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: When the Jungle is Silent

When the Jungle is Silent by James Boschert

“To the British, Australian, New Zealand and Gurkha soldiers, sailors and airman, some of whom died in the service of their countries, who went into the jungle to confront an enemy of far greater numbers and faced him down.

In particular this book is dedicated to the extraordinary men of the Special Air Service who give new meaning to the words dedication, courage and determination. Their skill at survival was legend in a jungle that, while itself neutral, harbored an enemy that was cruel and unmerciful to its victims.”

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In the 1960s, when the world’s attention was focused on Vietnam, another war, stemming from the creation of Malaysia and given far less attention, was in progress as the British army sought to end Indonesian incursions into the Malay jungles of Borneo. Known as the Konfrontasi, or Confrontation, the war played out mainly along the border between Indonesia and eastern Malaysia in a theater with few roads and a great deal of wild land.

Now, James Boschert, author of the magnificent Force 12 in German Bight, writes of the Borneo Confrontation utilizing not only solid research, but also personal experience. While the assault on Sapit in When the Jungle is Silent is fictionalized, Boschert draws from personal understanding and relationships to write the story of Jason, a young Welsh light infantry soldier whose unit, at the outset, is undergoing more rigorous training than they are perhaps used to.

To Jason and the other lads in the Pioneer section, who were also called Riflemen, although they rarely did front-end work, [jungle exercises were] an endless waste of time.

 “Bloody ‘ell,” grumbled Andy. “I need a lie-in, not more of this bullshit!”

 Jason nodded. He could not see much benefit for himself doing this kind of thing. “The Company Riflemen are the ones supposed to go out an’ get manky and sweaty. They can play at being soldiers for fuck’s sake! Our job is bein’ Pioneers! That means to support and … well, encourage them’s to be good soldiers!”

 Soon after Jason returns to Penang, where he is stationed, living a somewhat (and relatively) carefree life on the island with Megan, an American Peace Corps volunteer he meets via The Moon and Sixpence. Boschert’s depiction of the pair’s growing involvement, while not the largest part of the story, nevertheless plays a vital role in that it is a crucial part of Jason’s growth and presents a view to what it might be like, while on a tour of duty, to be part of a relationship separate from the military.

Malaysia (political)--Penang is labeled off the west of the Malay Peninsula, just below Thailand (Wikipedia creative Commons)
Malaysia (political)–Penang is labeled off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, just below Thailand (Wikipedia Creative Commons) (Click image)

While still in the novel’s first third, Boschert introduces Major Johnson, whose story runs parallel to that of Jason, placing them both on a trajectory more likely than not to end badly. Johnson, in charge and responsible for making a decision regarding a situation in which there are no good options, must answer for the terrible consequences, and at one point “had no doubt that he was flying towards his court martial[.]” Especially in this segment, the author’s dialogue is so direct that it reflects the incredulousness Johnson and other characters must feel, the slowly dawning understanding of what they are up against. As a technique, the effect is brilliant, and an unbelieving review of certain passages brings the realization that as readers, we have been drawn solidly into the story. Along with the soldiers, we scan the carnage, the remains, read the reports, trying to make ourselves imagine that it really didn’t happen.

As Jason makes his way to the jungle following the attack on his fort, he has no such luxury. To say time is of the essence is an understatement, and to that end Boschert utilizes verbiage that tells all we want to know—and more—about being on the run in the jungle. Pithy and straightforward, the author’s prose wastes no words—Jason simply doesn’t have that kind of time—but from here on out, they contain images written as prose, impressions so sharp they light up the movie reels in our minds as we cannot help but urge him on: mudding his face, cleaning his gun, keeping watch for every leaf or blade of grass that might be an Indonesian soldier. The tension eases and flares, and is so unpredictable readers find they are so intent on keeping watch that every blade does become an Indonesian, even when it isn’t.

