05 November, 2010

Lion of Cairo, by Scott Oden. Book review

Transworld, 2010, ISBN 978-0-593-06125-1. 410 pages.

Lion of Cairo is set in and around twelfth-century Cairo. Some of the secondary characters are based on historical figures – I recognised Amalric, King of Jerusalem, and the Syrian general Shirkuh, among others. There may also be other historical figures that I didn’t recognise. The main character, Assad, is fictional.

In Cairo, capital of a decaying empire, the young Caliph Rashid al-Hasan is kept a virtual prisoner in his own palace by his ambitious vizier Jalal. On Egypt’s border, a Syrian army led by a previous scheming vizier and the powerful general Shirkuh is poised to invade. Vizier Jalal is hatching a nefarious plot to ally with the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem against Syria, murder the Caliph, and seize the throne for himself. But he has reckoned without Assad, the greatest assassin of the age and owner of a legendary blade with malevolent supernatural power, who has been sent by the Hidden Master of Alamut to offer help and alliance to the Caliph. As well as the duplicitous Vizier Jalal and the two invading armies, Assad must also deal with a rival sect of assassins and their leader’s loathsome black magic – a task that will stretch even the formidable Emir of the Knife to his limits.

Like Men of Bronze by the same author, which I reviewed a while ago, Lion of Cairo is a blockbuster adventure in the tradition of Robert E Howard, to whom the novel is dedicated. “Action-packed” would be an understatement. Lion of Cairo is overflowing with spies, political intrigues, secret passages, rival sects, murders, assassinations, conspiracies, betrayals, duels and battle, with a helping of necromancy thrown in. It’s also a very dangerous novel to be a character in, as one might expect of a novel with an Assassin as the central character. This is a story in which political backstabbing isn’t a metaphor. The deaths start in the prologue and reach a truly impressive level by the end of the book. Combat scenes are frequent, detailed and graphic; readers who enjoy violent blow-by-blow fight scenes will find Lion of Cairo much to their taste.

The plot is intricately constructed, with several sub-plots that at first appear to be distinct but which cleverly converge to reach a climax at the final battle. The narrative cuts back and forth between sub-plots and different groups of characters, building suspense by always leaving one sub-plot on a cliffhanger when the scene switches to the next. So much is packed into the story that it’s hard to remember that the main events span only a few days.

Although the setting is medieval Cairo in the second half of the twelfth century, and some real historical events and real historical figures are featured, Lion of Cairo has the larger-than-life feel of a tale from the Arabian Nights. Assad’s fearsome knife, called The Hammer of the Infidel, has some evil supernatural power, which Assad himself does not fully understand (although there is a hint that one of the other characters does, and that this may be taken up in the sequel). The leader of the rival assassin sect in Cairo is a necromancer and black magician, who seems to be seeking occult knowledge among the forgotten remains of ancient Egypt.

In the Author’s Note, Scott Oden says “The Cairo presented herein is not the Cairo of history but rather the Cairo of Scheherezade – a city where the fantastic occurs around every corner.” And indeed it does – the city of Cairo is drawn so vividly that it is almost a character in its own right, a teeming metropolis filled with colour, glamour and squalor, where new buildings jostle for space with ruins of unimaginable antiquity, a city filled with the energy of life and with the risk of sudden, violent death. In its variety and vigour it reminds me a little of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, and trust me, that is a compliment.

The ending leaves clear scope for a sequel. There are still plenty of ambitious men with designs on Cairo, and the history of Assad’s mysterious knife is still to be resolved. Not to mention the appearance near the end of a charming and capable young man by the name of Yusuf ibn Ayyub, who (if I have identified him correctly) has an exciting role ahead of him.

Violent, action-packed adventure fantasy full of swords and sorcery, following in the heroic tradition of RE Howard.


Rick said...

I believe you are right about Yusuf ibn Ayyub, the young man who shows up near the end.

Besides being a fan of Robert E. Howard the author is clearly a fan of Egypt, and as from the previous review I get the sense of a firm grasp of the material he is playing with. I love "not the Cairo of history but rather the Cairo of Scheherezade."

Becky said...

This looks like a great one, to follow the current book I am reading, "Blood Soup" by Kelly A. Harmon- which has a story plot modeled after ancient Italy. Am always looking for great historical fictions. Thanks for the recommendation!

Gabriele Campbell said...

And another candidate for my To Buy-list. Well, since I liked Scott's previous books, it was going there sooner or later anyway. ;)

Carla said...

Rick - I rather hope I am :-) I was pleased with myself for spotting him. Yes, that's a great quote and sums up the tone of the book perfectly.

Becky - Hello and welcome. If you read Lion of Cairo, I'll be interested to hear what you think.

Gabriele - maybe if you ask Father Christmas nicely? If you enjoyed Men of Bronze and Memnon I think you'll probably enjoy Lion of Cairo too.

Scott Oden said...

Thank you for another nice and even-handed review, Carla! Glad to hear you enjoyed Lion!

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds like a great, juicy novel - I love the idea of all the intrigue, assassinations, betrayals...! I might have to ask Father Christmas for this one, too. :-)

Annis said...

Great review, Carla. I really enjoyed this novel and reviewed it for the Historical Novels Info website when it first came out. I love the way Oden takes elements from pulp fiction and mixes them up with those from modern media like film and gaming to create a fresh new interpretation of the sword-and-sorcery genre.

I was intrigued by Assad's salawar, which reminded me of Elric of Melnibone's bloodthirsty sentient sword, "Stormbringer". Scott Oden was kind enough to answer some questions I had about "Lion of Cairo", and he tells me that there will be more about the history of Assad's blade in a sequel, to be called "The Damascene Blade".

Carla said...

Scott - Glad you liked the review. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Kathryn - It's certainly an action-packed read, especially if you like graphic fight scenes. Never a dull moment.

Annis - That's good to hear - I thought it looked as if there would be more to come about Assad's legendary knife. Great title for the sequel :-)

Annis said...

Apparently a trilogy is planned- I wonder if the timeframe will allow for an appearance from Malek al-Inkitar as well?

Carla said...

I expect we'll have to wait and see on that one :-) He's two or three decades in the future, if I have guessed the approximate date right, so Assad would be getting on a bit by then, but not impossible.

Rick said...

Sad to say that Malek al-Inkitar has nothing like the 'admirable foe' reputation in the Arab world that Yusuf ibn Ayyub does in the West.

For mild entertainment value, a short bit on them I wrote for a website a couple of years ago.

Annis said...

Excellent article, Rick. I always thought it ironic that the model of the "parfait gentil knight" was a Saracen warrior :) He did swipe off Raynald de Chatillon's head, but who could blame him? He spared Guy de Lusignan, who could have easily shared the same fate.

The "Desert Fox", German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel comes to mind as a more recent example of an enemy leader admired for his daring, military skills and chivalry. The men of the British Eighth Army (my father-in-law was one) certainly regarded him with respect.

Carla said...

Rick - Thanks for the link. I didn't know Richard was a bogeyman to frighten naughty children :-)

Annis - Respect of one capable and honourable opponent for another is natural in some respects - two professionals both doing the same job. Field Marshal Rommel is a good example.

Rick said...

Not many missed Raynald de Chatillon!

Rommel does indeed fit into the same trope of 'admirable foe.'