As part of my author guest blog series I am proud to present another guest blog spot. The Lion of Cairo I am very excited andthe author of
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The Impenitent Killer
By Scott Oden
Conflict is the beating heart of good fiction, and the most primal sort of conflict involves the application of physical violence. Over the eleven-year span of my professional career, I’ve written all manner of violent characters, from heroes preoccupied with the accumulation of Glory to soldiers wearied by the endless wars; from kings and warlords who think in terms of campaigns to brigands and desperate men who think in terms of survival. All practitioners of the art of violence and all, in their own way, scarred by it. Characters who, in the long dark nights, saw the myriad faces of those they’d killed and asked their gods for absolution.
In 2007, when I sat down to write The Lion of Cairo, I was faced with a peculiar dilemma: I needed Assad, an Assassin and the book’s titular hero, to be ruthlessly unrepentant about killing. This was a first, for me. A character so sure of himself, so confident of the righteousness of his cause that his soul remained unburdened by the act of killing if the ends justified it. One character described Assad to another in these terms: “Imagine a lion – cold and predatory, a man-killer possessed of speed and strength. Now imagine that lion acquiring a man’s intellect, a saint’s patience, and a conqueror’s drive.”
But there’s a thin line between writing an impenitent killer like Assad and writing a flat-out sociopath. As with most of my characters, I started with a fully-formed image – a solitary figure stands at the mouth of an alley: a tall man, scarred of face and clad in a ragged white turban and a green khalat. The hilt of a knife juts from the sash about his lean waist. It is an Afghan salawar, long and straight, its ivory pommel carved with the leering face of a djinni – and worked backward to fill in blanks regarding his past. He was a soldier, I discovered, recruited from “the iron crucible of Palestine”, and from al-Hashishiyya he learned “to kill silently, quickly, and without remorse.” Still, he needed just enough humanity and emotion to make him someone readers perhaps could connect with, but not so much that regret would haunt his thought processes. Thus, when he kills the courtesan of Palmyra at the beginning of the book – who was herself enlisted to poison him – we read that he “felt a pang of sadness” at her death. “Despite her treachery, she’d been a pleasant companion. Yet, pleasant or not, Safia had chosen her path.”
Assad walks that thin line like a veteran funambulist – his sociopathic tendencies softened by self-awareness; his instinct for committing violence tempered by recognition of the mystique he’s wrought for himself. He is the Emir of the Knife, faceless to the enemies of Alamut; a sinister shadow who wields a long Afghan knife. With that, he can sometimes win a fight before steel is ever drawn. But even the most impenitent killer needs a weak spot, an Achilles’ Heel, a small fissure in his armor that allows for the possibility of change and growth. For Assad, it is the siege of Ascalon from his youth:
“I was but a common soldier, my lord, younger than you are now, when the Infidel king of Jerusalem decided to take Ascalon, to deprive Egypt of its last port in the Levant near enough to mount an expedition on his lands. Not long past Midsummer that year, a Frankish fleet from Sidon blockaded our harbor, though the siege only began in earnest when the machines of Jerusalem’s God-forsaken champions, the Templars, commenced their vile work – day and night, they flung stones and incendiaries at the walls. We endured this for five months and more. But, at sunset on the one-hundred-and-sixty-eighth day, the Infidel breached the Great Gate of Ascalon, and throughout the night wave after wave of Nazarenes hurled themselves against it. We could not hold.
“Some eight thousand souls died during the siege, from injury and illness; we lost countless more at the breach. The rest, untold thousands, were slaughtered in the streets, fighting the Nazarenes from house to house. We set the price high, and the Infidel paid for each cubit of Ascalon’s soil with a pound of flesh. I know not how many others escaped, for at the end the Templars offered no quarter and took no prisoners. So, yes, my lord. I understand those soldiers who fight on though their cause may be lost—and whatever pity I have left to me I reserve not for those fated to die, but for those destined to live. The men who survive this will never know another night’s peace. Nor will another day pass without them asking of themselves ‘what more could I have done?’”