Through the novel Jason is written as a sympathetic character: likeable in his ordinariness, despite his sometimes-too-cavalier attitude toward soldiering, or perhaps because of it, many readers could relate. We recall his own earlier memories, of seeing no future on a Welsh farm, of his father giving him a hard time for spending all his spare money on books. Now the larger and smaller question of How did I end up here? results in a wave of emotion as

[s]elf-pity overtook him and tears began to course down his sweating face. He wanted to howl and cry out, but a sense of self-preservation was still there. He buried his head in his arms and sobbed quietly. Where was he? No compass and no food. The Indons would surely find him and kill him—or perhaps worse, take him prisoner. The barracks rumor of what they did to prisoners was foremost in his mind.

As Jason recoils from thoughts of Megan, and engages in one task at a time, Boschert takes us through the initial shock of landing in the jungle with very little ammunition (200 rounds) and two chocolate bars, and gives us a sense of progress, a way forward. Each task eases a little bit of the next burden in the jungle that even when silent, seems to carry some sort of life. As Jason monitors his surroundings, the jungle too “seem[s] to be holding its breath and listening.”

Closeup--Penang. (Wikimedia Commons, used with permission of Torty3) (Click image)
Closeup—Penang (Wikimedia Commons, used with permission of Torty3) (Click image)

In alternate chapters we see Major Johnson and Jason on different paths, though slowly coming closer to one another, even though neither knows it. The novel is paced smoothly and quickly, and the story is its own “teasing it out”—Boschert need add no extraneous storyline to keep us on the edge of our seats, skillfully providing us with answers, though often ones that trigger a host of new questions. And, as Jason comes face to face with others in the jungle, he must draw strength from deep within to navigate an escape.

Like Jason, all of Jungle’s other characters are drawn imperfectly: we have no swaggering heroes here. They do not inhabit a formula of “imperfect person performs great act” either—these are flawed human beings who sometimes make poor choices, leading to disastrous results, or hilarious. Boschert shows them to us in their gallantry, bravery, in their stink, drunkenness, foolishness, for some their last horrible moments, others, in varying ways, fighting for the future, even amongst fear and degradation. The battle scenes are riveting and Boschert’s descriptive prose is such that even those unfamiliar with theater terminology can follow events without being bogged down.

Written and drawn out—I feel compelled to use this visual descriptor because down to every illusory plant and human appearance, the words rise off the page to be seen as clearly as if Boschert had indeed drawn or shown actual pictures—written and drawn by someone who himself patrolled this very terrain, When the Jungle is Silent will prove challenging to separate from, as readers will want to see Jason and Johnson through to the very end, no matter the outcome.

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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 When the Jungle is Silent in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: Force 12 in German Bight

Force 12 in German Bight

By James Boschert

It is widely known that through history proximity to water has always been a top priority, even when marine access near where settlements occurred gives way to roaring oceans and seas with conditions so brutal and unforgiving that we marvel at how anyone had the fortitude to face them at all.

force 12The North Sea in particular, containing the world’s busiest shipping lanes, has never been known for its placid nature; even a brief query into logs and records reveals a long history of casualties of her rage—and not just sailors and other seafarers. In 1362, the Danish duchy of Schleswig lost an entire city when Grote Manndränke (“Great Drowning of Men”), gale-induced flooding, swept in from the sea, killing at least 25,000 people and dragging Rungheldt, and everything within, out to a watery grave. It is said that the city’s church bells can still be heard ringing in the area on stormy nights.

The forces that stir the waters are measured by what is known as the Beaufort scale, a system developed by Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, which relates wind speed and conditions of the sea into a standardized measure. Evolving over time to adapt to technology and land observations, the scale tops out at Force 12.

Within this setting author James Boschert sets the main events of Force 12 in German Bight, though the book opens with a hideous death on land, at London’s Paddington Station, where an electric train grinds to a halt and runs over the body of a man thought to have jumped in its path. Detective Inspector Steven Greenfield picks up the case, quickly determining the man was murdered before his body hit the rails, setting off a series of links that eventually take readers out to sea, embarking upon an odyssey none of our literary shipmates could ever have imagined.

