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Review: “The Walking Drum” by Louis L’Amour

Title: The Walking Drum
Author: Louis L’Amour
*Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 1984

I’ve documented before my long-held fondness for the works of Louis L’Amour, and this particular book is no exception. Here you will find all of the adventure, excitement and historicity that has long been associated with the works of Louis L’Amour, but this time with a different setting. Most of L’Amour’s body of work is set in the Old West, or if not there at least on the American frontier as it existed at the time the story is set. The Walking Drum, however, is set in twelfth-century Europe, from Brittany to Constantinople and beyond. I am sure some of it’s impact on my memory has to do with it’s uniqueness among L’Amour’s works, but the fact remains that this is a well-wrought adventure novel with a wealth of historical gems hidden inside. My memory of it from childhood did not in the least do it justice. I very much wish that L’Amour had followed it up with the proposed sequel he was planning, but regrettably he died before he managed to get it written.

We join Mathurin Kerbouchard as a boy on the verge of manhood, his mother killed and his home burned by the evil local petty noble. His father, a legendary corsair, is lost at sea, rumored to be dead, but Kerbouchard doesn’t believe it. He resolves to find his father and enlist his aid in seeking revenge on the evil baron who burned their home. Of course, this is easier said than done. The ensuing adventure sees Kerbouchard as a galley slave and a noted scholar, a swordsman and a companion of princes, a merchant and lover to a princess, all culminating in a daring infiltration of Alamut, the fortress of the dreaded Assassins….

I can’t really offer too much of a description of the plot without major spoilers, as it is highly episodic. Kerbouchard embarks on one adventure after another, escaping one scrape simply to land in another. In some ways, Kerbouchard is the anti-Conan. Whereas Conan is an unschooled barbarian, come “to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet,” Kerbouchard absorbs knowledge like a sponge thanks to the Druidic training passed on by his uncle. Both are skilled swordsmen, and both are incredibly popular with the ladies, but whereas Conan prefers to start the discussion with his sword, Kerbouchard would much rather exchange ideas. This isn’t to say that he won’t fight, but he would prefer to explore other avenues in most cases. As with any of his stories involving a boat in any way, L’Amour devotes considerable time to one of his pet peeves–the misconception that people believed in a flat Earth until Columbus showed them otherwise, with Kerbouchard ridiculing the idea at almost every turn. Another particular notion he perhaps over-emphasizes is the intellectual superiority of the Moorish culture to the close-minded twelfth-century Christendom that made a virtue of ignorance. I’d like to be offended, but he’s not entirely wrong. On the other hand, that’s no longer the current state of affairs, either–they were called the Dark Ages for a reason, however flawed the term may be.

Ever reread a book you read as a child and been blown away by how much you missed on your first encounter? That was this book for me. Dad held this one in reserve until I was considerably older than when reading the majority of L’Amour’s work, and now I can see why. Even though I totally missed it at the time, there is a level of sexual content here that is totally foreign to most of L’Amour’s bibliography. It’s not explicit by any means, and in at least a couple cases I can’t even tell when it occurs, but Kerbouchard pretty much beds every woman he comes in contact with. The subtext is clear, even as nothing is explicitly said. There’s some very pointed and ribald flirting, but on those occasions everyone remains firmly clothed. Kerbouchard’s musings later on, however, make clear that at some point during the overview time-is-passing-quickly sections he and whatever lady he was with at the time definitely got it on. Nine-year-old me totally missed that, but then nine-year-old me was pretty sheltered. Nine-year-old me also missed a lot of the historical content that now makes more sense to the twenty-something student of history, but that’s only to be expected.

CONTENT: There’s quite a bit of sex happening in the time-frame covered by this novel, but absolutely all of it happens between the lines and is completely non-explicit. Mild language. Some strong violence, but nothing particularly disturbing. Some musings on the ancient Druids, but nothing too occultic–we know too little, and L’Amour has too high a regard for accuracy to say much.

*This definitely deserves four stars. The fifth may be a stretch for some people, and I freely admit the possibility of a nostalgic bias. I just don’t care.

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Review: “The Ferguson Rifle” by Louis L’Amour

I actually read The Ferguson Rifle (*****) for the first time years ago* and loved it, but I recently won the audiobook from Goodreads via their FirstReads program. (My review is not influenced by this fact, for the record.) This lined up nicely with a road trip my wife and I had to take, and so the adventure began anew….

