Assassins of Alamut:
A Novel of Persia and Palestine in the Time of the Crusades
The First Book of Talon
by James Boschert
Having previously penned novels about pirating in the turbulent North Sea shipping lanes (Force 12 in German Bight), and escaping the jungle theater of 1960s Malaysia (When the Jungle is Silent), author James Boschert’s seemingly boundless imagination turns to twelfth-century Persia with the first entry in his Talon series, Assassins of Alamut. A gloriously fat volume of over 500 pages, Assassins wastes no time getting the action going—in the very first paragraph—and readers rapidly hop on for the ride.
Thirteen-year-old Talon, son of a French knight and nobleman, is abducted in Palestine following a Saracen assault on his family’s caravan. Saracen originally denoting non-Arabs dwelling near the Arabian Peninsula, is by Talon’s time generally used in reference to all the Arabian tribes. However, these attackers indeed are Persians and not merely enemies of the Sunnis; they are of the feared Ismaili Hashshashin, splintered as well from their own branch of Shia Islam. Known today for their association with the acts that may have given us our modern word assassin, they also engage psy-ops to enable submission in their captives. This they employ with Talon as they herd the hapless boy and others to their stronghold in northern Persia (modern-day Iran), planning to assimilate rather than kill him, training the lad to become one of their own dreaded and elite feda-i (Fedayân).
As Talon’s education commences and continues, he proves himself worthy of their choice and does indeed begin to absorb the group’s philosophy and perspectives. This is evident in such passages that betray his newly acquired attitudes toward his own people: “Since he had been in Samiran, he had learned the elements of hygiene from his instructors, all quite new to one from a castle in the Frankish world.”
Life and learning in his new existence is grueling, and his surroundings at the group’s mountain fortress are, by nature and necessity, equally arduous. As ever, Boschert is expert in describing natural elements as well as weaving its harsh reality into the narrative. This is a pointy, precipitous place deliberately chosen as stronghold for its ease in repelling or compelling those who would come and go without permission. Even the light of the sun is met with harsh rebuff, until its master’s might finally drives on the shadows of the mountain niches, asserting its domination over the day:
[The light] swept over the hills in a silent rush, bathing the sides of the [majestic Alborz] mountains on either side of the valley in a sharp glow. Every feature was thrown into sharp, clear relief, leaving great gashes of black shadow where the ravines refused it and the overhangs turned it away. It would try for every recess in a while when the sun followed its advance guard. Over the razor-sharp eastern peaks it came, a great fiery ball in the sky, driving the shadows and phantoms of the night far up the western reaches of the gorge to make them disappear altogether over the rims of the farthest peaks to the west.
Boschert’s usage of personification is deployed here with carefully-chosen verbiage (“silent rush”; “bathing the sides”; “side of the valley”) to at first convey the impression of gazing upward to a benign, lovely alpine view, much as it might deceive the invader attempting to breach the fort. Quite rapidly, however, any would–be intruder recognizes his folly, even while still in the valley, for view of him is as clear as the day driving its heat into all it touches. As if to hammer the point home, the words sharp and over are repeated with an air of surgical strikes, and he recognizes gashes and overhangs, spotting the phantoms disappearing over the rims as the blazing heat of the sun provides him one of two choices: Follow them down or be as scorched as the rocks I now dominate.
Thus is the world into which Talon has been thrust, one in which men defend or die, a lesson the boy quickly learns and carries with him as he develops an infatuation with the Agha Khan’s sister, the princess Rav’an, and becomes aware of treachery afoot. As their knowledge is suspected and later uncovered, Talon and his companions must make their way to safety, where they can warn the Khan, through a myriad of blockades over great distances that test their perseverance and abilities to the last moment.
There is nothing repetitive in Assassins of Alamut, even when the small group has to make their way past different bands of people again and again, and Boschert’s impeccable manner of storytelling engages readers in the events and, indeed, action, for we are swept breathlessly into the scenes. Loss is embedded into this life and our protagonist as well as others around him suffer it, and though we accept, knowing the dangers of life in these times, we are still surprised and sorrowful, for the characters have grown on us, and our affection is unfeigned.
That said, the novel is sprinkled with comic relief, even if it sometimes is not the sort some characters would necessarily find amusing.
