Monday, May 7, 2012
Swords from the Desert by Harold Lamb
Grab your scimitar and saddle up
In recent years The University of Nebraska Press has published eight volumes collecting the stories of Harold Lamb. Swords from the Desert is the first one I’ve read, and after finishing it I find myself wanting more. From World War I through the 1960s, Lamb wrote adventure stories for pulp fiction magazines. What sets his work apart from many of his better-known contemporaries is that he wrote meticulously researched historical-based fiction devoid of any supernatural or fantasy elements. Well-written, action packed historical fiction is hard to find, so kudos to editor Howard Andrew Jones for bringing this somewhat forgotten author to the attention of today’s readers.
The stories in Swords from the Desert all have Arab protagonists. They take place in the Middle East or Central Asia, with the exception of one tale set in Paris. A few of the stories feature the Arab hero facing off against a foe from the West, but most contain no European characters at all and are solely populated by Arabs, Persians, Pathans, Hazaras, Rajputs, and Moguls. The heart of the book consists of its three longest stories starring Daril Ibn Athir, a semi-retired swordsman turned physician in the early 17th century, who travels east from the Arabian desert through Kandahar to India.
Lamb traveled through many of the places depicted in these stories. He was fascinated by Arab and Muslim culture and history, and his love and respect for the subject shows through in his writing. Lamb’s tales are definitely a cut above typical pulp fiction. Though his work here never rises to the literary heights of the historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Dumas, or Henryk Sienkiewicz, Lamb admirably combines the yarn-spinning talent of a Jack London with the researching skills of a James Michener. His Arab characters don’t just wear the costumes, ride the horses, and talk the talk of the Middle East. Lamb really makes an effort to capture the philosophy of these Arab warriors—their chivalrous code of conduct, their insistence of honor over death, and the importance they place on hospitality, even toward their enemies. Granted, it’s adventure fiction, so it’s still a romanticized look at Arab culture, but Lamb is a more conscientious anthropologist than the typical scribbler of sword and sandal operas. He has a real gift for making the reader feel like he’s present in these distant places and far-off times. There’s nothing incredibly memorable about the plots of these stories, but while you’re reading them they’re a great ride, and you’ll find yourself lost in the sights, sounds, and smells of these wondrous lands.
In addition to the stories, the book contains some nonfiction components that are equally valuable. The foreword and introduction provide biographical details on Lamb, who led a fascinating life, and offer important context for the stories without spoiling them for you. There is also an appendix containing several editorials Lamb wrote for Adventure magazine, in which he discusses the history behind his stories and his experiences while traveling in the countries where the narratives take place. From these brief essays one gets a real sense of what an erudite scholar Lamb was, and his enthusiasm for the subject matter becomes infectious. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on another Lamb collection soon.
Stories in this collection:
The Rogue’s Girl
The Guest of Karadak
The Road to Kandahar
The Light of the Palace
The Way of the Girl
The Eighth Wife
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