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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient (The Works of Robert E. Howard)

Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient (The Works of Robert E. Howard)

by Robert Ervin Howard (Author), Rusty Burke (Editor)

Publisher: Bison Books (April 1, 2005)

ISBN-10: 080327355X


Later in his writing career, Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane), apparently became more and more interested in history, and more specifically, in writing historical fiction. He was apparently working more on that sort of writing prior to his untimely demise, and reading this collection just reemphasizes how much the world lost when Howard took his life.


In the stories in this collection, Howard’s focus is on the Crusades. He moves back and forth in that time period, but there is clearly something about the clash of Western Christendom, Islam, and the nomadic tribes of Asia Minor that Howard finds absolutely fascinating. In a sense, Howard is just continuing his fascination with the conflict between civilization and barbarism, but on a more historical scale.


Howard himself acknowledges that these stories are much darker than some of his other works; many of the protagonists are not heroes, but are instead reasonably selfish bastards who, if they end up doing a good deed, do it mostly for selfish reasons. There are a few exceptions, but by and large, these are not stories about nice people. Nor are they all happy stories—tragedy, death, and failure crop up with reasonable regularity. It’s not all sadness and loss, but the stories definitely have a darker tone than some of his earlier works. I really enjoyed them.


Howard does a wonderful job of bringing his characters and the world they inhabit to life in a vivid and exciting fashion. While some of his historical details are probably a bit off, there aren’t any major glaring errors or oddities. The same dark humor and fast-paced action that is found in his Conan stories are still here, though the violence is sometimes even darker and grimmer than in the tales of the barbarian turned king. Some of the earlier stories have a very Conan-eqsue feel to them, including one story with a cult and the old temple of some forgotten god that could have been lifted right out of Hyboria.


If I have a complaint about these stories (and I have very few), it would be that many of the various protagonists in these stories do start to blend together a bit. There are three to five different “grim European knights/warriors exiled from their homeland”, and after a few stories, I started to lose track of who was who. I suppose it would have made little sense to have the same character survive five centuries of crusades, but it did get a bit frustrating, on occasion.


Still, it was a minor quibble in an otherwise wonderful series of stories. Howard continues to impress.


Major reading projects now on hold, as I am moving soon.

The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

by Sydney Anglo

Publisher: Yale University Press (August 11, 2000)

ISBN-10: 0300083521




In any case, thanks to a recent trip experience with the airline industries fantastic scheduling skills, I was finally able to put a couple of books to rest. I will start with this one, because it’s been the longest in coming.

Like a lot of young boys, I went through a phase of thinking that the medieval European knight was the coolest thing ever. Unlike a lot of young boys, I don’t seem to have grown out of that phase. And, as all young boys know, one of the coolest things about knights is that they fight. With swords! And axes! And lances, maces, flails, and other various instruments of personal destruction. Net result? Knights are AWESOME. At the end of the the day, I love them more than Ninja (that statement may result in me being lynched by the intarweb, but there it is).

Being a practicing martial artist, I eventually came to the question of “how the heck did knights fight?” at which point I realized that a lot of my points of reference came mostly from Hollywood and other similarly lousy sources. So I decided to look into the matter, and by some means I’ve long since forgotten, came across Sydney Anglo’s extremely comprehensive work.

This is a great book, IF YOU ARE INTO THIS SORT OF THING. I highlight that fact because this is a fairly serious, scholarly text. It is about 400 pages long, and is much larger than the average hardcover novel. It has footnotes, citations, and all sorts of other things that you will not find in your average pop history book. If you do not have the stamina or patience for that sort of thing, this book will not be fun for you.

If you do have the patience for that sort of thing, however, you’ll find this to be a fun and interesting insight into the actual practices of medieval European warriors. Anglo works his way through a variety of topics and ideas, starting with broader problems such as historical methods of writing about martial arts practice, and then narrowing things down to look at specific methods on unarmed combat, sword fighting, jousting, and other topics pertinent to the medieval knight (and his modern fan base). Anglo’s writing is fairly scholarly, but not so dense as to make the reading difficult, and he has a very dry wit that pokes through at just the right moments.

Statistically, I suspect the audience for this one is rather limited—if you aren’t into martial arts, medieval history, or (probably ideally) both, this book won’t offer you much. If you’re a martial artist, this book will give you a great introduction to a variety of arts that are generally poorly understood. If you’re a medievalist, this book will give you some great insight into a different aspect of medieval European culture. If neither of those things interests you, leave this one on the shelf.

Next Review: Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient