Swords from the Desert is a collection of short stories by one of the grand masters of adventure fiction, Harold Lamb.
Harold Lamb (1892-1962) was an American historian and writer who contributed countless stories to the pulp magazines. He also wrote screenplays, a number of novels and several admired non-fiction historical works. While he wrote for the pulps it’s worth noting that most of his stories were published in Adventure, a magazine that was somewhat more up-market than the general run of pulp magazines.
While Lamb’s stories are certainly adventure stories they are also historical fiction and rather more rigorously history-based than most such tales. Lamb tried to avoid contradicting known historical facts. While his stories are thus at the more realistic end of the adventure/historical fiction spectrum he was able to maintain this realism without sacrificing excitement. His stories were immensely popular.
Lamb had a particular interest in the history of the region then known as the Near East. He was remarkably even-handed in his treatment of the various cultures this region encompassed. His heroes could be Christian Crusaders, or Arabs, or Mongols, or Cossacks. They could be Christian, or Muslim or pagan. To Lamb a hero was a man who possessed the qualities of courage, daring, loyalty and honour. Such a man could be found in any culture. Lamb’s villains could also be men from any of these cultures. What made Lamb’s fiction so striking and original (and it remains so today) was his ability to admire other cultures without turning against his own culture.
Lamb was considered to be sufficiently expert on the region to be recruited by the US intelligence services in World War 2. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. Lamb was frequently dismayed by the ineptitude and short-sightedness of US foreign policy.
The Rogue’s Girl is a rather odd choice as the first story in this collection. It’s an OK story but it takes place in Paris, the only connection to the desert being that an Arab physician plays a fairly important role.
The Shield is much much better. Khalil el Khadr is an Arab, the son of a chieftain. He has been sent to Constantinople on a kind of diplomatic mission. His timing is rather unfortunate. A large Crusader host is on its way. This time the Franks (as the Muslims referred to the western Europeans) are not heading to the Holy Land. They are heading for Constantinople, their aim being the conquest of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The tragic and shameful Fourth Crusade of 1204 forms the background to Khalil el Khadr’s story.
Khalil is, much against his will caught, caught up in these events. And all because of a girl and a horse. The girl is a beautiful Frankish girl. The horse is a magnificent grey. Khalil encounters both by chance. They will lead him into a web of intrigue and betrayal as the city’s doom inexorably approaches. Khalil is a brave man with a deep sense of honour but he is no plaster saint. His ethics are flexible in some areas and rigid in others. To be fair to him they are rigid in the areas that matter most.
The plot is typical of Lamb - it’s complex and it avoids the obvious clichés and it provides plenty of action as well.
The novella The Guest of Karadak introduces Daril, a character who will turn up in other stories. Daril was a chieftain of the desert Arabs and a redoubtable warrior but having reached middle age he yearns for peace and has now given up his riches and his adventurous life and has become a wandering physician. He finds out that wandering physicians can have even more dangerous adventures than desert warriors.
A chance encounter with an ailing Rajput and his beautiful daughter provides the starting point for this story. A proud but violent Iranian princeling sees no reason why he should not carry off the daughter. He is accustomed to taking what he wants. This rash action will have momentous consequences. This might sound like a setup for a rather routine story but Lamb has some very clever twists in store for the reader. A man cannot escape his fate but sometimes that fate can take very unexpected forms. Lots of action in this superb story.
Daril features again in another excellent novella, The Road to Kandahar. It has a complex plot (typical of Lamb) involving bandit gangs, a prophet of thieves and a city under siege and (again typical of Lamb) complex characters who don’t always behave as we expect. There are of course questions of loyalty and honour. Daril is not actually the hero of the tales in which he appears. He’s more of an intelligent and interested spectator who certainly becomes involved in the action, usually against his will, but he is not the prime mover.
The Way of the Girl and The Eighth Wife are both short stories that combine adventure with love, but these are eastern love stories and rather different from conventional tales of that type. The Way of the Girl also deals with the uneasy but not always hostile relations between Frankish knights and Arabs during the Crusades.
The novella The Light of the Palace also features a fascinating central female character. Lamb’s women characters are both complex and varied. In this case the woman is Nur-Mahal, the favourite wife of the mogul Emperor Jahangir of India. Nur-Mahal is brave, intelligent, daring, treacherous and ruthless. She has to be since she more or less runs the empire, the emperor being debauched, drug-addled, lazy, incompetent and in failing health.
Daril the Arab physician is again the narrator. He is drawn into the adventure after befriending a young Hindu boy and saving the life of Man Singh who happens to be one of the chief lieutenants of Mahabat Khan (who appears in several other tales). Mahabat Khan is one of the Mogul’s principal commanders but he is now very much out of favour. So much out of favour that he may have difficulty remaining alive much less getting back into the emperor’s good books. Daril may perhaps be able to assist him in at least discovering why Jahangir has turned against him. It’s a tale of delicate political machinations combined with daring feats of arms. Nur-Mahal is playing a dangerous game but she has the courage to play it through to the end. Another superb novella.
Lamb provides his readers with plenty of excitement but his stories are not just action sequences strung together haphazardly - his plots are clever and complex with unexpected and ironic twists.
Swords from the Desert is a great collection. This is adventure fiction at its finest. Very highly recommended.
Equally worth checking out is another Harold Lamb collection, Swords from the West.