The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

A wild ride through post-revolutionary Russia…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

The book was written in 1981 and is packed full of some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, so if you find it impossible to make allowances for different times, this is probably one to avoid. That would be a huge pity though, because it’s a rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. And despite the outdated attitudes, it actually has a spunky leading lady in Eden, and Cabell gradually develops a good deal of sympathy for Nikolai, the gay servant who accompanies them on their journey. Partly it feels as though Cleary himself was struggling to get in tune with more modern attitudes (he would have been in his sixties at the time of writing) and partly he’s portraying what would have been the attitudes of society back in the early 20th century, so I was able to give him a pass and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride! As the Rolls Royce travels south to the Caspian Sea, then over into what’s now Georgia, our intrepid heroes have to negotiate their way through White Army factions, Bolshevik villagers, louche aristocrats holding out on distant estates waiting to see what the future holds, Muslim forces intent on redressing old grievances, mercenary ship captains, deserts, mountains… and did I mention the dwarf? The one thing all these people and places have in common is that they all want to kill the travellers, though for varying reasons. They’ve reckoned without Cabell’s strategic ingenuity, though, not to mention Eden’s dexterity at bashing uppity men over the head with her handbag! But even Cabell and Eden seem incapable of shaking off the implacable dwarf…

Jon Cleary

Although it’s a wild adventure story first and foremost, Cleary has clearly done his research about Russia at this moment in time, and there’s a lot of insight into the maelstrom and confusion that followed the Revolution. He doesn’t overtly take a side – he makes it clear the days of aristocratic rule had to come to an end, but he doesn’t laud the Bolsheviks either. All sides are shown as taking advantage of the chaos for personal gain, and he shows vividly the lawlessness to which the country descended – villagers holding kangaroo courts and carrying out summary executions; soldiers on all sides raping and pillaging as they rode through; aristos trying to get their valuables out of the country before they were confiscated by one faction or another. He also shows the anti-Semitic pogroms and the flight of Jews looking for their own promised land where they could live in peace. Again, Cabell recognises his own anti-Semitism, and learns over the course of the book to see the Jews as not just equals, but potential friends. Lots of stereo-typing, but also a good deal of recognition of the stereo-typing too – if one can bear the language, the messages are pretty good. Even the dwarf is treated somewhat sympathetically…

I loved this, despite my frequent cringing! Cabell and Eden are hugely likeable, and the young Prince and Princess become well developed characters over the course of the story too. The gay Cossack servant Nikolai might be clichéd, but he touched my heart nevertheless. And though he’s the baddie, Cleary’s depiction of the dwarf is nicely nuanced too, with a real level of understanding for his character having been distorted by the bullying and prejudice he’s faced throughout his life. I laughed, I sympathised, I held my breath, I shuddered and more than once I gasped in shock and surprise – what more could you ask for from an adventure story? Go on – stick your modern prejudices in a box for a few hours, and jump in the Roller… and keep an eye out behind you for the dwarf…

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30 thoughts on “The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

    • Thank you – and thanks for popping in and commenting! I love a good adventure story and despite the outdated attitudes, this one is great fun! If you do get a chance to read it sometime, I hope you enjoy it… 😀

  1. A long time since I’ve read anything by Cleary, but I always enjoyed what I did read. If I come across this one I’ll give it a try. Many thanks for a tempting review!

    • This was my first – somehow I’ve missed out on him. But I’ll definitely be looking for more – I thought this was great fun. Nothing like a good adventure story to banish the blues! 😀

  2. It’s always an issue when you come to books written in a period less concerned with respecting people’s differences, isn’t it? I have been re-reading a novel set in the 1950s and written in the early 60s set in Jamaica. The attitude expressed towards the black population is enough to make you cringe and yet for the time it was written and the time at which it is set, it was actually extremely enlightened.

    • Yes, and sometimes I find it puts me off completely. I think it depends on how the underlying intentions come over – here, despite the cringe-making language, I felt he was actually trying to give a positive potrayal – or at least a sympathetic one – of both the gay character and the Jewish ones. And Eden may have been the sex object but she was actually a fun heroine too – not quite as good as the man, obviously, but not bad for a woman… 😉

  3. Oh, that does sound like quite the adventure yarn, FictionFan! I must admit, I’m not one for a lot of cringe-worthy attitudes and language. But the fact is, when you read novels that were written (and/or take place) in a given era, it’s important to remember that that’s the author’s era, too, and authors are products of their times. And this sounds like the sort of story where the characters keep the reader interested, and the adventure part keeps the reader engaged. Hmm….what would it be like to go racing around in a Rolls…. ??

    • I struggle with it too, and sometimes it puts me off completely. But I felt Cleary’s underlying intentions were good, so I was able to kinda laugh it off. And otherwise, the book is great – well written, lots of adventure and it seemed well researched too. I’ll definitely be looking out for more of his stuff – next time I feel strong enough… 😉

  4. This sounds a much lighter read than most of your Russian challenges. For some reason, I’ve never read any Cleary – maybe this would be a good start.

    • Yes, indeed! The original plan was to read more fiction but I haven’t been able to track much down except for the classics – which are not a barrel of laughs, on the whole! I think you’d enjoy this one as much as I did… 😀

  5. I don’t guess I’ve ever heard of this one, so thank you, FF, for calling it to my attention. I agree we need to give authors a pass on modern attitudes when they wrote decades ago before those attitudes came into being. That said, this just might be the only one of these Russian Revolution novels to pique my interest!

