There once was a time when Afghanistan was a remote country, little touched by the vicissitudes of global politics. It was also one of the few countries in the world not ruled by someone else’s empire. For Robert E. Howard, Afghanistan was a land where bold warriors lived and died by the code of the hills, an iron law of equal parts honor, loyalty, and revenge.
The Lost Valley of Iskander is a collection of REH’s excellent tales of Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier (nowadays known as the part of Pakistan where Osama bin Laden hides and the US drops bombs, sometimes inaccurately). The hero of the yarns is Francis X. Gordon, an El Paso gunslinger who traveled east and now lives with the Afridi tribe. Known as El Borak (the Swift) by the Afghans, he is a character from the Wild West in the Wild East.
The tales here lean on the fantastic side. There are plenty of crooked Europeans, international spies, and foreign agents. REH was a fantasy writer, he created larger than life heroes with larger than life adventurers, and they couldn’t be fenced in. The title tale involves El Borak with a lost city founded by no less than Alexander the Great, and still inhabited by Ancient Greeks! The collection leads off with "The Daughter of Erlik Khan", another “lost city” adventure involving a pair of English desperadoes, an old friend of El Borak’s, a horde of Turkoman bandits, and a tribe of devil worshippers. Alliances make and break with dizzying speed in this one. The third tale, "Hawk of the Hills", is a straight up range-war story. El Borak’s Afridi friends have been treacherously attacked and now they’re fighting back. But a British diplomat has showed up to end the fighting. El Borak has to show him that not all things are equal in tribal warfare. El Borak is the sort of REH character who cuts through prevarication to separate right from wrong. The wrongdoers are punished and the innocents are protected. We could use El Borak today.
This is a great little collection. While a number of El Borak tales are back in print, there is no one collection that gives El Borak the attention he deserves. It’s a great pity, so beg, borrow or steal a copy of this one.
PS Since this was written, Del Rey has published El Borak and other Desert Adventures, containing all that is in this volume and more. -DH