Book Review: Assassins of Alamut

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.

Hassan-i-Sabbah, founder of the Assassins

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.

Devastating siege of Alamut by Français: Abdullâh Sultân [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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.

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About the author …

Jjamesboschertsmalliconames 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.

You can learn more about Boschert and his books at his website or Facebook. When the Jungle is Silent and all of the author’s books are available for purchase at Penmore Press.

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The reviewer received a gratis copy of Assassins of Alamut in exchange for an honest review

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Author photo courtesy James Boschert

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Book Review: Savior

Savior by Martha Kennedy

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

savior-2-edition-coverSavior is Martha Kennedy’s poignant tale of Rudolf and his brother Conrad, inhabitants of thirteenth-century Zürich and a society immersed in religion and warfare. Rudolf suffers from depression, a condition he is counseled comes from Satan and can be eradicated in a fight to save the world from such sin. A local priest explains that with Jerusalem once more in the hands of the infidel, who “wasted no time in desecrating the holy sites and persecuting Christians living within its walls,” fighting these invaders would help to expiate sin and contribute to his salvation.

Kennedy opens Savior with a quote from St. Augustine that reflects Rudolf’s state of mind—“I bore a shattered and bleeding soul,” it reads in part—and a downpour reflecting the emotion, as if nature herself was as anguished. No amount of service to travelers escaping the downpour, or joy in his fiancée, Gretchen, eases Rudolf’s internal torture.

Conrad, on the other hand, is restless and though negative about Gretchen or some content of the minnesingers’ songs, sees a bright future elsewhere, such as under the tutelage of a knight, who could teach him the rules of chivalry. He longs to see the reality behind the travelers’ wonderful stories, so filled with the strange and faraway, the wild and brave. One could easily imagine Conrad delighting in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville had he known of even the outlandish within the travelogue, yet to be published.

Thus begins Rudolf’s aim to join the latest Crusade, following his own examination on the roots of his torment, and Conrad’s in his quest for adventure and something beyond the confines of the Longfields’ estate and his father’s goal for him, to serve his brother as a stable hand.

Image from first edition cover: Herzog von Anhalt from Codex Manesse (Wikimedia Commons)

As the boys prepare to leave, Kennedy alternates between Rudolf and Conrad and their conversations with those who seek to dissuade them. Through expressive, sometimes heartbreaking, dialogue readers are given an internal view to the opposing motivations of each to make the dangerous journey, the same their father had made in his own youth, and which had driven their mother close to the brink: Rudolf, to rid himself of feeling suffocated by the presence of evil, Conrad to “be[come] the hero of his own romance.”

One of the first features I noticed in Savior was the manner in which Kennedy brings to life not only her characters, but also the emotion swirling through so many scenes, while simultaneously managing its effect and keeping it out of the realm of the overwhelming. Readers feel each mood as it hovers, and the author consummately provides the history that we need to know behind each person’s perception.

Despite their opposing motivation both Rudolf and Conrad search for self, and the dialogue, whether between the brothers or one of them and a supporting character, reflects this intuitively. It is as if Kennedy overheard and recorded real conversations rather than created ones that sought to speak from distinct perspectives.

Character growth in Savior is depicted beautifully, largely utilizing the author’s dialogue expertise but also the internal discourse of several characters, including that which plagues and then begins to inform Rudolf as he faces the terrible reality of war, and the now-porous walls of his depressive prison. While his understanding is not exactly as he thought it might be, there is a greater openness to his examination that questions circumstances while retaining the devotion he had always known.

Kennedy wisely allows Rudolf to be the thirteenth-century man he is rather than forcing on him either genuine modern sensibilities or political correctness, while truthfully opening his understanding to the political machinations that had made their way into bonafide belief. The changes wrought by invasion and crusading alters his individual world and eventually society as a whole, and the pain of that transition is felt in Rudolf’s experiences.

