Sunday 7 July 2013

The Lion of Cairo by Scott Oden

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.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Team Adventure - Fifty Not Out

You join us on this blog's 400th post and Team Adventure's 50th session. I like the way that's worked out. Despite the hot weather, we had a good day's play but due to overlapping holiday commitments on the part of the lads, it's uncertain when we'll game again before September. Still, onwards and upwards, as they say. We join our gallant band having just left the temple at the foot of the pyramid, feeling rather pleased with themselves.

Having lifted the curse on the Pyramid, the party gathered itself together, filling water bottles from the new stream that was slowly irrigating the desert, checking weapons, making sure their horses were all right, setting their sights westward. Elysia had remembered seeing a distant line of mountains in the west with what looked like a pass and beyond it a vast area of flat green-grey. Alurax recalled that when they had first met Benbo, the hobbit had mentioned a vast swamp and wondered if that had any connection.

On their first day out, the party spotted, in the distance, what appeared to be ruins in the sand. They approached with caution and Elysia sent in the air force to scout it out. The flying friends returned, having seen a mysterious creature that appeared to be half lion, half woman, lurking amongst the fallen stones. Galadeus, ever cautious, went galloping off toward the ruins, keen to find out what it was - and kill it. The rest of the party followed on, albeit slightly more slowly.

When he arrived at the ruins, Galadeus started to scout around and heard a faint cry for help, coming from a set of stairs which descended into the ground. He slowly crept down them and found, in a dark chamber, a woman in flimsy garments, chained to the wall by her ankles. She told him that she had been captured by a monster and begged him to free her. Galadeus was about to do so when he suspected something and paused in his efforts. As he was about to resume his attempts to free the woman, the rest of the party came clattering down the stairs. Alagon and Lydia felt their hackles rise at once - they knew that they were in the presence of evil.

 I can see how she distracts unwary adventurers now

The woman did not respond to their enquiries as to who she was and what she was doing until she saw Elysia, who used the Star they had found in the pyramid to determine the woman's true form. She was revealed as a Lamia, who preyed on lone travellers, luring them into the ruins, draining them of wisdom and then killing and eating them. Now, however, recognising the magic user as her sole chance of survival, she flung herself on her mercy, offering choice magic items in return for her freedom. Elysia agreed and took delivery of two potions and a sword, whereupon the party left the chamber and the ruins soon afterwards.

The next day, the party saw a tiny shape flying towards them. Unwilling to wait to be attacked, the air force was once again sent out to see what it was;  they soon returned, in the company of a creature who had the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle and the head of a bearded man. He greeted the party and introduced himself as Lammasu, a servant of the forces of good. The boisterousness of the party was frustrating his attempts to communicate vocally, so he used his telepathic powers to speak directly with Elysia's mind.

If in doubt. go with Tramp
She told him that they were on a quest for the Holy Avenger; he replied that they were on the right road. It was housed in a tomb over the mountains in a gloomy and dangerous swamp, guarded by evil and horror. However, he revealed that there lurked in the mountains a source of great evil and they would, in all likelihood, have to deal with it before they could proceed.

As a bonus, Lammasu also told Elysia that there would come soon a great test of courage and integrity for the paladins, which would prove their worth to wield such a mighty weapon of good. He could (or would) say no more about it and left the party soon afterwards, heading east on a mission from Good.

The day after that, the party came across the remnants of a merchant party which had perished in the desert. Anything of value had already been looted and there was nothing worth taking - unless your name was Ferros. He animated eight of the bodies to join his shambling Undead Army.

The mountains were getting ever closer now, towering over the party where before they had been a mere line on the horizon. The pass was clearly visible and it was towards this that the party headed. The party encountered a small group of jackals, which were no threat to them, but Galadeus used his Ring of Mammal Control to commandeer them; the party's menagerie grew ever larger.

Galadeus' new henchmen
Following the pass up into the mountains, the party pressed on for a couple of days. Then, on 21st September , they found a river cascading down a ravine, crossed by a stone bridge. On the far side of the bridge were two stone towers which flanked an entrance into the mountain itself.

Crouching in the rocks on the far side, the party watched the towers and the entrance. Galadeus decided to send his jackals in to investigate the towers but unfortunately, they could not find a way in. Elysia sent in the air force to see what was on top of the towers. They flew down but then shied away very quickly. When they returned to the party, both Elysia and Ferros got images of tall, spined and barbed figures who were standing sentry. Galadeus broke control of the jackals and they headed back across the bridge and down the pass towards the desert as fast as they could.

What was needed now was a plan and after a while the party came up with one. Galadeus decided that Florin the phoenix was to fly up to the left-hand tower and deliberately allow herself to be killed so that she would detonate a fireball and then return to figurine status. Galadeus himself edged onto the middle of the bridge, whilst Alurax took up position at its far end. Whilst Alagon, Wolf and Lydia waited on the far side, amongst the rocks, Elysia would fly Gullhor and Larsh (in figurine form) up to the right hand tower, then Elysia would go back for Ferros.

The plan got off to a bad start straight away as Florin detonated but when the fire faded away, the creature on the tower was unharmed. It bent down, picked up the phoenix figure, then vanished.

Elysia landed with Gullhor. The creature facing them sent out a wave of fear to deter them but neither was affected and whilst Elysia took off again, Gullhor activated Larsh and they attacked the creature. At this point, the creature which had vanished with Florin reappeared on the right-hand tower, joining in the attack on Larsh. Desperate to get revenge for the theft of his phoenix, Galadeus tried to climb up the tower, only to fall off - twice.

Having landed Ferros on the tower, Elysia now flew down to pick up the luckless ranger. On the top of the tower, the battle was raging. One of the creatures tried to Hold Gullhor but had no success, while the other creature pressed home its attack on the polar bear.

I'll take the phoenix, Steve, you deal with the polar bear.
Under the weight of the party's attack, the first creature was killed; the second continued to attack Larsh, who was now looking pretty battered. Nevertheless, the party fought on; Galadeus landed behind the creature and in a fierce round of combat, Larsh was reduced to figurine form and Galadeus got the killing blow in on the creature, scoring his revenge in a very impressive fashion.

Whilst Alurax was investigating the main cave entrance between the two towers, the rest of the party were more interested in an entrance at the rear of the right hand tower that led to a tunnel running into the mountain. Where did it go? And more importantly, where was Florin?