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The Lion of Cairo
Scott Oden
Bantam Books, 496 pages

The Lion of Cairo
Scott Oden
Hailing from the hills of rural North Alabama, Scott Oden's fascination with far-off places began when his oldest brother introduced him to the staggering and savage vistas of Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb. Though Oden started writing his own tales at the age of fourteen, it would be many years before anything would come of it. In the meantime, he had a brief and tempestuous fling with academia before retiring to the private sector, where he worked the usual roster of odd jobs -- from delivering pizza to stacking paper in the bindery of a printing company to clerking at a video store. Nowadays, Oden writes full-time from his family home near Somerville.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil

'"We will find them as we found you, my friend. The dead keep no secrets." Bone grated as the intruder wrenched the blade free of al-Hajj's spine, twisted it, and sent the tip plunging into his heart.'
Aimed squarely at readers who love action combined with an historical setting, The Lion of Cairo uses the backdrop of mid-12th century Egypt during the Crusades. The ruling Caliph, Rashid al-Hasan, is losing his grip on power. Possible successors circle, attempting to murder their way to the top, watched by the scheming Grand Vizier. Amid the turmoil, the enemies of Egypt seek to take advantage, including Shirkuh, the strong arm of the Sultan of Damascus, and Crusader knights sent by the King of Jerusalem. The wild card is an old man, distant from Egypt, who is said to hold the power of life or death over the Moslem world. This man determines that he should assist the troubled Caliph, and to that end dispatches an assassin, known and feared as the Emir of the knife.

Not unlike Guy Gavriel Kay, Scott Oden has chosen a reasonably obscure historical context in which to place mostly fictional characters. Politics and assassination are always a fertile area and they are used well here, artfully combining in a volatile cocktail which also manages to turn an assassin into someone it does not feel entirely wrong to support. Again, I was put in mind of Kay's masterwork The Lions of Al-Rassan, and the assassin Ammar ibn-Khairan. Like Ammar, Oden's anti-hero Assad has little mercy for those who stand in his way, yet is by no means an uncaring stone cold killer. The cement that holds the story together is its credible medieval backdrop, which the author has taken care to keep as real as is feasible. This factor allows the work stand above those historical novels carelessly ruined by a 21st century feel. Another plus is that Oden's Muslim cast come across as authentic and with just enough depth to avoid them ever being the historical novel's equivalent to Star Trek red shirts. Many of those who cross Assad's path end up deader than a doornail, but the various killings mesh together to push the plot ever onwards. This drawing in of many threads also helps to make this adventure feel less like an Islamic Jack Bauer armed with a supernatural sword, and more like something that has the vital edge of believability. Detracting slightly from the realism are elements which bring to mind the games Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed, but that is easily forgiven due to the artful quality of Oden's darkly vivid, often bloody, and sometimes break-neck prose.

Scott Oden has done a good job, providing strong characterisation and an intriguing story which strongly hints at a sequel. Just about the only thing missing is any trace of black humour, which in some circumstances, I felt would have been appropriate. This minor issue aside, I can recommend The Lion of Cairo to readers already enamored by historically based fiction, and especially to those wanting to try the genre for the first time.

Copyright © 2012 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at

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