Friday, September 2, 2011

Forgotten Books: KING - OF THE KHYBER RIFLES by Talbot Mundy

I’m on my way to becoming a BIG Talbot Mundy fan.

My first close encounter came in In a Righteous Cause, the first of several volumes in Black Dog Books’ Talbot Mundy Library. (That’s reviewed HERE, and available HERE.) That book prompted me to read Tros and Helene, the first two volumes in the Tros of Samothrace saga (Tros reviewed HERE).

And now I’m moving into the Mundy motherload, his series of adventure novels set in India and Afghanistan. King - Of the Khyber Rifles (1916) was Mundy’s second novel, and still his most famous, probably due in part to the 1953 movie version starring Tyrone Power.

If you’re a Robert E. Howard fan, this is familiar territory. These novels provided much of the inspiration for the adventures of Francis Xavier Gordon and his lookalikes, as well as Conan stories like “People of the Black Circle,” that find him among the tribes of the Hills. To me, it’s also familiar thanks to later Mundy-influenced works, like George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the first three (chronologically) Sharpe books by Bernard Cornwell.

The amazing thing about Mundy is that his first-person prose is fresh enough to have been written last week, instead of 95 years ago. This book introduces us to British Captain Athelstan King, sent into the Hills of Afghanistan to prevent a jihad that would boot the English out of India. His mission is to find the near-mythical she-devil/goddess named Yasmini and convince her that her best interests lie in cooperating with the British raj.

The first half of the book showcases King’s wit and personality as he moves ever deeper into the Hills in search of Yasmini, and I enjoyed every word. At roughly the mid-point we finally meet Yasmini and she takes center stage, shifting the story into a mode that reads more like fantasy than historical fiction. That would be okay, except that King has now gone undercover as an Indian doctor, and is so submerged in his role that his personality disappears.

Still, this is great adventure, and I’m eager to read more of Mundy’s interconnected India novels, that will soon introduce another King-like character, Jimgrim.

The 1978 Donald Grant edition features all the original artwork from the Everybody’s Magazine serial and the first hardcover edition by John Clement Coll. The result is a beautiful book, with many full page and two-page illustrations and at least one spot illo on every two-page spread. If you’ve seen the spectacular Grant edition of Howard’s Sowers of the Thunder, illustrated by Roy Krenkel, you have a good idea of what this looks like.

Read! Look! Enjoy!

More Forgotten Books at pattinase!


Deka Black said...

Oriental adventure in his finest state seems. Not sure if i watched the movie or not.

George said...

I read Talbot Mundy's KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES years ago but I remember it was a gem of High Adventure! Good choice!

Charles Gramlich said...

I still have a fair amount of Mundy to read, although what I've read I've enjoyed.

Anonymous said...

Girasol has published a limited edition with the Coll illustrations, which I bought earlier this year as a special treat for myself. I've yet to read it, but it's on The List! I found Tros to be overly long and a struggle to get through, but I read it ages ago when I was in high school, and perhaps my attention span wasn't what the novel needed.

Evan Lewis said...

I find the Tros prose more of a struggle too, but ultimately worth it. Mundy's first-person contemporary (for him) stuff is much more accessible.

J F Norris said...

I like the JimGrim books. The Devil's Guard and The Nine Unknown were my favorites when I was on a Mundy kick about ten years ago.

Cap'n Bob said...

I tuned in to see the movie many years ago, which was playing on TV in New York. Thirty minutes later it was over, less commercials. Worst hack job ever. I've seen the whole movie a numbr of times, though, including at the theater. Never read the book, or any Mundy book.

Evan Lewis said...

Most of his novels are free for Kindle on Amazon, Cap'n.

Fred Blosser said...

JIMGRIM and OM, THE SECRET OF AHBOR VALLEY are also outstanding. The Tyrone Power movie has little to do with the novel. John Ford's THE BLACK WATCH with Victor McLaglen and Myrna Loy was also based on KING, and from accounts, marginally closer to the novel than the Power vehicle.