Historian, pulp and adventure writer, as well as screen writing darling in the early 20th century, Harold Lamb‘s fiction is kith and kin with that of younger contemporary Robert E. Howard. But, where Howard blended fantasy elements, Lamb was a fastidious fan of historical detail. And yet, his stories of the Crusades and even the 17th century read like heroic fantasy fiction, as if the magic and gods people believed to be out and about were very real to the world where their absence was silently noted.
“The Edge of a Sword”, from Riders of the Steppe, is a tale of Cossacks and boyars and swords and talk of magic and full contact class warfare, and it’s pretty wicked. While there’s sword fighting and talk of curses and magic inscriptions on swords, it’s the life of the 17th century Steppe that makes the take so vibrant and alive. The massive distance people traveled, and how foreign lands might as well be Narnia to those who’s whole lives were lived around a village well. It’s historical fiction that reads like fantasy, I suppose, and while not lacking in the kind of biases and whatnot WASP types tend to inflict on their historical understandings of foreign cultures, this was perhaps the first time I’d read about a Cossack being a rough and tumble rogue with a heart of gold who fights for a personal code of honor. So, kudos to Harold Lamb. I hope the rest of the stories are up to this standard.