Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Swords from the West by Harold Lamb

Familiarity breeds contempt
Adventure was considered the most prestigious pulp magazine in America. . . . And the very best author in Adventure was Harold Lamb.” So proclaims the introduction by Robert Weinberg. This volume collects 17 of Lamb’s historical adventure tales, originally published from 1921 to 1953 in Adventure and other pulp fiction periodicals. Most of these stories feature a crusader as protagonist, yet for the most part they’re not typical tales of the Crusades. Often they feature a former crusader, or descendant of crusaders, now a resident of the Holy Land, who wanders farther afield and gets mixed up in a fracas with some eastern empire, such as the Persians, Tatars, or the Mongols of Genghis Khan. Other conflicts are also represented, including the Roman Empire vs. Attila and the Huns in “Secret of Victory,” England vs. France in “Lionheart,” Teutonic Knights vs. Poles in “Knights with Wings,” and the German Empire vs. the Swiss in “The Bells of the Mountains.” There’s even a mystery story set in India (“The Village of the Ghost”) in which a British officer goes up against a local gang of thugs. No matter the time or place, Lamb unfailingly gives careful attention to historic detail and loads his stories with generous helpings of local color.

While I love classic adventure fiction and had previously enjoyed the Swords from the Desert volume in this series, after now having read almost 1,000 pages of Lamb’s work I’m beginning to think I like the idea of a writer like Harold Lamb more than I like his actual writing. Although there’s nothing wrong with these stories, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about them either. Rarely do they inspire any profoundly memorable moments, genuine surprise, or edge-of-your-seat excitement. After reading several of Lamb’s stories, one begins to discern the same patterns repeated over and over. This redundancy, coupled with the mammoth size of this volume, makes the whole of the book inferior to the sum of its parts. Though the centuries, empires, and races may vary, the hero always resembles Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in chain mail. No matter how far east this voyager may venture, the damsel in distress almost invariably possesses fair skin and “red-gold” hair. The wandering swordsman will sign on as bodyguard to some merchant or diplomat traveling to the exotic East. After trudging across endless deserts they come to a spooky mountain pass that represents the point of no return. The hero soon discovers the master he serves has set him up for a fall, and he ultimately ends up a third party participant in a battle between two powerful empires. Victory is followed by rich rewards of booty (in both senses of the word). Half of the book is taken up by two long novellas, “The Grand Cham,” and “The Making of the Morning Star,” which more or less follow this format, although the former is unique in that it thankfully dispenses with the obligatory maiden. Lamb is exceptionally skilled at depicting sword fights or battle scenes, but his characters often resemble cardboard cutouts and he never, ever, finishes a story with a surprise ending.

Swords from the West does have its entertainment value, but after having devoted an inordinate amount of time to this collection of stories, I can’t help thinking that effort would have been more rewardingly spent on the works of Alexandre Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, or Henryk Sienkiewicz, the very writers Lamb strove to emulate.

Stories in this collection
The Red Cock Crows 
The Golden Horde 
The Long Sword 
Keeper of the Gate 
The Tower of Ravens 
The Grand Cham 
The Black Road 
Knights with Wings 
The Making of the Morning Star 
The Bells of the Mountains 
The Faring Forth 
Secret of Victory 
The Village of the Ghost 
The Iron Man Rides 
Doom Rides In 

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