    • Haha – I knew I’d tempt you eventually! 😉 Yes, sometimes I find it easier to get past outdated attitudes than others – here I felt his heart was in the right place, and really that’s as much as I’d ever hope for, so I was able to enjoy it despite the odd word we’d never use now.

    • When I’m not being Queen of Willpower or Queen of Spreadsheets, I become Queen of Google… my life is so busy! 😉 I googled ‘books about the Russian Revolution’ way back when I started the challenge and then read through them all to see which appealed – I think it was actually a GoodReads list that google sent me to. This one seemed a good deal lighter and more fun than most of the books I picked and had loads of positive reviews, and I felt I could probably do with a bit of light relief before the challenge ended. Worked out very well! 😀

    • Oh, I hate when that happens! It seems to be totally random too – I can never decide if I’ve accidentally pressed unfollow or if it’s done it all by itself. Glad you’re back, anyway! 😀

  6. Sounds like there’s a lot going on in this book….and when you say dwarf, do you mean like a little person, or like lord of the rings dwarf? Sounds like it could go ether way in this book haha

  7. I still have a handful of Clearys left over from the 70s, but I missed this one – it sounds good too. He was a very adaptable writer – covering Moon launches, outback Australia, motor racing, settings in the Andes and WW2 Singapore, and now Russia. and a few detective stories as well. He was also a cartoonist but i havent seen any of his drawings. Thanks for this review – definitely will read if I can find a copy.

    • I missed Cleary altogether – I blame my sister, who was my reading guru back in the day. She obviously slipped up here! I loved this one – another prolific author to add to my list! Great to hear he did so many different things – his research for this one was excellent, so I expect the same will apply to the others. Is there a particular one you would recommend as a next read?

  8. I think it’s interesting that modern books, like the Everything Beautiful young adult novel I read recently, may tend toward a lot of swearing, which I find falls in line with how the students all around me speak, and I know that bothered you. Yet the language in this book in cringe worthy, but you still read it. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts! I’m more apt to put down an older book that sounds prejudice. I know it may fit with the times, but I also don’t believe that everyone sat around thinking it was acceptable to portray different races, sexualities, nationalities, etc. negatively. Otherwise, who pushed forward and said, “no, that is unacceptable”? Based on contemporary situations in the States, I also believe that telling people their bigotry is wrong doesn’t change hearts, but it does make the bigots keep their comments at home. Now that they have permission to go public, they do. Maybe older books just put it all out in the open. 😬

    • Hmm… on swearing, it’s not really that it bothers me as such – it’s that I find it entirely lazy and pointless. Fiction should serve one of two purposes, or preferably both. It should entertain, and I find authors simply parrotting a lot of the kind of street-talk you hear from the stupidest and least educated people in the world on public transport every day unentertaining! Or it should inspire – and what’s inspirational about language even morons can master? “Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” Gustave Flaubert. Swearing is for dancing bears – I’d rather look at the stars.

      On bigotry, I’m much older than you and live in a country where there were very few people of different ethnicities when I was growing up, and I assure you we were all unthinkingly racist in our language. We weren’t necessarily actually racist though – I never remember thinking black people were inferior to me as such, but I did think they were different (bear in mind I didn’t meet a black person till I was thirteen, nor an Asian till I was, I think, seventeen), and I used words to describe them I wouldn’t use today. But then, black people used terms like ‘white honkies’ too, so it wasn’t all one way (still isn’t, but somehow we seem to suggest it’s OK for black people to be racist about whites). Same applies to gay people – language that is seen as offensive now was commonplace then. Again, people didn’t openly admit to their sexuality as much back then – ‘in the closet’ was the norm. I think I was nineteen when I first met someone who openly admitted to being gay, and I was shocked. But it didn’t stop us from becoming firm friends. Different times.To call someone a ‘queer’ back then was a foul insult, worse than calling someone a ‘poof’. But then the gay community adopted ‘queer’ (not unlike rappers adopting the n-word) and changed its meaning from negative to positive. So language doesn’t always reflect the same thing from generation to generation and words that are cringeworthy now didn’t necessarily mean quite the same back then. So when reading an older book, it’s important to look past the words to the impressions the author is trying to convey – in this one, despite the outdated words, I thought he was trying to send positive messages, so could overlook the language. In other books from the same or older eras I’ve felt authors have been being actively supremacist beyond their contemporary peers (in either race or gender terms) and that puts me off (HP Lovecraft, for example, who goes well beyond casual use of then current language to making it clear he considers other races genetically and intellectually inferior). But, on the whole I find political correctness has gone way too far, and we’re now in the midst of a major backlash of our own creation…

      • I’ve read that HP Lovecraft was just THE worst. I don’t know why I learned that recently. Gandhi actually was weirdly racist (I say weirdly because you’d think he’d empathize). I better understand what you’re saying now. Thanks for that! I get exhausted by excessive swearing, not because I think the person is a moron or using street talk, but because they are uneducated as a result a various circumstances. I’ve found that if you show someone that education is a desperate matter, they take it seriously. Then again, a clever, well-placed swear is my favorite now and forever. I so enjoy talking to you; you make my brain work hard 😊

        • Ha! You may have heard it from me – I have a rant about Lovecraft quite often! 😉 Yes, we have a tendency to think that only white people are racist but actually almost every race/culture treats other races badly whenever they get the chance. Gandhi is like Churchill – neither of them was quite the good guy their followers would like to think. I don’t mind an occasional well-placed swear word either – though frankly Dickens never swore and his books were pretty successful! Haha! Opinionated old git, that’s me! 😀

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