Scott Oden

An Interview with Scott Oden: Author of Lion of Cairo

Photo Credit: (c) Marcia DeFiore

Many thanks to Scott Oden for speaking with me today. If you read my review on Monday, you know Scott Oden is the author of “The Lion of Cairo.” He’s also written “Men of Bronze” and “Memnon,” both of which are historical. “Lion of Cairo” is an historical fantasy.
1.       Your opening scene in “Lion of Cairo” is the fight where Assad wins a special weapon. I can’t talk much about Assad without discussing this knife, so I hope you forgive the spoiler to the readers. Where did you get the idea of a djinn-possessed knife? (If that is, in fact, what’s within the blade.)
Assad’s knife — and ‘knife’ is something of a misnomer: the salawar, or Khyber knife, is roughly the same length as the Roman gladius — was inspired by Michal Moorcock’s devilish sword, Stormbringer, and the One Ring from Tolkien.  It’s not a djinn in the blade, precisely, but something a bit more sinister.  I hope to delve deeper into the blade’s history in the sequel to The Lion of Cairo, called The Damascene Blade.
Woo hoo!
2.       This is the first novel of yours I’ve read, but on your blog you cross back and forth between Orc-strewn fantasy and history. Is this your first foray into historical fantasy? Will there be other stories in this or other settings?
This is my first journey into fantasy, historical or otherwise.  My first two books, Men of Bronze (2005) and Memnon (2006) were straight-up historical fiction, but I’ve always had a desire to write sword-and-sorcery in the vein of Robert E. Howard.  That’s how Lion was brought into being: to answer the question of “how can I make Assassins cool?”  The setting of The Lion of Cairo is only quasi-historical.  It draws on three distinct time periods: Egypt of the Pharaohs, the early Fatimid Caliphate, and the Mameluke period.  There are a handful of historical figures (Shirkuh, his nephew Yusuf ibn Ayyub, and King Amalric of Jerusalem), though I’ve distorted them somewhat by depicting them as seen through the lens of the 1930s pulps.  Everything else is pure fantasy.
The Lion of Cairo is the first in a trilogy that will chronicle the fight between the indomitable Emir of the Knife, Assad, and his nemesis, the necromancer Ibn Sharr.  And there’s going to be a novel about Orcs in the near future!

3.       Assuming there will be other stories, will the reader ever see other fantasy elements creep in?
The sequels to The Lion of Cairo will have a great many fantasy elements: dark gods, ancient Egyptian magic, Medieval sorcery, djinn . . . everything you’d expect from a sword-and-sorcery tale infused with an Arabian Nights aesthetic.  The Orc novel, which I’m plotting as we speak, is going to take a mythological look at everyone’s favorite foot soldiers of evil. 

4.       I’m always fascinated by other writers’ creative processes and you mention RPGs (Role Playing Games to the uninitiated reader) on your blog. Do you use RPG modules to help you in world-creation?  If so, how does it help you, or do you do it for fun?
I rarely use RPG sessions for anything but a fun way to interact with friends and participate in a shared fantasy experience.  I’m no great shakes as a world-builder, which is why I tend to pillage history for my plots, settings, etc.  I discovered early on that a place-name like “Thebes” or “Alexandria” comes with a pre-existing sense of weight, of gravitas that’s hard to manufacture.  Tolkien was able to perform the same feat with his secondary world creation through his implementation of exhaustive histories; REH did it by plundering historical sources. 
One thing I’d love to do inside the framework of a RPG is to create a rigorously historical ancient Greek simulation — characters would portray Athenian citizens during that city’s Golden Age, navigate the morass of politics, back-stabbing, and double-crossing to make a name for themselves.  I’m reticent to undertake the project, however, because it has such a narrow focus and no fantastical elements.
5.       What sparks your creativity and keeps you going? 
I find endless inspiration in the overlooked corners of history. I believe as Robert E. Howard believed: there’s enough blood and thunder on every page of history to fill a lifetime’s worth of novels.  There is nothing quite so fulfilling to me as pouring over the works of ancient authors like Herodotus or Plutarch and finding a phrase or situation that piques my interest – that gets the creative juices flowing.  Even my fantasy has its genesis in the pages of history.

As to what keeps me going . . . it is the sometimes Quixotic desire to see what’s around the next bend, over the next hill, or on the next page.  I can’t imagine NOT writing . . .

Thanks so much to Mr. Oden for this look inside his head and the creation of “Lion of Cairo.” If you’re interested in a free copy of “Lion of Cairo,” please leave a comment here. I will have a drawing on Sunday evening and it will be open world-wide.

Book Review: The Lion of Cairo by Scott Oden

The Lion of Cairo: 01The Lion of Cairo by Scott Oden
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 power 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 Almaric, 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…
Okay, I’m going to qualify why I, the lover of Asian lit, am reviewing this book, just in case you wondered. 1. This is set in the Middle-East (I know, East does not equate with Asia, but I’ll take it), 2. It IS Historical Fantasy which is one of the directions I will move toward in my new website 3. Gosh darn it, I loved it. LOL

The strength of the book is, perhaps best demonstrated by how many “rules” Oden breaks within the first two pages and yet, you won’t be able to put the book down. The novel starts with the much-villain-ized prologue. Oh, and do you remember that rule about not starting a novel in the middle of a fight because the reader won’t know who to cheer for? Yup, he breaks that rule, too. And by the end of that four page fight scene, I couldn’t have cared less how many rules Mr. Oden broke as long as one intriguing character – the salawar knife – was explained.

Oden did not disappoint me in that or any other aspect of the book. In fact, he managed to surprise me.  (Have I mentioned how hard a thing that is to accomplish?) Oden killed off a few characters I had come to like and did not expect to die. However, their deaths have meaning and power.  Assad, the Assassin or Emir of the Knife, is probably considered an antihero in that he rejects every core value of the normal human except for loyalty to his master. He is not particularly likeable, but he is compelling. When he entered a scene, I could not put the book down until he disappeared again and because of that, I felt like I liked him by the end of the book. I cheered for him and his actions. Would I like to meet him in an alley? No. Way. But as a character, I still can’t wait for his return.

Lion of Cairo is an amazing tapestry of faith, betrayal, loss and just a little bit of love. If you enjoy books centered around warfare and political intrigue, run, don’t walk to the bookstore and buy this one. Stay tuned on Wednesday for an interview with the author and the opportunity to win a copy of the book!