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.


  1. Color me intrigued! You wrote this just as I've been browsing for my next read!

  2. I was very taken with this book. Oden's other historicals are well worth your time too.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, and I'm very glad you enjoyed it, Daddy Grognard!

  4. @Rich - I've recommended it to Pete as well, since it's about an assassin.

    @Charles - they're on my wish list

    @Scott - it's a privilege to have you comment on my blog. I was considering e-mailing you to tell you how much I enjoyed it but I thought a more public declaration would reach more potential readers.

    1. Thanks for the signal-boosting, DG!

      The book suffered some on the US market because the fantasy was too subtle and the history too "real". Thus, it got shelved in Historical Fiction, sent to HF reviewers, and subsequently savaged by them. Luckily, some hardcore Robert E. Howard fans also got a hold of it and have never ceased to sing its praises. The book is a direct homage to REH, actually. There are even references to some of his stories hidden in the novel :)

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