I don’t usually do audiobooks, as I have little time for them. I don’t have copious amounts of driving built into my day (if this ever changes, I likely will start consuming larger quantities), I can’t listen at work, and frankly given the choice I would rather actually read the book myself. All that said, this was an excellent production. The reader, Brian D’Arcy James, has a marvelous command of accents, be they British, Scottish or Irish, and this book allowed him to showcase them to great effect. My wife and I both loved it, so I am reasonably sure this book will please both Louis L’Amour fanatics and newcomers.

It is no real secret that given how many novels L’Amour wrote that were set in the old west, sometimes they tend to run together in your memory. This, however, is one of those especially excellent entries in his bibliography that stand out in your memory both from sheer uniqueness and from persistent quality. Unlike most of Louis L’Amour’s bibliography, this book is not a “western” in the classical sense. It is set on America’s frontier around the year 1800, meaning the northerly Great Plains–the Dakotas, Montana, that area. In another sense, however, this is very much a western. That was “the west” at the time being described, just as what we now think of as the “east coast” was at one point the western frontier of exploration. It is into this territory, newly bought from France through the Louisiana Purchase, that Ronan Chantry rides. His old life is dead, all he loves burned up in a tragic fire. Now all he has is his experience on the frontier as a boy, his education in Europe as a man, his horse, and the extraordinary rifle he was given as a boy. He rides with a company of trappers into a new land, nearly unexplored, in search of a new start. When he discovers the trail of a woman and boy alone, being ruthlessly hunted by unsavory men, Ronan feels called to help. But when there is a fabled fortune of gold in the offering, men are not likely to give up its pursuit easily….

I’m a known Louis L’Amour devotee, so I absolutely loved this. No one crafts an adventure like Louis L’Amour, and few writers I’ve found have his appreciation for the scope of human history and the persistent force of western movement, while still retaining an appreciation for the contributions of the individual to history’s march. This is one of those books that, while reading, makes you yearn to look out across the unspoiled territory this country once was, to stand where his characters stand and see what they see. There’s a beauty to it, and you can hear in L’Amour’s writing a lilting note of mourning for what we have lost. He does not blame the pioneers and the farmers for what has happened, he understands history too well for that, and appreciates the inevitability of the march of “progress.” That doesn’t mean he (or his characters) have to like it. Ditto for the Indians, and you see that here as well. There are several sequences where the Indian is discussed, his character, his future, and his habits. Again, L’Amour understands why things happened as they did, but it still saddens him. Longtime Louis L’Amour readers will know what to expect in terms of characters and character development–there’s not usually a whole lot of moral ambiguity to a L’Amour adventure, there are good guys and bad guys, and they know their roles. Is that a problem? Not so far as I’m concerned. We need stories like that just as much as we need the other kind, maybe more. And this day and age, that type of story is harder to find.

CONTENT: Mild language, some violence, little to no sexual content.

*I’ve read most of Louis L’Amour’s books, but I can’t always remember which ones. This is fine–I’m totally up for reading a lot of them again. Probably going to go questing to read the entire bibliography at some point.

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Review: Louis L’Amour’s “The Sackett Saga, Book I: Sackett’s Land”

I love Louis L’Amour’s writings. Formulaic as some of them can be (he was writing in the era of the pulps, don’t forget. He himself tried to keep anyone from reprinting certain of his short stories he felt were less than stellar), there is a quality to them that I rarely find anywhere else. This is an element that some would dismiss as cliché or outdated–Louis L’Amour’s characters are heroes, through and through. When I was a boy, I learned honor and chivalry from Arthur and his knights, from Robin Hood, from all those sorts of tales, it’s true. But I also learned these things from the Louis L’Amour westerns my dad let me borrow. For that reason, as well as the sense of pure adventure and the lure of the American Frontier, I will always have a place in my cram-packed library for a Louis L’Amour book. Among L’Amour’s most enduring creations is the Sackett family, which he revisited over and over again. Word is that he had at least three more of these tales planned before he died, but unfortunately we’ll have to be satisfied with those dozen or so Sackett stories he finished.

The first of these Sackett tales chronologically (and that’s the order I’ll be following, so like it or lump it!) is Sackett’s Land. Barnabas Sackett is a young man living in England’s fens, circa 1599. He has been left by his father with a bit of land, most of it swamp, a sword, and the skills to use both. A windfall discovery of several ancient Roman coins sets him on the road to trading in the New World, but he will have to tread carefully, for he has made a powerfull enemy. A promise to his father, made on the field of battle, threatens the inheritance of a rising star in the English Court. If Barnabas does not tread carefully, he will find himself an outlaw. If he does not watch his back, he may find being an outlaw the least of his worries….

Content: Some violence, some mild language. Nothing too severe.

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