Saturday, October 6, 2018

Harold Lamb's Swords from the East

Harold Lamb (1892-1962) was an historian and screenwriter as well as a prolific writer of adventure novels and short stories. He wrote for various magazines but his best known stories appeared in Adventure magazine which was a pulp magazine, but a rather up-market one. Being also a successful popular historian gave Lamb a slightly higher degree of literary respectability than most pulp writers.

Bison Books have issued virtually all of Lamb’s stories in a series of paperback editions. The paperbacks are rather generous - most include one or two short novels as well as a dozen or so short stories and novellas so they’re pretty solid value.

Swords from the East includes his tales of Mongols, Tatars and other Asiatic peoples. Lamb had a considerable amount of sympathy for both European and non-European cultures. This collection even includes a very favourable view of Genghis Khan.

The Gate in the Sky is a simple little tale of a gentle reindeer herder. He loves his reindeer so much that when he needs meat he hunts other game but will not harm his reindeer. Now someone has stolen his herd. He is outnumbered and has only a bow and is up against men with guns but he must get his herd back. Perhaps the gate in the sky will open for him.

The Wolf-Chaser is the tale of a Christian knight a long long way from home. In 1660 Hugo of Hainault finds himself in the wilds of Tartary, in search of his brother Paul. Paul is a priest. Hugo is really not much of a Christian and he didn’t get on all that well with his brother but a brother is still a brother and Hugo has a stubborn streak. Having set himself to find Paul that’s what he is going to do. He finds himself in the middle of a war. It is not his quarrel, he is not a man who would normally concern himself with conflicts not involving gentlemen, and he regards the Tatars as savages. But he does have that stubborn streak and he does get involved.

The Three Palladins is a short novel. A young Chinese prince discovers that he has an enemy at court. A very deadly enemy. It is only by the merest chance that Mingan escapes with his life. Beyond the Great Wall he encounters a young Mongol prince named Temujin (destined to become rather better known as Genghis Khan). This is a complex story of friendships and loyalties. It’s also a story about heroes but these are heroes who are more than just mighty warriors. It’s an epic tale but the focus is on the men who drive great events rather than on the events themselves. An excellent tale.

The House of the Strongest is an odd little tale of a Mongol whose immense strength wins him wealth and a beautiful wife, but not his wife’s respect. At least not at first.

Sleeping Lion is a story that unfortunately has not survived in a complete form. It’s a pity since it’s an interesting tale of Marco Polo at the court of Kublai Khan, and of a fabulous ruby and of a young concubine. Not to mention an unscrupulous drunken astrologer.

The Road of the Giants is another short novel. In 1771 Scottish cartographer Captain Minard Billings  is employed to make a map of the Tatar steppe. He is caught up in a revolt of the Tatars. Not an ordinary revolt though - rather than taking up arms against their Russian overlords the tribes have decided simply to leave, to return to their ancestral homelands far to the east. This will not please the Russian empress, now deprived of the taxes paid by the tribes and of their services in war against the Turks. It will also cause difficulties for the tribes since those ancestral homelands are now occupied by others. It could become a death march. Captain Billings is an unwilling participant in the march, there is a major complication in the form of the clever but dangerous girl Nadesha and there’s also the fact the son of the khan and the tribe’s Tibetan guide and advisor both very much want him dead.

This is another story of unlikely friendships and surprising and complicated loyalties. And it’s another story about the complex nature of heroism. These are the things that Lamb writes about exceptionally well.

Azadi’s Jest concerns a woman of the sultan’s harem and a cossack prisoner who is being put to the torture. The woman thinks the cossack has cast a spell on her. Perhaps they have in fact cast spells on each other, love being a kind of spell. But both will face extreme danger as a result. A good little story.

The Net is a bit like The Gate in the Sky, a story of vengeance coming from an unexpected quarter. A young girl, the niece of a blind fisherman, is carried off by traders. They think they are safe from retribution but they are wrong. A good simple little story.

The Book of the Tiger, in two parts (The Warrior and The Emperor) is the fascinating true story of Babur, the first of the Moghul emperors of India, and is based on Babur’s own autobiography. At times ruthless, at times extraordinarily reckless, Babur comes across as a rather attractive character, a leader with genuine substance. And a leader to whom loyalty was important (loyalty and friendship being key themes in Lamb’s fiction).

Swords from the East provides plenty of rousing adventure combined with a surprising degree of psychological insight and subtlety. Highly recommended.

Swords from the West and Swords from the Desert, also from Bison Books, are also highly recommended.

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