This Del Rey trade paperback original collection, ‘Sword Woman And Other Historical Adventures’, consists of number of stories and a few poems and fragments along with interesting essays on where the works first appeared and who influenced Robert E. Howard’s historical tales. The stories are a stylish precursor to the sword and sorcery stories, Conan et al, Howard was to write later. It is worth noting, in each case, the historical accuracy as it is this which distinguishes the yarns from the pure fantasy of made-up worlds. They were mostly published in ‘Oriental Stories’, a magazine put out by Farnsworth Wright, editor of ‘Weird Tales’. Sadly, mainly for Robert E. Howard, the magazine only lasted four years and some of these tales remained unpublished in his lifetime. In a brief survey of this 550 page tome, I shall pick out the highlights, of which there are many.
The book opens with an interesting introduction by Scott Oden, well worth reading, but the first story is ‘Spears Of Clontarf’, a tale of mighty Irishmen. Brian Boru, king of the Gaels, is moving against King Sitric of Dublin, a Viking, and Sitric’s seafaring allies are gathering for the slaughter. Conn, our hero, fell out with Brian Boru a while back and is now in thrall to a Norseman but the coming battle is too big to miss. He kills his master and makes his way back to Ireland to fight at Brian’s side. History and Wikkipedia tell us that King Brian confronted his enemies at Clontarf, near Dublin, on Good Friday in 1014, so the background is broadly true. Howard conveys the slaughter with his usual style.
This Gaelic malarkey is followed by a number of stories about the crusades. ‘Hawks Over Egypt’ is set in Cairo in 1021 AD and features assorted Moors, Turks, Franks and others all trying to kill, kidnap, loot or double cross each other in various ways. We sometimes think our modern cosmopolitanism is a new thing and forget that many an ancient metropolis was just as much a melting pot as New York. Trade, slavery and war led to a mingling of different types in the great cities of the past.
‘The Road Of Azrael’ is another tale of the orient, as Howard called it. Eric de Cogran is a knight who at the sacking of Jerusalem, spared the life of a boy called Kosru Malik, merely because he was sick of slaughter. They meet later in different circumstances but Malik has not forgotten the good deed. ‘The Road Of Azrael’ is a story of intrigue which gets very complicated so you might lose the plot. I think I did. According to the Howard Andrew Jones, who contributes an excellent essay at the end of the book, Howard learned many techniques for his historical fiction from the great Harold Lamb, who published regularly in the pulps of the time and is still well regarded today. In these stories, there are often three or four characters with different interests, all trying to betray one another while making loose alliances as circumstances alter. A sneaky lot.
In the ‘The Lion Of Tiberius’, it is John Norwald, a northern Englishman with the blood of Danes in his veins, who was spared by a kindly enemy. This time it was the Muslim who was merciful, one Ahmet, the son of an emir. Zenghi esh Shami is the lion of the title, famous for his deeds at the siege of that city. Zenghi is not nice. In truth, this was one of the most bloodthirsty of a pretty gory collection of tales. You could get away with a lot in the pulp fiction of the 1930s it seems, as with the other arts. Censorship came in later decades.
In ‘Hawks Of Outremer’, the hero is Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, a Norman-Gael with a mane of black hair, steely blue eyes and a low brow. Cormac disdains to use weapons on a foul man who has been torturing a lithe, scantily-clad wench in a dungeon. When the weed attacks him with a dagger, he simply squeezes the villain’s wrist so tight that the bones are crushed blood comes out of his fingertips. Then he squeezes the villain’s throat, ‘grinding flesh and vertebrae to a crimson pulp.’ Cormac is stronger than Conan, it seems. He may be stronger than the Hulk (Incredible not Hogan). Saladin features in this as a noble gentleman. Howard is often accused of racism but in the historical fiction, his Moslems are frequently depicted as decent chaps and his Franks are sometimes treacherous. He was fair, overall.
Cormac features again in ‘The Blood Of Belshazzar’, joining the outlaw band of Skol Abdhur, the butcher, and he’s not called that because he knows how to joint a chicken. Oh no. He rips the eyeball out of a slow slave before dinner. Skol owns the blood of Belshazzar, a ruby beyond price that has a terrible history. Is it cursed? You decide. Like many other Howard yarns this was turned into a ‘Conan’ story by Roy Thomas at Marvel Comics.
