One of the treasures I picked up at Howard Days last month was the Robert E. Howard collection Swords of Shahrazar. That turned out to be some good reading, as colorful as the cover of my edition promises. And that cover is also included as a miniature fold-out poster inside. A nice bonus. We get only five stories, but they’re all winners. Allow me to elucidate.
The Treasure of Tartary. Pure, thrice distilled 100 proof adventure. The plot is relatively simple, enough to hang the action on. The backdrop is effectively drawn, pulling the reader into the wild and wooly middle east of a bygone era. Kirby O’Donnell, the Irish-American treasure-hunting adventurer passing as a Kurd fits comfortably into the pantheon of Howard characters. Red meat for the REH fan.
Swords of Shahrazar. The title story (or, rather, novella) picks up where the first left off. Kirby O’Donnell is plunged into a military adventure, complete with travel, ambushes, sieges, and sword-play in pursuit of secret correspondence crucial to the Great Game of European powers competing for power in India. Buckle and hang on. The action seldom wanes, and then only recommence a page or so later.
The Curse of the Crimson God. Classic adventure fare that would have made for fine Errol Flynn flick. Chronologically this is the earliest of Kirby O’Donnell’s adventures — at least of the three included in this volume — so arguably should have come first. But that in no way diminishes the non-stop action: a treasure hunt that ends as one might expect, judging from O’Donnell’s record with pelf and booty.
The Brazen Peacock. This is more of a traditional weird tale and less like the lusty, action-filled oriental adventures of Kirby O’Donnell, though still set in the near east and east Africa. It is still engrossing. The style is classic turn of the century adventure fiction: First-person narration recounting a story told by a second character. Though in this case the narrator (John Mulcahy) takes over the central role about two-thirds of the way through, completing the plot initiated by the second character (Eric Girtmann.) Worthwhile.
The Black Bear Bites. An oriental tale written with Howard’s lurid action-adventure boldness. It could easily have re-written as a Sailor Steve Costigan yarn, or one Howard’s hard-boiled detective stories. Set in China, it is narrated by Black John O’Donnel (no relation to Kirby, so far as I know) who is bent on revenge and — perhaps incidentally — uncovering a mystery. There is a hint of supernatural overtones as well as a nod to H.P. Lovecraft. Slight, but entertaining.
To sum up, there is not a loser in the bunch, as should come as no surprise. If you like two-fisted fabulist (and if you don’t why do read my web log?) Swords of Shahrazar is right in your wheelhouse. Track down a copy. But do try to retain the treasure more successfully than Kirby O’Donnell.
While you’re waiting for your copy, why not pick up some of my two-fisted fabulism? Try Blood and Jade, the print edition of which I understand is on sale. There is, I hope, a touch of the Howardian hero in Karl Thorson.
Speaking of heroes (or, at least, protagonists) let’s see what Magnus Stoneslayer has been up to, shall we?
A ship, dear diary, is a platform of both isolation and intimacy. The surrounding waters isolate the sailors from the world at large. At the same time the confinement of close quarters enforces intimacy. Over the days during which our bow clove through the Zajsan Sea I perforce passed many hours in the company of Yaslina. Her reserve, bordering on disdain, she’d curbed in light of her need for me, my strong sword arm, my ship. As the days passed I sensed her artificial regard shift to what might be called actual affection.
This entire experience proved a novelty. Extended conversation with Yaslina was enlightening. I can’t say that in all cases it proved a joy; she remained in many ways an infuriating woman. Oddly, I began to derive an obscure pleasure from even that.
With an awakening affection grew an identification of my interests with hers. The political convolutions of the Zantian power structure absorbed me. The military possibilities of alliances intrigued me. Yaslina’s fate concerned me. It became increasingly difficult to image my fate unlinked to hers.
And when one starlit night her delicate hand first caressed my granite jaw with hesitant, yet obviously genuine desire, I felt stunned, as if bludgeoned. I stood with her in the prow of my ship, intimate, and yet isolated by the question, dear diary, of what becomes of the itinerant savage when his wanderings become no longer aimless.