By Harold Lamb
When critics talk about writers who influenced Robert E. Howard, along with predictable favorites such as H.P. Lovecraft, Jack London, and Rudyard Kipling, one name always comes up: Harold Lamb.
“Lamb who?” is no doubt the reaction of many readers. Unlike J.K. Rowling or Terry Prachett, Harold Lamb’s name is not a household word. But he was once the darling of the Saturday Evening Post, contributing both fiction and analyses of Middle Eastern politics. Nowadays, he’s just about forgotten.
Fortunately, Howard Andrew Jones has set out to change that. He has teamed up with Bison Books (of the University of Nebraska) to produce a massive four-volume set of Lamb’s Cossack fiction.
“Cossack what?” Stories about the wild Russian frontiersmen of the steppe. They were the Davy Crocketts and Dan’l Boones of the Russian borderlands. Their foes were the wild nomads who had swept down from the steppes of Central Asia (under tribal names such as Huns, Magyars, Tatars, and Mongols) to smash the citified and civilized realms of Rome, Persia, China, and Russia. The Cossacks were essentially Russian Tatars, capable of riding, shooting, and fighting as well as the horse-tribes of the plains. At first the Cossacks were composed mainly of runaways from serfdom as well as footloose mercenaries, outlaws, and renegade Tatars. Later they became self-contained tribes in their own right, until the Soviets smashed them for being loyal to the old order (and for being too independent).
Lamb’s Cossack hero is Khlit. For readers who expect a Slavic Conan, you’ll be in for a surprise. Khlit is an old guy, still a deadly fighter, but a man who has learned to survive by using his wits. Most of the stories follow him on an epic wandering across much of Asia. Khlit experiences all manner of highs and lows in his wanderings. He is both a homeless nobody and a warlord of stupendous significance.
Khlit defies conventions in other ways. Lamb describes him as a confirmed bachelor who suspects women on principle. However, Lamb frequently provides him with a strong willed young lady as a foil. You could call these girls (they are almost always seventeen) damsels in distress if they weren’t so damned headstrong. Sometimes I found myself wondering just who was rescuing whom. There is plenty of action in these tales, but they aren’t simple shoot-‘em-ups. Khlit relies on his ability to look stupid and act smart to load the dice in his favor. Since he inevitably bucks long odds, he needs all the help he can get.
This makes for tales with many characters, intricate plotting, and lots of exotic color. Frankly, this can be a bit demanding, if you don’t like strange names in remote places, go back to watching TV. But if you are willing to pay attention (or are already familiar with the cultures of Asia) you will be richly rewarded with swashbuckling tales of action and intrigue set in locales as varied as the camps of Mongol khans, the court of Imperial China, and the secret fortress of the Order of Assassins.
Nowadays the Cossacks are enjoying a revival in post-Soviet Russia. They are also enjoying a revival in this collection of Harold Lamb’s thrilling tales of adventure.