And that is my take on the impenitent killer: a borderline sociopath who believes wholly in his cause, believes he is justified in taking the lives of the enemies of his master in distant Alamut, but retains enough basic humanity that he can feel a sense of regret over his actions – though he is never crippled by it. Whether I succeeded in making Assad a character readers can empathize with and feel sympathy for, I leave for others to decide.
Who is Scott Oden?
Good question. Oden is the author of four novels, two historical fiction (Men of Bronze and Memnon) and two fantasy with a strong historical bent (The Lion of Cairo and A Gathering of Ravens), a couple of short stories, and a few non-fiction articles and introductions (notably, the introduction to Del Rey’s Robert E. Howard collection, Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures). Oden is a sad victim of Golden-Age Thinking and would rather live as an expatriate writer in 1920’s Paris . . .
Oden’s previous works include the historical fantasy, The Lion of Cairo, and two historical novels, Men of Bronze and Memnon. He is currently working on his next novel.
The Assassin paid no heed to his quarry’s death throes. His attention remained fixed on the long blade in his fist, on its pommel of yellowed ivory carved in the shape of a djinni’s snarling visage. “I am al-Hashishiyya,” he said to the glittering-eyed devil. “I am Death incarnate.”
So am I, the devil replied . . .
On the banks of the ageless Nile, from a palace of gold and lapis lazuli, the young Caliph Rashid al-Hasan rules as a figurehead over a crumbling empire. Cairo is awash in deception. In the shadow of the Gray Mosque, generals and emirs jockey for position under the scheming eyes of the powerful grand vizier. In the crowded souks and narrow alleys, warring factions employ murder and terror to silence their opponents. Egypt bleeds. And the scent draws her enemies in like sharks: the swaggering Kurd, Shirkuh, who serves the pious Sultan of Damascus and Amalric, the Christian king of Jerusalem whose greed is insatiable and whose knights are hungry for battle.
And yet, all is not lost. There is an old man who lives on a remote mountainside in a distant land. He holds the power of life and death over the warring factions of the Muslim world – and decides to come to the Caliph’s aid. He sends his greatest weapon into Egypt. He sends a single man. An Assassin. The one they call the Emir of the Knife….
In this lighting-paced epic, bestselling author Scott Oden masterfully blends history and adventure in the style of Robert E. Howard. Bringing medieval Cario, the true jewel of the Arabian Nights, to exhilarating life, full of intrigue and thunderous battle, Oden resurrects one of the Ancient World’s most beautiful and beguiling countries.
“The mark of exceptional historical fiction is its creation of an alien world so convincing (and peopled by such fascinating characters) that the reader never wants to go back to the real world. Scott Oden delivers exactly that in The Lion of Cairo, a tale of Assad the assassin that reads like a cross between the Arabian Nights and a Hollywood blockbuster. Memnon and Men of Bronze put Mr. Oden squarely on the hist/fiction map. The Lion of Cairo assures his place in the very front rank.” —Steven Pressfield, New York Times bestselling author of Gates of Fire
“The Lion of Cairo is 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. A terrific trip into Cairo’s exotic past. Just pray that the Emir of the Knife is on your side…” –David Anthony Durham, award-winning author of Pride of Carthage
“A fabulous medieval adventure with plenty of swords and a hint of sorcery in the form of a demon-haunted sword that reminds me a bit of the one owned by Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné. Assassins and crusaders, caliphs, viziers and courtesans mix it up in a vividly recreated desert world.” –HistoricalFictionOnline.com
Praise for Scott Oden:
“Oden’s masterful story of bloody battles, political intrigues, betrayal and romance offers a gripping portrait of the collapse of an empire.” –Publisher’s Weekly (starred review) on Men of Bronze
“Fast, tense and exciting, Men of Bronze brings to life a fascinating moment in world history, the descriptions are terrific and the final, climactic battlefield scene is just brilliant.” — Conn Iggulden