Sunday, November 14, 2010


By Robert E. Howard

I thanked the editor personally when this came out and let me tell you I don’t do that often. Mostly, because I’m not on a first name basis with many editors, but even if I DIDN’T know Rusty Burke I would want to pump his hand up and down and tell him I wanted to have his baby on account of Lord of Samarcand is one butt-kicking collection of REH yarns!

Most readers know Robert E. Howard from his enormously successful Conan stories and their myriad spin-offs in comics, film, and endless pastiches. But what is often missed, especially in the cheap-n-cheerful spin-offs, is REH’s deep love of history, especially when told as a blood and guts adventure tale. The Conan tales are infused with bits and pieces of the romantic furnishings of martial conflict. Assyria’s bronze-clad warriors might tackle a Free Company straight from a chevauchee, or swaggering buccaneers could hold converse with horsemen from the Golden Horde.

Naturally when REH got the chance he wrote straight-up historical adventure. There was quite a taste for adventures set in the wild outlands of Asia back in the ‘30s and REH did his best to satisfy. This collection brings under one set of covers material heretofore scattered adventure tales. The reader will find REH’s tales of Crusaders and Saracens, Tatars and Cossacks and others of the great pageant of history.

Some standouts here are “The Lion of Tiberias” a tale of a man’s climb to power and the bodies he climbs over. It is a story that brings to the fore one of REH's most characteristic themes: arrogance humbled by an indomitable will to acheive vengeance. The title tale follows a similar arc, and brings together Tamerlane the Conqueror with a Highlander called Donald MacDeesa, a true Central Asian odd couple. Two of my favorites are “The Road of Azrael” which shows just how completely REH could go off the rails in crafting a denouement and just how enjoyable it is when he chucks all the rules of writing out the window. I won’t breathe a word about it because it’s a surprise. The best entry is “Shadow of the Vulture” the tale that introduced Red Sonya to the world. She emerges not as a fantasy (ok not a Sword & Sorcery) character but as a 16th century mercenary swordswoman. This is a gal who can handle heavy artillery. Her comrade-in-arms is Nicholas von Kalmbach, a rougish German landsknecht. Together they battle Sulemein the Magnificent’s jannisary hordes at the siege of Vienna. Dashing heroes, unstoppable legions of doom, a turning point of history, “Shadow of the Vulture” has it all. Buy it for this story.

For REH scholars there is a wealth of fragments, synopses, and odds and ends to show REH tinkering with his work. I bought my copy in Providence at the Brown University bookstore. Who says the Ivy League is out of touch?
-Dave Hardy



Charles Gramlich said...

the original Zebra collection is one of my most prized possessions. I have three copies actually. It's just perfect.

Dave Hardy said...

Reading Road of Azrael and Sowers of the Thunder was a revelation. But they left out the Geoffrey fitzCormac stories which only got published in a hard-to-find hardback. I expect we'll a lot of these again in the Del Rey historical collection.