Thursday, August 25, 2011
The Lion of Cairo by Scott Oden
On the banks of the ageless Nile, from a palace of gold and lapis lazuli, the young Fatimid Caliph Rashid al-Hasan rules as a figurehead over a crumbling empire. Cairo is awash in intrigues. In the shadow of the Gray Mosque, generals and emirs jockey for position under the scheming eyes of the powerful grand vizier, Jalal; in the crowded Souk, these factions use murder and terror to silence their opposition. Egypt bleeds and the scent draws her enemies in like sharks: Shirkuh, the swaggering Kurd who serves the pious and severe Sultan of Damascus, and Amalric, the Christian king of Jerusalem whose insatiable greed knows no bounds.
Yet, the Caliph of Cairo has an unexpected ally - an old man who lives on a remote Asian mountaintop, a place where eagles fear to tread. This benefactor, the Shaykh al-Jabal, the Old Man of the Mountain, holds the ultimate power of life and death over the warring factions of the Moslem world, and he sends his greatest weapon into Egypt.
He sends Caliph Rashid al-Hasan, a single man. An Assassin. The one they call the Emir of the Knife . . .
As a long-standing fan of Scott Oden, having read both Memnon and Men of Bronze long before the existence of MFB, I was really pleased to have received a copy of The Lion of Cairo to read and review.
What struck me the most about Lion of Cairo is the rich detailed settings and how I could close my eyes and feel the heat of the sun and hear the whisper of sandalled feet on marble floors of a Cairene palace. I never doubted, for a moment, that I had been transported across time to a world filled with beautiful mysterious harem girls, wily politicians involved in devious political plots and where my only possible ally is an assassin with a fearsome reputation.
The thing about the author, Scott Oden, is that he has an eye for detail. He writes from a wide cinematic viewpoint, then narrows it down minutely, to the extent where you feel you've become thoroughly involved in the characters and the story.
Out of the cast of characters we spend time with in The Lion of Cairo, it is Assad the assassin, the Emir of the Knife that is the most intriguing. We learn only a few facts about Assad but we come to realise that he is honourable, he keeps his word, he is utterly ruthless, he hates the infidels for invading his country, and that his loyalty to his master and his master's plan is unflinching. I found myself genuinely liking Assad and rooting for him in his task of assisting the young Caliph.
The other cast of characters, all secondary when compared to Assad, are well defined. We have the thief lord's daughter, Zaynab, also known as the Gazelle for her beauty and grace, who is playing a very dangerous game as spy and manipulator on a scale she's not entirely prepared for. We also have a young inhabitant of the harem, Parysatis, whose dedication to the young Caliph, although she has never truly met him, is beyond question. It is through her overhearing a whispered conversation that the greater extent of the story is set in motion. She remains a believable constant throughout and I really came to like her. Yes, she had guts, but she was not kick-ass. Instead she did things quietly and with the help of her maid Yasmina, they caused the dangerous Jalal, a great deal of trouble.
I'm sad that I can't really explain to you how complex the plot is without falling back on well-worn cliché's. But it is complex, clever, layered and ultimately believable. I love Cairo and it has a special place in my heart and know of the places Oden writes about, having had the chance to visit some of them whilst we visited there. Even now, in modern times, there is a mystique to this city, for all it's noise, chaos and dirt, that just refuses to lie down and give up the ghost and I think this is also why I loved The Lion of Cairo so much.
I found it very interesting that our story is told entirely from a Muslim point of view, where we see the crusaders and the church as the actual invaders and devious manipulators we aren't really shown in other historical novels set during the crusades. This novel is very much the story of Assad and the young Caliph, but it is also very much a homage to one of the greatest cities on earth.
I cannot recommend this enough - as it has a bit of everything in it, great epic battles, hand to hand combat, budding romance, strife, hatred, evil politicians, magicians, creatures of darkness and light and a tiny tang of fantasy.
Right, I'm off to go and book my holiday to Egypt for next year. In the meantime, find Scott Oden's websites here - this is his older site and this is his new one. The Lion of Cairo is out now from Bantam Books here in the UK.