Lion of Cairo

Scott Oden

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, which I have also reviewed, 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, murder, assassination, conspiracy, 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) may have an exciting role ahead of him.

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