Swords from the West by Harold Lamb
Published by Bison Books (www.bisonbooks.com) November 2009
Review by Mark Yon
I would think that Harold Lamb is not a name that immediately springs to mind in the list of hallowed 20th century writers. And yet, to a few in the know, he is a Master. This new collection of crusader tales, many collected for the first time, shows how good he was. This is an underrated gem and deserves your attention.
Harold wrote at a time when the pulp magazines were aplenty. His tales of heroes and enemies, of valour and derring-do are of that time (and the tales here date from 1921 to 1953.) Though he was known at the time for his screenplay writing and his historical biographies, like Tolkien before him, he wrote other things as a hobby. These adventure tales were written for fun as well as publication.
But, what fun! There are seventeen tales of the Crusades and the Indian Raj here, most of them not seen since their first publication in Adventure magazine. We meet Nial O’Gordon, young crusader on a life-changing journey to Constantinople, and Sir Robert of Antioch fighting Mongol masses. As you might expect in tales of the Crusades, we meet men who epitomise the conflict, such as Hugh of Dol, a Christian minstrel, and his opponents, the Turks. King Richard the Lionheart also appears on his quest. We also meet Michael Bearn, fighting for vengeance after being betrayed by an Arabian sultan. In the India of the nineteenth century we have Captain John Malcolm and Rawul Singh defending the British Empire against the Afghan Ali Khan and his co-conspirator Gom Gion.
The pace is rapid from the outset, the tales driven forward by exciting chases, thrilling battles and characters you quickly recognise. Unlike many of the tales of today, they are tightly written (for who could afford diversions when you were paid mere cents per word) and fast-moving. Evidently an influence on Robert E Howard, I can see the similarities, as well as on other writers of that time. There’s a breathlessness, a springing into action that is quite endearing.
In fact, this book was full of pleasant surprises. There are few of the usual stereotypes that I expected from similar writing of this time. As the tales involve Mongols, Moslems and Turks I was expecting some one-sided values, such as emphasising the Christian perspective about the Crusades. Though there are points where this is so, interestingly, I found the characters not always as clearly delineated as in many older tales. Harold actually blurs the lines between hero and villain, between good and evil. Many of his tales here give the usual Western view of the world, but are also (and perhaps controversially for their time) quite sympathetic to that of the Turks and the Arabs as well.
This gives a much more balanced story collection than I expected.
The other major surprise was how much historical accuracy is here. Unlike many of today’s writers who will adapt dates for the sake of tension and pace, Harold’s stories were meticulously detailed and accurate. Though the details may have changed a little over time (Richard I’s image these days is not quite what used to be, for example!) at the time they were written they must have been a revelation. Many a new writer could take lessons from these tales.
This is a wonderful book, from a sadly forgotten author who deserves much greater recognition. Well done to Bison Books and the editor Howard Andrew Jones for bringing this collection to prominence in a hefty tome. Anyone who likes adventure tales, has a love of history and enjoys films such as Kingdom of Heaven will find this book irresistible. I was pleasantly surprised and quickly won over. Recommended.
Mark Yon, December 2009.