When Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings, fearing the onset of decrepitude and old age, turns to his personal alchemist and sorcerer Ostanas, for a magical solution, the game (as Holmes used to say) is afoot. Reprieved from an untimely death (decreed for his unknowing complicity in the rape of a young noble woman), Bessas of Zariaspa (a big hulking, mother-loving, heroic lug, formerly of the King's own troops) is saved at the eleventh hour from an untimely seat on the royal stake and charged with two tasks: bring back to Xerxes the ear of a king; and find and capture a live dragon (said to dwell at the headwaters of the Nile, deep in unknown Africa). His companion on this mission is to be his former Greek tutor, Myron of Miletos, who just happens to also be the man who brought Bessas to the attention of the King, in time to save the big warrior's life.
What neither of these adventurers knows, however, is that the King's sorcerer needs a third item as well: the heart of a hero, which presumably will be readily available -- once Bessas returns from his labors with the two items he has been sent to retrieve. Myron, a simple scholar with philosophical pretensions, sees their excursion as an opportunity to explore the world and create some grand theory out of the knowledge he garners, to make a name for himself among the Greek philosophers back home. Bessas, on the other hand, has other concerns since Xerxes has placed his mother in protective custody -- as a guarantor of the hero's ultimate return.
These two set out on a fascinating journey which takes them through many of the lands of the old Persian Empire. In the process, they pick up a tubby local boy whose chief claim to fame seems to be his voracious sexual appetite, a Syrian mystic of dubious talents and loyalties, and a Judean of Philistine ancestry with the skills of a metal smith. Fleeing numerous attacks on their persons by the minions of the raped girl's family (who begrudge the King's decision to free Bessas), this motley company finds its way to Egypt. There they become involved in a little grave robbing, before heading farther south to the barbarous country of Kush, where the local ruler adds a further task to their assignments as a fee for letting them pass deeper into the African interior.
Having linked up with a bandit Arab clan, headed by an old shaykh and his clever and beautiful daughter, the whole gang proceeds south along the Nile into "pestilential plains," the abode of unfamiliar and savage peoples. How the tale ends up is worth the read, as is the fascinating protrayal of this time and its inhabitants. Suffice it to say they have a number of rather close encounters, not least of which with a kingdom of local cannibals, and generally squeak by -- though not without a good deal of bloodshed and mayhem.
The tale is not the usual sword and sorcery fare (though its author was known for writing that stuff) since, while there is a great deal of talk about wizards and magic, there is no attempt to portray these as anything more than the grossest of superstitions. The heroes are also men of their time and do not scruple to kill an enemy in cold blood. In fact, this book is almost hardheaded in its realistic approach to human conflict. The dialogue's rather cleverly done, too.
Unfortunately, the tale was penned back in 1961 (although I read the Donning book, issued in 1982) and so it's not attentive to some of the politically correct niceties of our own era. Blacks are generally presented as savages and unattractive (which may actually have been how characters like our travellers would have seen them -- especially in the context of the encounters described -- but this will certainly offend some readers who are more attuned to contemporary sensitivities). Similarly, the Judean Shimri (really a Philistine and an idolator) is described as having a receding chin, spitting when he talks, stammering and as being generally annoying -- all for no very obvious reason. Perhaps de Camp based the character on someone he knew, but it does seem a trifle gratuitous. I suspect some would find him an offensively stereotypical character, as well.
Finally, the female characters have no individual vitality at all. The Arab princess is supposed to be the real leader of her band but at critical times she recedes unaccountably into the background. The other two females who join the expedition in Africa are slaves and get used as such. Probably not unrealistic, but again not attuned to our present, more enlightened age. And their main role (even that of the bold princess) seems to be to fawn over our hero, Bessas.
While the female characters have little life in them, the males, who are somewhat more interesting, are not more deeply drawn. Myron and Bessas do come to life, as does the sterotypical Syrian wizard, but none of them seems to have a substantial inner life. But this is a plot driven by events -- not motivation -- and, as such, it does its work. If you can bear with the extremely poor editing (typos on nearly every other page) and the mid-twentieth century sensibility, this is a book well worth the read -- both for its vivid and historically convincing depiction of the ancient world during the height of the Persian Empire (just before Alexander the Great Hellenized things) and for its fast-paced adventure in exotic lands.