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‘The Burning Breath of Azrael’
The Shadow of the Vulture by Robert E. Howard
© 2019 James LaFond
Reading from Sword Woman and other Historical Adventures, Del Rey, 2011, pages 387-422.
In Howard’s masterpiece Shadow of the Vulture, in which the first siege of Vienna, the very door to “Frankistan” is menaced by the last great Asiatic invaders in the Аrуаn tradition, much of the dialogue reflects the disdain of apex human predators for ‘dogs,’ as an insult for men who, though still dangerous, are domesticated to the point of being craven before a master.
“Are the dogs dressed and gorged?”
“Aye, Protector of the Faithful.”
“Then let them crawl into the Presence.”
“Wake up, my lord! Oh, wake, good knight – good pig – good dog-soul – will you wake, then?”
The Lanzknechts: lance slaves, of Germany are one of the many troop types detailed by Howard in his colorful treatment of the combatants. The two protagonists are a German knight who survived the Siege of Rhodes and the battle of Mohacs and Red Sonya, the fictional psycho-bitch sister of the historical Roxelana, red-headed slave girl to the Sultan.
“…rode the Tatars of Crimea, crouching on their high-peaked, short-stirruped saddles, their gnome-like heads guarded by iron helmets, their stocky bodies with bronze breast plates and lacquered leather. Behind them came the Azabs, the irregular infantry, Kurds and Arabs for the most part, a wild motley horde. Then their brothers, the Delis, the Madcaps, wild men on tough ponies fantastically adorned with fur and feathers. The riders wore caps and mantles of leopard skin; their unshorn hair hung in tangled strands about their high shoulders, and over their matted beards their eyes glared the madness of fanaticism and bhang.
After them came the real body of the army…the Janissaries…”
Red Sonya steals the stage as her feminine wiles are necessary for sniffing out the traitors in Vienna, Armenian Christians, and Jews, internationalists who work for the highest bidder. Her humor is gunpowder sour:
“Hell to you, dog-soul!” she laughed. “The devil can stir your broth for you!”
The aspect of the head-of-state as pack-leader and a people as a pack, rather than the occupants of some slave pen, is magnificently related in this savage tale of one of the last attempts by barbarians of a grassland mentality to break into the deepest wells of cozy modernity. Interestingly, the fact that Christian merchants betrayed their fellow Christians to Muslims, in the form of the Venetians depicted by Howard as they were historically, ever willing to betray their very God for gold, being the Judas of European nations time and again, should bring some sense of continuity to the postmodern reader. For whatever nation you read in, in which English is the standard language, the merchants of our day—mostly claiming to be Christians and among them 11 Christian churches—are currently replacing your unborn children with their ruthless hunters, opening the postern gate of the teetering West, where once agents of Suliman the Magnificent attempted the same upon a waning Christendom.
Starter Book List
‘Silence Drank the Voices’
a well of heroes
‘Only the Wall’

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