‘Red Blades Of Black Cathay’ has Godric de Villehard on a mission to the far east to find the kingdom of Prester John. He rescues a princess from bandits and she takes him back to Black Cathay, a portion of the slightly dismembered Chinese empire currently under threat from Genghis Khan. Like Saladin and Tamerlane in the next story, Genghis gets quite favourable treatment from the author. Slaughtering was par for the course at the time and Robert Ervin Howard is happy to give you a favourable write up as long as you were good at it. I think if his fantasies had not had an outlet in adventure fiction, he might have gone round lopping the heads off his fellow Texans with a mighty broadsword, laughing all the while.
In ‘Lord of Samarcand’, we meet Donald MacDeesa, a Scottish warrior who is so mean and grumpy he makes Conan look like a joyous optimist. When the Franks fall before the Muslims in the Battle of Nicopolis, he escapes and is recruited by a Mongol warrior, impressed by his strength, and taken to Samarcand to serve the great Emperor Tamerlane. Donald MacDeesa lacked even the slight redeeming features that make Howard heroes a little bit likeable and I didn’t much care for him but the story was of the usual high quality.
‘Sword Woman’ is the piece after which the book is named, perhaps to pull in female readers. In life, Howard did not have much to do with the ladies and his mighty men do not usually treat them with great respect. Yet he had a knack for creating strong female characters now and then, tough wenches who can outfight most men and are glad to do so. They generally regard men as comrades rather than lovers and are not so gentle as women are traditionally meant to be. Agnès de Chastillon is one such. Her father beats her regularly and on the day she is due to marry a fat pig of a man, her elder sister slips her a dagger with which to commit suicide. Instead, she stabs the husband-to-be and runs away. She then falls in with various rogues and mercenaries and finds she has a talent for fighting. The future beckons.
‘Blades for France’ is the future for Agnès de Chastillon and the particular rogue she fell in with at the end of ‘Sword Woman.’ The events take place just a few days after the preceding yarn and it’s another tale of treachery, heroism and gory swordsmanship or rather swordswomanship, which my spellchecker – programmed no doubt by a man – won’t accept. Agnès was good fun to read about but she’s not the sort you would take home to meet mother.
‘The Shadow Of The Vulture’ features another female warrior and a German hero, Gottfried von Kalmbach. Gottfried is targeted by Suleiman the Magnificent as one who dealt the mighty emperor a wounding blow at the Battle of Mohacz. Suleiman wants the German’s head and his loyal servant, the Grand Vizier, duly dispatches Mikhal Oglu, known as the Vulture, to get it. Gottfried flees to Vienna and takes part in the defence of that city against Suleiman’s huge army in 1529. He is aided in this by a fierce scarlet-haired swordswoman named Red Sonya, who claims to be sister to Roxelana, a former harem girl who is now the mighty emperor’s queen. This is a great story and full, too, of real life historical characters and action to give it greater depth. It, too, was made into a ‘Conan’ story by Roy Thomas.
‘The Road Of The Eagles’ is a convoluted tale of assorted outlaws trying to capture the brother of a sultan. Usually, when a sultan died, the one who inherited the title killed all his brothers and their entire families so there would be no future contest for the throne. This was a bit brutal but did avoid civil wars. Sometimes a merciful sultan might put a popular brother in jail instead or send him away west as a hostage. Prince Orkhan is the brother of a sultan and is exiled in a mountain fortress. Corsairs, Cossacks and Turkomans fight among themselves to capture him. It was well told, as usual, but lacked focus as the reader’s sympathies are not directed to any particular protagonist. Not that Howard’s heroes usually deserve or would want sympathy.
If, like me, you did not cover this period of world history very well at school, it’s not a bad idea to research some of this on the Internet to enrich your appreciation of the story. According to the essay by Howard Andrew Jones that concludes the book, Howard (Robert E.) did his best to learn the relevant history before embarking on this side of his career but was hampered by the lack of resources in rural Texas. He learned a lot from reading Lamb but also wrote to the editors of ‘Adventure’ magazine, which published Lamb’s stories, to ask questions about the background facts. Robert would probably have given his right arm for the Internet.
The illustrations are of oddly mixed quality. Some are excellent and some look pretty crude but they are all by the same chap, John Watkiss. I imagine he varied his style to suit the tale. A not inconsiderable number look like they could be panels from ‘The Savage Sword Of Conan’, but I suppose this is inevitable. Overall, this is a very good quality presentation from Del Rey of some excellent adventurous historical fiction. Like many anthologies, it is best taken in small bites, else your head will spin like a dervish as you struggle with the many strange names. But they are delicious bites, mostly.
(pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 547 page enlarged paperback. Price: $18.00 (US), $20.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-50546-0)
check out website: www.delreybooks.com