The men of the caravan shouted abuse at the prisoners. “May you be visited by the fleas from a thousand camels that invade your private parts!” one yelled. “And may your arms be too short to scratch them!”
Unsurprisingly, the novel also includes a fairly sizeable inventory of food, which both draws readers into the era and events as well as tantalizes the senses. Boschert revels in the sensory as he creates moments in which we read certain passages in whispers, hear the clink of iron horse shoes, feel the wind in its wraithlike cold as “ghosts of lost souls [search] for ways to get into the room.” We clearly see how a natural setting might conceal or betray fugitives, as Boschert describes what might be scenes from a movie.
As a storyteller, Boschert is top notch: he integrates himself into the tale, from historical as well as personal points of view and in so doing, the novel contains the feel of memoir, despite its third-person narrative. Recollection of details, precise movements in battle, the sense of an inner eye that observes pictorial memories within, enabling telling of the tale. The only element that moves away from this impression are occasional segments told from another point of view. Still, Talon’s journey is an odyssey of vivid, gripping, informative, entertaining and fascinating proportions, headed on each chapter with snippets of poetry from those such as Khayyam:
And if the Cup you drink, the Lip you press.
End in what All begins and ends in Yes;
Imagine, then, you are what heretofore
You were—hereafter you shall not be less.
Though there has been some reservation as to the origin of some quatrains (rubaiyat) attributed to Khayyam, the poetic inquiries posed throughout Assassins of Alamut not only pertain to Talon’s battles within as much as without, but also to the universal struggle to understand, as asked even by Khayyam, who each of us are, and why we have been put on this earth. Given Talon’s situation of having a foot in each world, living a bewildering, hybrid existence, it is fitting and perhaps even comforting to him one should be amongst a society that engages in life as philosophy, even if, or perhaps because, a portion of this comes from the commentary of one whose own philosophical identity remains uncertain.
Given the Persian history of chahar bagh (“four gardens”), with its connection to paradise and the importance of the legacy even today, it is also significant that Talon first meets with Rav’an in a secluded garden, where their affections for each other, unknown to both, initially find seed. Boschert is acutely aware of the role of these scenes’ setting, and states such with his choice of quatrain opening the chapter.
When you and I behind the Veil are past,
Oh but the long, long while the World will last
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As much if Ocean as a pebble-cast.
Where all this will lead Talon remains to be seen, and readers will be glad to know his story continues in Assassins‘ sequel, Knight Assassin, and beyond.
Masterfully written, Assassins of Alamut contains not only evidence of great amounts of background knowledge and research, but also urges readers to carry on. This might come in the form of pursuing the sequels (which indeed are written and we shall be seeking) or look into more within the history. Many of us are very enamored of medieval history, and here Boschert gives us the opportunity to view the time not only in a completely different region to what many of us study, but also from a perspective most are unused to. To top it off, the author acknowledgements contains a list of further recommended reading, some of which Talon himself may have been perusing in the garden.
In every way possible this novel is a gift, and whether bestowed upon oneself or others, it simply is a must-read tale whose only flaw is that eventually it comes to its end.
About the author …
James Boschert’s unique biography has provided him with an in-depth knowledge of his novels’ subjects. He grew up in the colony of Malaya in the early fifties during the turmoil of a Chinese Communist insurgency. He joined the British Army at fifteen, and from eighteen to twenty-two fought in the jungle wars in Borneo and Malaysia. Afterwards, Boschert lived in the Middle East, serving in countries such as Oman, Lebanon, Israel, and finally Iran where he worked with the Shah Pahlavi’s army. When the 1978 revolution overturned the Shah, Boschert negotiated a perilous escape from Iran, returning safely to the United Kingdom.
As a civilian, Boschert has worked as an engineer on a tanker in the North Sea and as optical engineer involved in the development of laser telescopes at the National Ignition Facility in Lawrence Livermore, California.
James Boschert is the author of the popular Talon Series. Set in twelfth-century Palestine, Talon’s adventures include: Assassins of Alamut; Knight Assassin; Assassination in Al-Qahirah; Greek Fire; and A Falcon Flies. Boschert has also written When the Jungle is Silent, a novel about the 1960s jungle wars in Malaysia.
The reviewer received a gratis copy of Assassins of Alamut in exchange for an honest review
Author photo courtesy James Boschert