Born in the Shadow of Howard
By Scott Oden
With the advent of the Assassin’s Creed movie in theaters, this week, I’ve been roaming around the Internet hawking my 2010 novel The Lion of Cairo – oft-described as very much Assassin’s Creed-like. In it, a prince of Alamut called the Emir of the Knife is dispatched to aid the young Fatimid Caliph of Cairo against a host of enemies, both inside his palace walls and beyond. One reviewer said that it was “filled to the brim with assassins and concubines, caliphs and street thugs, the devout and the heretical. It’s partly a swashbuckling historical, partly a tale of palace intrigue, partly a fast and furious espionage yarn.” I would agree, but with this qualification: it is a tale of fantasy. The history is stretched thin over a skeleton built with bones scavenged from Robert E. Howard’s Crusader tales (especially “Gates of Empire”), Burton’s The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, the work of scholars like Dr. Helen Nicholson and Dr. David Nicolle, and Orientalist artwork of the last century. More than that, it is an active homage to the aforementioned Robert E. Howard – a writer I’ve often looked to for guidance, inspiration, and sheer enjoyment.
The Lion of Cairo was born in early 2007. In late 2006, I had submitted a synopsis for a secondary-world fantasy featuring an Orcish protagonist to a friend who was also an editor at St. Martin’s Press. He called me to reject it, and to put a bug in my ear: “Why not a novel like those old pulps? Something medieval, like the Assassins as imagined by REH?” The bug bit; over the Holidays I hammered out a nine page synopsis. This, in due course, was also rejected. “More!” my editor exhorted. “Dig deeper! Make it memorable, and give me more detail!”
So I did. The next iteration of the synopsis came to a whopping nineteen thousand words – thirty-eight pages detailing the travails of the Caliph, the grim work of the Emir of the Knife, the evils of Ibn Sharr, the heroism of Parysatis and the tragedy of the Gazelle. The ending was left open, as this was meant to be the first book of a trilogy. My editor loved it, resulting in a four-book contract (book four was my Orc fantasy – which, by the by, will hit shelves on 20 June 2017 as A Gathering of Ravens).
The skeleton decided upon, what came after is best described as a paean to the memory of REH. The Emir of the Knife became a killer without remorse, his morals dictated by necessity; the tool of his trade, a yard-long salawar (also known as a Khyber knife), became a relic of an earlier age, imbued with sentient hate against all things living and requiring an iron will to keep its wielder from degenerating into madness. The head of a rival order of Assassins, the enigmatic Ibn Sharr, became a necromancer searching for the sorcery of Elder Egypt; his right hand, an apostate Christian called the Heretic, turned into the Emir’s equal. And sprinkled throughout were references to Howard’s Oriental tales.
Though the book never found a wide audience, it nevertheless taught me much about the art of long-form fiction. Prior to The Lion of Cairo I wrote by the seat of my pants; planning, if I planned at all, was only a chapter at a time. Lion taught me that I could write about a novel (in synopsis form) and then actually go forth and write it. Carving the bones beforehand helped me focus on the words, themselves. On the prose. With the pressure of plotting removed, I discovered something of a poet buried in my soul. Everything came together like literary alchemy, and the result was, in my opinion, the strongest book I’d written to date (an opinion which has since been amended after writing A Gathering of Ravens).
So, if you enjoy Assassin’s Creed, game or movie, or the work of Robert E. Howard, or swashbuckling historical sword-and-sorcery, then perhaps you will find The Lion of Cairo also to your liking. Thanks to my excellent host, and thank you for reading!
Charles says: Thank you, Scott! For more info on Lion of Cairo and Scott's other works, check out these links.
The Lion of Cairo (Kindle version): https://www.amazon.com/Lion-Cairo-Scott-Oden-ebook/dp/B003P2WJ1I/ref=pd_sbs_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=09TCKFPXT9J0YC0M7831
The Eye of Oden website: https://scottoden.wordpress.com/
Publisher’s website: http://us.macmillan.com/books/9781429927727