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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Browsing Books: In the Big City Edition

Some time ago I spent a year that I wasn’t planning to alongside a large L48 metropolis, in one of the suburbs’ own cities. Because I was dirt poor and many, many were having a hard time finding a job, let alone an outsider, book purchases were a pipe dream and I developed a serious library addiction.

I was super excited about it, thinking this would be my chance to see a larger library’s awesome collection, what books and DVDs they had that my own didn’t. I expected a rich supply of literary fiction and non-fiction, foreign films and maybe even luscious cookbooks. What I found was a rundown library, many of whose books were in poor condition and a not-very-wide selection of materials, including DVDs that you had to pay $2.00 each to borrow–I think you got to keep it for two days at least.

This was really shocking to me because people in this area acted like Alaska was a backwoods hole populated by illiterates. In fact, because we do have a lot of far-flung bush communities, we’d been a bit ahead of many other regions in utilizing technology, and our library’s programs and acquisitions operated in similar manner. We’re a little out of the way, so we tend to keep ahead when we can to ensure we aren’t left behind what others are doing. Sure, the library had a ridiculous outdoor staircase completely unsuited to our climate, but the building housed our assembly chambers and a magnificent collection of books, audio and video, even a sizable section devoted to Alaskana. Patrons’ cards linked to the university library, the acquisitions department of which employed talented buyers with keen eyes for fantastic materials.

So what was the deal with this place? You have to pay to borrow video materials? Seriously? The staff were not all that friendly though, to be fair, times were rough and the entire region was dealing with the major emotional fallout of 9-11. Still, this treatment was the rule, not the exception, and I learned quickly to just figure things out for myself, which was OK because once more I came upon an opportunity: having to figure it all out for myself I would surely come across treasures I might not otherwise.

This is my favorite of all this book's various editions' covers.
This is my favorite of all the editions’ covers.

It was in these days I discovered Alexander McCall Smith, specifically The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, not realizing at the time there was a whole series to go with it. To this day I still gobble up his books, including other lineups, wonderful reads that are unsatisfying in the sense that you always want more–and he typically delivers, as he is an amazingly prolific writer. So I wasn’t terribly impressed with this library, but I’ll always remember it as the place that birthed my love for Mma Ramotswe. Even nowadays my son and I still say “Koko!” when looking to see if someone is home and talk about how much pula we might need to buy something. He says he’s not terribly interested in the DVD series, but when I watch it he comments about scenes, predicting events and displaying his keen detective eye!

I did occasionally make my way to the book shops, though until I had been in this city almost a full year I was never able to afford to purchase books. At that time I’d finally gotten some temporary work and though money was still tight, very tight, I decided I could make one celebratory purchase–and it had better be good. Before then I’d always purchased books like they were going out of style but now … I had to seriously justify this one.

The most widely read Persian novel, originally titled Savushun, by the first major Iranian women novelist

In the end I chose a book about Iran that I won’t specifically name, because I don’t have a lot good to say about it. Well, to be honest, I no longer remember much about it except my criticism, one major portion of which was that the author came off as incredibly condescending and pompous. He also wrote about an Iranian author, so graciously telling us plebes that he would go into more detail than he usually might (completely paraphrased; I forget his exact phrases), since the book he was discussing had not been translated into English.

As I read his words, the story seemed so very familiar, yet I couldn’t place it. It bothered me for weeks because though I tried to tell myself I’d probably read of it in another book, it still nagged at me. I no longer recall how I figured it out, but figure it I did and was even more appalled at the author’s patronizing attitude. The book he’d written about was A Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshvar; I recall grabbing it off the shelf at our local bookstore once I’d spotted the design. While I’m certainly no authority–not even close–I’d been reading books about Iran and Iranians since some time and frequently sought out new (and old) titles. So if a novice like me could figure this out, how did this author not know the book was published in English since about 1992? I was irritated by his snootiness, and disappointed because I felt I’d wasted my money, but even more so a sort of event. It was the first book I’d purchased in nearly a year. Bah.

Dakhmeh, by Naveed Noori. An outstanding book that I nevertheless am unsure I could read again. It is haunting in its brilliance--too haunting.
Dakhmeh, by Naveed Noori. An outstanding book that I nevertheless am unsure I could read again. It is haunting in its brilliance–too haunting.

Another novel I came across, though didn’t purchase until later was the haunting tale of an Iranian-born American who returns to his country only to find himself up against a system corrupted, and a society to which he cannot contribute in a positive manner. In desperation he commits an act of defiance that in the U.S. would attract no notice but in Iran sets the forces of the secret police upon him. I was so amazed that such expenditure of resources could be allowed to investigate the character, marveling in horror as the anxiety-provoking pursuit leapt up from the pages and into my own aura. When author Naveed Noori describes an illness Arash suffers, I felt oppressed by the heat of fever, as if I myself were sweating, my clothes layered with the weight of the humidity bearing down on me, the closeness of the air wrapping itself around, suffocating in its terrible embrace. It was an amazing read, but that power of words was quite overwhelming. The Zoroastrian tower of silence implicit in the title and manipulated by the current regime to deliver a slow living death to society and individual alike, with only silence as response, is devastating.

In the end I came back to Alaska, bringing with me some habits I’d picked up or utilized when in the big city, such as book browsing. It took me a long time to begin buying books again because even after I had money again, I’d been too deeply ingrained into that need to justify buying any. Our library system links with libraries all over Alaska and the interlibrary loan (ILL) program is fairly massive. So if a book isn’t owned by the Juneau library, for example, but is by Nome’s, you can still borrow it–and that’s just the ordinary checkout. ILL has gotten books for me from far-flung corners of the U.S., though I rarely have to use it.

Nowadays I do purchase, but also browse books a lot. For a bibliophile, no salary ever pays enough to be able to afford books (!), but my son and I have embraced the habit also for the slowness, the deliberate nature of it. Sometimes we make an afternoon jaunt of it, packing lunches and strolling through the new fiction and non-fiction, Teen Underground (him), DVDs (he’s a film aficionado) and other sections just to see what’s out there. So what developed out of necessity now is a way to share the love of books with my child, spending some cool time together.

Some “browsies” are longer or shorter than others, and somehow they always seem to have some theme, perhaps linked to what’s on my mind at the time. Because it’s also a fun way to share books, and memories of them, with people apart from doing book reviews, I’ve decided to keep this “Browsing Books” going, for the time being at least, as a series. As with all other entries, I would so love you to share–as I say to my little boy, it’s more fun that way.