East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Along the Silk Road on a Rolls-Royce

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There’s a story of mine, called Queen of the Dead Lizards (you can find it in Pro Se Press’ Explorer Pulp, together with three other fine stories by three excellent authors). I will not spoil the story for those of you who might like to check it out, but let’s say that part of the action in Queen of the Dead Lizards hinges on a trip along the Silk Road on a Rolls-Royce … an accident in the real life of the last Khan of Bukhara.
And what can I say – it felt like a good idea at the time.
But through one of those curious series of connections that come up during rambling conversations, I just stumbled on another Rolls Royce ride across the steppes of Central Asia, in a book by an author that’s not often remembered today, and that’s a pity.
So, let me take a rather circuitous route here…

I have already posted in the past about High Road to China, the 1983 movie featuring Tom Selleck and Bess Armstrong that I loved as a kid and I still like very much, but that was considered a major disappointment by the author of the original novel – Australian thriller writer Jon Cleary.

Cleary, whose first editor was Graham Greene, had a long career, writing both mysteries and thrillers, the latter often with some kind of historical element to them. High Road to China was written in ’77 and it was set in the ’20s. The novel is very different from the movie, and it’s almost the perfect template for an adventure novel.
I spent a lot of time trying to track down a copy, and finally managed to get my hands on a second-hand hardbound volume, part of some book club catalogue. This, more than twenty years ago, in the dawn of online bookstores etc.

Nowadays, a fair chunk of Cleary’s extensive catalogue is available on the cheap in ebook edition, and that’s how I found The Golden Sabre. And with a title like that, you can guess I was interested in checking it out. The moment I saw it was set during the Russian Revolution and featured a geologist as the hero, I knew I needed to read it.

The plot in a nutshell: in 1919, American geologist and oil prospector Matthew Cabell and British governess Eden Penfold get caught up in the Russian Civil War, and try to make a getaway. They take along Eden’s charges, the two children of a Russian prince, and a weird Cossack. They face a number of adventures as they ride towards their destination on a stolen Rolls-Royce.

Just like High Road to China, The Golden Sabre is a perfect adventure story, built on a linear plot summed up by the need of the protagonists to get from A to B. Geography as plot. It features two unlikely leads that will prove to the reader that opposites attract, and a series of strange incidents and weird characters – in this case, Cossack chieftains, evil dwarfs, bloodthirsty Bolsheviks and what else.
And yes, at the time the novel was dismissed as implausible by some critics but, really, what were they expecting?

All in all, it’s a nice ripping yarn, with a nice smattering of local color to give it some flavor, the sort of novel that back in the day would probably have been serialized in Adventure magazine. Probably because of its nostalgic tone and style, it does not feel the weight of the forty years that passed since it was written, and is sort of timeless. The only sore spot is probably poor Eden – a beautiful character and a great leading lady, and it’s really a pity all the male characters in the book seem to have eyes only for her breasts and for the fantasies that such breasts cause.

But it’s really nitpicking – and thankfully Eden can hold her own in the face of the somewhat one-track-minded characters she has to deal with.

So, yes, a great little adventure book – and one that convinced me I’ll have to read more Cleary.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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