Robert E. Howard's El Borak stories (1934 to posthumous)

The black and white images are, to my knowledge, by Tim Bradstreet.

The collection I have places El Borak stories under historical fiction and I guess that's what they are, the stories taking place somewhere before the first world war, starring an American adventurer Francis Xavier Gordon, also known as El Borak, a name given to him Arabs impressed of the swiftness of his gun hand. El Borak meaning "the Swift".

Gordon has found his place in the world in Afghanistan and to some excess in Asia as well. He's a well-known man with many friends and enemies all over the place and like many other characters of Howard is a loyal friend to those he befriends. He's not a tall man and he is lean of build but still strong. While he knows how to wield a knife or a sword, his main weapons are an automatic pistol and a rifle. This makes a distinct difference to him and characters like Conan, as Gordon rarely gets beaten up as badly as the fantasy creations of Howard's. Gordon can even be very sympathetic towards his enemies, ending up aiding them after the combat is over by tying up their wounds or giving them some other help.

As stories, the adventures of El Borak try to veer away from the fantasy elements of Howard's other works. Once or twice there's a suggestion of something supernatural in the stories, but those elements are always explained to be something more mundane.  So with that, I guess El Borak's adventures are historical fiction, as there's nothing supernatural in them.

El Borak being a man adventuring all around Afganistan has, perhaps, even surprisingly for Howard, good portrayal of the native people of the area the story happens. sure enough, the people are described as uncivilized, but then again that's just when mirrored against Gordon's own western origins. Of this, he doesn't really care, as he feels at home with the Afghans, Arabs or Indians. The weakest portrayal is really reserved for women, who again, just object to being rescued, even if they'd be at first described as competent adventurers in their own right.

Political intrigue is one important aspect of the El Borak stories, as that is often the starting point for the adventures or at least behind the troubles El Borak faces on his adventures. While he's not allied with the British, French or the Russians, he does think the Russians are the worst option for the Afghans and Indians, so he mostly allies with the western nations, albeit always looking out for the natives.

Howard published 5 El Borak stories while he was alive, the rest of the stories, a whole 11 of them some including other Howard's characters as well, were published posthumously. Of these stories, The Valley of Iskander and Three-Bladed Doom are stories with the most traditional Howard feel to them, as they venture into a bit more fantastical realm and even have an excess of traditional Howard's bloody swordplay in them.

I'm not going to review all of the stories, so here's a couple of more notable tales, which I thought worked very well.

Hawk of the Hills (1935)

A British diplomat Geoffrey Willoughby is sent to Afganistan in order to put out the flames of tribal violence having been flamed after a group of chiefs was killed in an ambush. El Borak is leading a group of Afridi warriors against the Orakzai behind the indiscretion and Willoughby hopes to find a way to stop the violence.

Hawk of the Hills shows El Borak in his environment as a leader of a pack of rough warriors, who are willing to put their life on the line because of a man who is willing to risk his own neck for any of them. The story itself is action-oriented, as you'd imagine, but it also shows that El Borak is a  man who uses his brains more than his brawn in order to win his way out of a difficult situation.

This is a solid story, not, perhaps, among Howard's best, but still a solid piece of action adventure

Blood of the Gods (1935)

In this tale, El Borak has to protect his friend against a group of brutal soldiers of fortune, who are looking for fabled gems called Blood of the Gods they believe are in the possession Al Wazir. The first half of the story is a race against time where Gordon is trying his best to get to the hideout of the hermit before the villains, the latter half is a story of a siege where El Borak and a surprising ally are holding their ground against a Ruweila on a warpath.

Another decent story, having action, adventure and even some philosophical musings in it. This is, I think a good portrayal of what kind of a person El Borak is and how he functions in the world he's in and what he's willing to do to aid his friends.

The Lost Valley of Iskander (1974)

In many ways, this is a story that feels like it could have been a vehicle for some other character than El Borak. While it is a good story, it also veers towards the more fantastical elements of pulp action adventures by having Gordon find a lost valley, where a city found by Alexander the Great is still living their lives like Greeks of old.

El Borak is rushing over the Indian border, chased by a man called Gustav Hunyadi. The reason for the chase is that El Borak has stolen documents, which would be proof that Gustav is looking to overthrow a government or two, so he can't have El Borak reach proper officials, thus foiling his plans.

The grand finale happens in the lost city, where the Greek descendants help El Borak to squash the troops of Hyundai despite they are severally undergunned technically, as the attackers have modern rifles and the Greeks only a handful of flintlocks.

A fun story for what it is is really all I can add. In the end, it could have really starred anyone besides El Borak.

Three-Bladed Doom (1976)

The longest of the El Borak stories which also has some more fantastical elements in it.

Gordon is trying to get death sentence lifted from the neck of his friend when he stumbles upon a resurged guild of Assassins. As this sect is a threat to the stability of the world he lives in, he knows something has to be done with it. so with his friends Yar Ali Khan and Lal Singh he sets out to rid the world of the hashish eaters.

On a couple of occasions, the story plunges head deep into the direction of something like Conan the Barbarian, especially when El Borak slaughters a group of men with his long knife and especially when he is pitted against a huge mountain gorilla. This makes it feel a bit of a mishmash of different stories.

As these two last stories were released after Howard's death, I don't really know how finished they were or how much Howard would have spent polishing them had he had the time to do so. It might be, that they still weren't quite complete, despite being whole stories, so had he lived, some things could have ended up different.

But in any case, this was my small take on El Borak, the courageous American adventurer in Afganistan. Not the best stuff Howard has written, but fun none the less.