Swords from the Sea

Written by Harold Lamb
Review by Cecelia Holland

Swords from the Sea is one of the University of Nebraska Press collections of Harold Lamb’s stories from Adventure Magazine, published mostly in the ’20s and ’30s. As the title says it’s a batch of sea stories, set in a variety of times: besides Vikings, Venetians and Byzantines, the book includes two novella-length pieces on John Paul Jones’s stint with the Russian Imperial Navy, and a splendid account of the English expedition in the 1500s to find a Northeast Passage through the Arctic, around Norway and Russia, to the wealth of the Orient.

Although there’s a definite colonial cast to his stories, Lamb loved multiculturalism before it was even a word, and his stories are full of vividly drawn Mongols, Lapp shamans, Venetian crooks, Arab soldiers and Turkish galley captains. His dialog is often as flowery as a Baroque ceiling, which his wonderful, musical ear makes a pleasure. His narrative skills are formidable, sweeping the reader along exotic landscapes with almost filmic action scenes.

What may be most amazing, along with the sheer range of time frames (there’s a story in the time of the Korean War and another in the time of the Emperor Justinian), is Lamb’s ability to turn endless changes on a few simple plots. There’s only one clunker in the lot: a seemingly endless account of the American expedition against Tripoli in 1805. A foreword and an essay on Lamb by Adventure’s editor give insight into the writer’s own world. Thanks to Howard Andrew Jones for bringing out this series of books and offering Harold Lamb to new readers.