Through the current trendiness of Christianity bashing in our own time, it would be easy to label Savior as an indictment of the religion given its early misdirection. While Kennedy does not pull her punches in illuminating the misdeeds of those who abused power and manipulated religiosity, she does also address human failure to recognize the beauty Rudolf’s God desires for him, and how ignorance is the main driver behind misinformation treated as the nature of God.

“Brother Youhanna, did those priests lie when they said my sins would be forgiven if I came to fight the infidel?”

 “Lying? No, yet I doubt they spoke the truth. They spoke from their beliefs, in the limits of their understanding, but Truth is not carried on the edge of a sword.

 “But if the Holy Father in Rome told them, would it not be the truth?”

 Youhanna shrugged.

 Rudolf never imagined the Holy Father could speak anything other than the truth. “What then?”

 “Confusion. Desire. Blindness. Anger. No one is free.”

As historical fiction the novel is top notch. Kennedy brings readers to the brutal Battle of La Forbie where injections of stark prose match what lay out in front of the arriving fighters: too few of them—the Hospitaller leader looks at them “thinking only that they had come to die”—horrendous confidence-destroying heat—shedding layers of protection one at a time, eventually succumbing grievously to, “Who cared if a sniper’s arrow picked them off? They were in Hell now. Death would bring Heaven”—and locals trying to “redeem themselves for the crime of survival.”

From their position on the coast to de Brienne’s impatient and premature strike from a disadvantageous terrain, Kennedy remains true to historic events, smoothly writing in both Conrad and Rudolf’s places in and before the battle. Rudolf experiences a watershed moment, flawlessly written into a scene leading to the moments both he and the fighters have been waiting for. A bridge in the novel, it is filled with an array of memories, sensations, activities and song of the minnesinger, and displays an achingly beautiful passage of time both ghastly and poetic, a combination not often seen done, even less often done as well as it is here.

While Savior is a work of historical fiction set in a time when religion was a way of life and not just part of it, it also is a coming-of-age story, though related within a cultural milieu so different to many of the same stories of today. This is not a Vietnam, or a coming to grips with gruesome urban events, and though it retains the spiritual with its mood and prodigal son angle, it opens itself to readers in its search for truth, an age-old quest, even while appearing in some ways so foreign to what many readers will know, such as medieval attitudes toward mental illness. It is also a book audiences will want to read again and again, it being easily recognizable as one with layers that often reveal themselves upon subsequent visitations, which I highly recommend.

Monk beating Satan (Wikimedia Commons)
Monk beating Satan (Wikimedia Commons)

About the author…

Martha Kennedy has published three works of historical fiction. Her first novel, Martin of Gfenn, which tells the story of a young fresco painter living in 13th-century Zürich, was awarded the Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society Indie Review and the BRAG Medallion from IndieBRAG in 2015.

Her second novel, Savior, also an BRAG Medallion Honoree (2016), tells the story of a young man in the 13th century who fights depression — and discovers himself — by going on Crusade.

Martha KennedyHer third novel, published in July 2016, The Brothers Path, a loose sequel to Savior, looks at the same families met in Savior three hundred years later as they find their way through the Protestant Reformation.

Kennedy has traveled intensively in Switzerland, journeys that have at once inspired and informed her writing. She has also published many short-stories and articles in a variety of publications from the Denver Post to the Business Communications Quarterly.

Kennedy was born in Denver, Colorado and earned her undergraduate degree in American Literature from University of Colorado, Boulder, and her graduate degree in American Literature from the University of Denver. She has taught college and university writing at all levels, business communication, literature and English as a Second Language. For many years she lived in the San Diego area,but has recently returned to Colorado to live in Monte Vista in the San Luis Valley.

All of Martha Kennedy’s novels are available in both paperback and ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other online booksellers. You can also contact the author!

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Follow Martha Kennedy to learn more about the author and her books at her websiteFacebookAmazonGoodreads, Twitter, or her Savior blog  and Facebook pages.

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The blogger was furnished with a free copy of Savior in exchange for an honest review.

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Photos courtesy of and provided by the author.