The Lion of Cairo by Scott Oden
“The sun hung in the blood-red sky like a misshapen lump of copper, its edges blackened, its face radiating waves of excruciating heat over a landscape ravaged by war.” … Welcome to Egypt!! The Lion of Cairo takes place, well, mainly in Cairo of course! It's the middle of the twelfth century, during the times of the Crusades. On Cairo's throne sits a young Caliph, but his vizier is the one in power. He keeps the Caliph drugged so that he can plot and scheme his way towards the throne. This doesn't sit well with Alamut, master of the al-Hashishiyya, who realises a strong and united Egypt is required if they want to get rid of the Crusaders. To this end he sends Assad, an experienced assassin, to protect the Caliph from harm and to sow fear in his enemies' hearts. Most of the book takes place in 2-3 days, and very hectic ones at that! The allies of the Caliph have to act quickly if they're to prevent their drugged liege from being discarded. And if the threat of the vizier isn't enough, news also reaches them of two approaching armies and the presence of the rivalling clan of al-Hashishiyya in Cairo. And what is a story about Egypt without a curse?
Scott Oden was clearly inspired by The Thousand and One Nights but luckily The Lion Of Cairo doesn't take as long to read! The story is fast-paced and full of action, with never a dull moment. The vocabulary made it quite hard to read though, Scott Oden is obviously well-read on the topic but for someone who's not it's quite hard to keep track of all the Arabian terminology. With all the ibn's and al-'s it was harder to understand the names at first, so I had a quite a few “Wait a minute, wasn't he the guy who…”-moments.
However, the story is very strong, the characters really adapt and make new plans in a realistic way. Assad certainly hasn't got an easy road ahead of him, just because he's the main character. And all the characters have their flaws and problems, for some it feels like the world is at an end while others are prone to overconfidence. Neither are they invincible, something that some writers don't understand. What I missed most in this book was any form of humour though, and I feel like a little black humour would've added a lot to the quality of the book.
The way of writing reminded me a lot of David Gemmell, because of its maturity. The world is dark, full of people who only care about their own gain. The combat is neither glorified nor fair, and quite gory. From time to time Assad gets flash-backs to when he fought to defend a city besieged by Templars, and those sure don't paint a pretty sight!
Artfully blending history, myth and adventure, Lion of Cairo offers a refreshing new stage for an epic to unfold. The ending has some loose ends and I look forward to reading the sequel to this story. It's not often after all that you read such an interesting and detailed story in an Egyptian setting!
This The Lion of Cairo book review was written by Koen Peters
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