cathay, who escapes an assassination attempt and flees to the Horde of Temujin, the future khan, to be known as Genghis Khan. The story begins at the death of Temujin’s father, and continues as Temujin struggles to create an empire in the Gobi, and becomes Genghis Khan. A very well-told and powerful story, this is one of the best historical novels I have ever read.

“The House of the Strongest”: Ermecin is the strong one, and comes to be the leader of his tribe. However, he can’t win the love of his wife, Cherla, until he sets out to find his kidnapped son. A brief tale, but one well-told.

The Road of the Giants: The second novel-sized tale in this volume follows Captain Billings, Russian cartographer, who is tasked to make a map of the lands in which the Mongols live. However, before he can even begin, he has a run in with a prince, and winds up a captive. As Billings is forced to travel with the horde to its homelands, he continues to make his map, but for a different master. Yet, when he discovers treachery afoot, he sets out to save the horde that imprisoned him. An exciting tale, this one doesn’t equal The Three Palladins in impact, but has even more action, and engaging characters.

“Azadi’s Jest”: Azadi, a member of the sultan’s harem, is known for her “little tricks.” However, when she sees a Cossack being tortured, she sets in her mind a trick that will set them both free. One of the lesser tales of the volume, but still entertaining.

“The Net”: This emotionally engaging tale of a blind fisherman and his adopted children who come against the whims of evil sailors is one of the highlights of the collection. Lamb is at his most powerful here.

“The Book of the Tiger: The Warrior”: This is the first part of Lamb’s retelling of the Babar-nameh, The Story of the Tiger. The Babar-nameh is the autobiography of Babar, the Tiger, a 16th century conqueror and the first of the Moghul emperors. “The Warrior” follows Babar from the death of his father and the assumption of his father’s role, through his fighting throughout central Asia, culminating in his repeated attempts at capturing and holding a city of his own. This is a very interesting piece, with a wonderful stylistic voice all its own. At times you can tell that this is a condensing of a larger work, as it feels a bit rushed or abbreviated, but it never stops being engaging. It ends on a very abrupt note, with some questions that don’t get answered, but it is a very fun piece.

“The Book of the Tiger: The Emperor”: The second part of Lamb’s retelling of the Babar-nameh, this one picks up as Babar is heading to take Kabul, and after struggles there moves on into India. Another tale in the style of the previous one, this one is also very engaging, although I felt suffered worse than the previous one in the area of occasionally feeling very much as a condensation of another work, at times feeling almost out-line-like. It is still, however, a very fun tale.

“Sleeping Lion”: An engaging tale of Marco Polo and a stolen ruby of tremendous value, this one sadly is missing a portion of the middle of the story, as it was printed wrong upon first appearance, and the original has disappeared. That absence hurts the denouement, but it is still an entertaining short piece.

After the stories, there is an appendix that reprints a number of letters that Lamb wrote that appeared in Adventure, the main source of publication of these stories. They are all much more than simple letters, however, but more essays, some on the historical context of a story, others on the history of central Asia in general. These are quite fascinating reading, and very engrossing.

This volume is large and dense, cramming a lot of content into its pages. Amazingly, it is almost all excellent, and the few that didn’t shoot fireworks for me still weren’t bad. The stories read very well, and don’t feel aged at all. The pace is quite fast, the action is invigorating, and the plots are brilliant fun. What Lamb has accomplished is rather wonderful. He has taken an area of history most readers, at least here in the USA, aren’t too familiar with, and made it feel very real and very comfortable, infusing them with rich culture that helps the plot along. The heroes are heroic, but they also don’t feel just like western heroes transposed into central Asia. This collection of stories is brilliant, and will definitely have me on the lookout for more Lamb. This volume is a good buy, both in quantity and quality. Fans of historical fiction, Asian history, and swift adventure shouldn’t miss Swords from the East.


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