I don’t often use the word ‘excellent’ when talking about books; there’s often some niggling little thing that detracts from the performance that an author has crammed into the space between the front and back covers. However, in this instance, I think the word ‘excellent’ is justified.
I found this one through following up on The Desert of Souls by Howard Jones (another cracking read). I’ve become less enamoured of modern fantasy, finding the rush towards the Edge of Grit a bit off-putting; perhaps as I’ve got older, I’ve started to hanker for the more heroic lustre of the fiction I used to read. In Oden’s book, I think I’ve found it.
The Lion of Cairo is set in the Middle East of the mid 12th century, a time when caliphs and viziers, Mamelukes and eunuchs vied for power in the greatest city of Egypt. Add to that the presence of the Crusaders, their military hardmen the Templars and a generous sprinkling of sinister sorcerous shenanigans and you’ve got a recipe for intrigue, skulduggery and high adventure.
The main character is Assad, a member of the Nizari Ismailis, otherwise known as the hashishiyya, the original Assassins. He is a fascinating fellow who carries a sword that has echoes of Stormbringer; there’s more to his weapon than meets the eye and I suspect we’ll find out more about it in future volumes. Oden brings a good-sized cast onto his stage and gives them all plenty of time in the limelight with a shifting focus depending on the needs of the plot. I liked this technique and didn’t find it distracting; it personalises even the minor characters effectively. Speaking of which, a major historical figure in the Crusades appears here as a minor character; he’s one to watch, as I suspect that his part in future adventures of Assad will be key.
Oden’s pace is cracking; there’s never a dull moment and even when there’s no swordplay, he manages to keep the tension high. The plot runs right to the very end as well. No winding down in the last few pages for this writer. He really can write as well; his descriptions evoke a real sense of place that should be a lesson to many fantasy writers who, it seems to me, struggle somewhat with imaginary cities and fall back on the bog-standard mediaeval European setting. Oden’s Cairo really does drip with atmosphere; perhaps a map might have come in handy but often I find that when there is one, I’m popping to the front of the book to check where we are rather than paying attention to the action.
And speaking of action, there’s a lot of it. Deaths aplenty and swords spend a lot of time bloodied. It’s rippingly good stuff. Here’s a taster
“…his broadsword licking out to shear through a Turkish neck. The heathen’s head rode a geyser of blood as his body tumbled to the ground…”
Oden references Harold Lamb and Robert E. Howard in his introduction. Howard’s Gates of Empire covers this period as does Lamb’s Swords from the West. It’s a worthy tradition and Oden is a fine inheritor of it. I hear that this is the first book in a planned trilogy and I hope Volume 2 hurries along soon; I’ll be waiting.
Benbo, 3rd level Fighter/4th level Thief - he who dares.
Galzor, 4th level cleric - mysteriously disappeared along with the Third and his coffin.
Zanurax, 3rd level thief (recovering from being partly eaten by a lion and has now gone to join Merlin)
Olaf, 4th level dwarven fighter, now returning to his clan halls
Merlin, 3rd level thief (called away on the business of the Thieves' Guild)
Adthar, 4th level fighter - currently both an Ettin and a statue
Elador, nth level magic-user - called away on special assignments but will act as mentor and adviser to the team
Galadeus, 2nd level ranger - drowned and then eaten by a shark.....aaaaaand he's BACK! aaaaaaaaand he's dead again.
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That's what Old School means to me
"These rules are flexible and open to interpretation - designed not to cover all conceivable situations, but to allow good Referees and Players the freedom to create and play games of their own design."
from the Lulu download page for The White Box S&W from BHP
"This game is unlike chess in that the rules are not cut and dried. In many places, they are guidelines and suggested methods only. This is part of the attraction of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons"
Over halfway to 90, I started playing AD&D when the Police were a cool band and Punk was wild. I am a father to a ten-year-old Junior Grognard and have now managed to establish a five-strong gaming group made up of him and four of his friends, ages ranging from 10 to 11. Solidly Old-School.
High fives and natural 20s to you all!