Thursday, July 24, 2014

Cossacks vs. Pirates vs. Turks

I was in Turkey recently with a group from my church, helping out with a Vacation Bible School for the children of missionaries. So I figured reading something set in Turkey would be appropriate.

I did read Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad just before the trip over there, since it does include a hilarious account of his visit to Constantinople. But while in Turkey, I re-visited Robert E Howard's "The Road of the Eagles."

This particular story was unpublished in Howard's life time and first saw the light of day (sort of) in 1955, when L. Sprague de Camp re-wrote it into a Conan story. But the original version, set on and near the Black Sea in the year 1595, is the better story.

It involves a band of Cossacks who are pursuing a crew of Algerian corsairs. The corsairs, led by the brutal Osman Pasha, had raided the Cossacks' village and killed their leader. The background to all this--specifically how an Algerian pirate ended in the Black Sea--is unveiled to us later in the story and helps give the tale a unique flavor. 

As the story opens, the Cossacks and the corsairs have whittled each other down quite a bit. In fact, each party is their own badly damaged and rapidly sinking ship after a ship-to-ship duel ends without a clear-cut victor. Both ships limb towards shore.

With all the Cossack officers dead, a warrior named Ivan Sablianka takes over. Ivan is another factor in giving the story flavor--he's a tremendous warrior, but he's not a really effective leader. But he's all the Cossacks have while they still attempt to take Osman Pasha's head.

Osman, in the meantime, has fallen in with a 16th-Century femme fatale named Ayesha, which in turn leads him into a plot to team up with some Turkish warriors and rescue a prince from a remote castle. The prince, named Orkhan, is the brother of the current Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The idea is to use Osman's corsairs as the core of a rebellion intending to put Orkhan on the throne.

To do this, Osman Pasha has to not just rescue the prince, but avoid getting beheaded by Ivan. The Cossack might not be the best qualified leader, but he's determined and very, very hard to stop.

After the plot takes a few twists and turns, the story ends with an exciting battle described in Howard's usual vivid and fast-moving prose. Ivan and Osman finally meet face-to-face in a duel. Here, both their respective skill with swords AND their backgrounds come into play. Because Ivan isn't a native Cossack and Osman isn't a native Algerian--this will have an interesting effect on the story's conclusion.

Howard was a fan of Harold Lamb's fiction, which often involved Cossacks. I suspect that "The Road of the Eagles" is at least in part a product of Howard's admiration of Lamb. But Howard's own visceral voice dominates the tale. "The Road of the Eagles" showcases Howard's strengths as a storyteller, giving us a strong plot, interesting characters and great action set pieces.

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