Thursday, October 18, 2012

King of the Khyber Rifles

King of the Khyber Rifles, published in 1916, is a rousing tale of adventure on the Northwest Frontier of India. The author, Talbot Mundy (1879-1940), was born in England. After an adventurous life in various parts of the world he settled in the United States in 1911 where he began his writing career. He would go on to become one of the masters of the adventure genre.

King of the Khyber Rifles opens in 1914. The outbreak of the European war poses major problems for the British authorities in India. Garrisons have been stripped of men to fight in Europe and India is now held by a perilously small contingent of British soldiers backed by native troops. And of course there is trouble on the Northwest Frontier. There is always trouble on the Northwest Frontier, but now that the fierce hill tribesmen know that the British army in India has been seriously weakened there is likely to be more trouble than usual. There is talk of a jihad.

Athelstan King of the Indian Secret Service is given the difficult task of preventing a rising of the tribes. He is to make contact with a mysterious woman named Yasmini. Yasmini is a kind of princess who has a devoted following among the hillmen. She is believed to be loyal to the British but with a woman like Yasmini certainty is impossible. Yasmini enjoys power and may be tempted to try to carve out an empire for herself. No-one who has known her doubts that she is capable of doing just that. She is both beautiful and dangerous, but also potentially the saviour of British India if she can be persuaded to remain loyal.

King is seconded to the Khyber Rifles but he will be travelling to the frontier in disguise. He has chosen the disguise of a hakim, a native doctor and healer.

After crossing the Khyber Pass King finds himself in Khinjan, a vast fortress carved out of a mountain. No-one is allowed entrance to Khinjan unless he can prove that he is a murderer. This is not exactly a civilised part of the world.

King finds himself drawn into a bewildering web of plots and counter-plots. Yasmini is not the only one who is capable of raising an army amongst the hill tribesmen. There is also a murderous mullah who dreams of a jihad.

Athelstan King finds that Yasmini takes more than a political interest in him. He may well find himself cast in the role of a lover, not the safest occupation in the world where such a woman is concerned.

Khinjan conceals a strange secret. The past is very much alive there. A Roman general had penetrated as far as Khinjan with an army, but he never did return to Rome. He remains in Khinjan, or at least his body does. Or is it just his body? Can the past live again? This adds an interesting hint of the occult to the story.

Mundy’s stories are not mere adventure tales. They also contain a great deal of political intrigue, a subject that fascinated him and with which he was very much at home.

There is plenty of adventure as well though. The world beyond the Khyber Pass is a world of blood-feuds and murder. The tribesmen would consider themselves shamed if they earned an honest living. They can be loyal friends, but they can just as easily slit your throat, and do it cheerfully.

Athelstan King is a hero who relies more on brainpower, and on his own considerable skills at political intrigue, more than on brawn although he is certainly capable of being a man of action when required. He is an interesting character, but it is Yasmini, a constant presence in the background, who dominates the book.

An excellent novel of adventure, and highly recommended.

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