Ever look at a time in history and think to yourself, “I could write a killer story about an assassin during that time”? Scott Oden does this and so much more in his novel The Lion of Cairo, set in time of Amalric I of Jerusalem and stars the assassin (al-hashishiyya) named Assad.
Assad is the owner of a possessed sword, which seems to Assad to be alive and has a never-ending thirst for blood and vengeance, which fits the assassin’s personality just fine. Assad, who is on the path to kill the vizier of Baghdad until his longtime friend and lieutenant of the head of the al-hashishiyya arrives and gives him a new mission: befriend the Caliph of Cairo, a task most ill-suited for an assassin. Nonetheless, Assad accepts his mission and sets out at once for the massive city on the Nile.
The setting is, naturally, during the Crusades (if you haven’t already figured that one out) and everyone mentioned in the book either did exist (Amalric of Jerusalem, for one example) or probably did (Assad and others). However, it is not a historical fiction novel so much as it is a historical fantasy, for there are demons and necromancers scattered throughout. These little tidbits delight the history geek in me as I caught myself wondering if the person was real or not. However, even those pale in comparison to the pure joy of reading about Assad.
So rarely does a non-European character come to life as thoroughly as Assad does. The author makes Assad leap of the pages, his fury and rage perfectly balanced with his desire to accomplish the goal set by his Hidden Master of Alamut, the region of the al-hashishiyya. Assad is also very determined and single-minded in his goals, something every hero should be. However, Assad is more the anti-hero, a bad man doing work for a cause that can be good or bad. Combine all this with the author’s perfect detail about historical Cairo and the speech patterns and inflections, and you have a book that should be the talk of the town. This book would be a great read for anyone who loves conspiracy or history, or even has a passing interest in the Crusades. Because despite what history has led us to believe, there was much more going on during the time of the Crusades than simply the capture of Jerusalem.
The writing is clean and the pace is fantastic, the scenes building up as Assad dodges both dangers and a rival assassin as he struggles to befriend the Caliph of Cairo. Throw in murder and conspiracies in the court of the young Caliph (who doesn’t know what’s going on, opium in the wine tends to do that to you) and you’ve got everything the modern reader desires. The characters are believable and draw you into the story.
The first book of a trilogy, The Lion of Cairo reminds one of a smarter The Da Vinci Code, along with having better characters than Dan Brown’s work. The action is real, the smells and sounds of Cairo are alive on the pages and the people are very, very real. They are both noble and petty, cultured and savage. I could easily read this book over and over again.
This is a must-buy book. The author has something special here.
–Reviewed by Jason