Following a few scenes that introduce other characters to the novel, Boschert cleverly moves us out to sea, commencing our journey as a group of barge workers embark on their own latest dredging foray under the turbulent waters of the North Sea. Equally skillfully, the author sets the stage for later events and how the setting interacts with the characters and our own absorption of how it all unfolds:

“Patrick wanted to get off the deck quickly; he didn’t want to get in the way of one of the fifty ton cranes, which rumbled about on the wide, wooden-clad steel deck like huge dinosaurs, lifting cargo off the back deck of the tug, and swinging it up onto the larger vessel. Unless one knew what was going on, the upper deck of the barge was a dangerous place to loiter.”

One of a group of hard-living men who curse the isolation of their rough work space, Patrick spends some time re-acquainting with his cabin mate and socializing at a clandestine welcome-back party before assuming his night shift. Within these scenes Boschert simultaneously and seamlessly instructs and informs the reader of barge operations, various billets and the mechanism of constant breakdowns the vessel endures. He pulls the technique off expertly, and I was drawn in by the dialogue as it ran smoothly along it course, without a hint that it was actually pulling this double duty.

German Bight shown to the east of the United Kingdom, near the German and Danish coasts, by NOAA (click image)

Some new readers may be tempted to cast Force 12 in German Bight as a “guy book,” given its setting, nearly-all-male cast and the male-oriented industrial lingo; this would be a grave mistake. The dialogue’s liquidity, soundness and intrigue drew me in to such a degree I found myself looking into certain terms—servo motors, gyroscope, winch room, for example—in order to place myself even more closely within the events of the story than I already was. This is a measure of how closely I wanted to align myself with these characters, drawn with such authenticity that I sought to know their world on the deepest level possible.

Finding myself gripping the book at times, I could indeed smell the sea air, feel the heavy diesel stink in my nostrils, hear the thunder of the machinery, visualize the droplets of sea shooting into the air, then pounding back down as people shouted at each other to be heard, while their movements compensated for the rise and fall of the waves that tossed their barge up and down with them.

Making his rounds that evening, Patrick discovers a dead body, the American Charlie, whose head wounds seem to indicate murder. He guardedly summons a comrade called Skillet and from here on out he and the men who gather around him are locked in a battle for the barge as well as their lives. Not only is an unknown murderer on board, but he is also part of a planned piracy excursion using the Cherokee as a go-between.

Beaufort Force 12 at a wind speed of 64 knots (118 kilometres per hour) or more. Huge waves; the sea is completely white with foam and spray. Air is filled with driving spray, greatly reducing visibility. By NOAA (click image)

Given their location in the North Sea, an area in Danish territorial waters called German Bight, a region most prone to vicious storms, the Danish police are called in and here we meet Detective Inspector Erland Knudson and Assistant Detective Hedi Iverson. Boschert’s portrayal of these characters is so spot on it might be difficult to believe they are fictional. Knudson is smooth but realistically imperfect as he lets his subordinate take the lead to utilize the skills he’d seen her demonstrate before.

While the plot moves forward and the onboard, at-sea investigation evolves into a deadly game of cat and mouse, Iverson occasionally betrays her anxiety at her foray into what is typically male territory, but without losing either her credibility as a strong female detective or her dignity. Boschert has no need for a token female and Iverson never regresses into being one. She had assumed masks as all police do, but she’d never claimed to be anyone other than who she was. This unpretentious role will indeed attract more female readers, but with an endurance that goes far beyond the mere appearance of a woman character.

As events unfold, more information is divulged to readers than Patrick and his group as they stealthily aim to take back their barge and bring it to safety. At some intervals Patrick stumbles upon information that enables him to catch up to us, or at least get closer, though he has a few tricks up his sleeve as well, performances carried out while we are taken elsewhere or as we look away.

Forced up against the pirates’ superior position as well as their determination to carry out their nefarious plans, Patrick and the others must utilize their previous hard-living habits, not anymore as façade, but virtually a lifeline.

Ruthless, anonymous pirates aren’t the only challenge Patrick faces as the storms outside batter away at their “rust bucket”; radio communications are poor to non-existent and conditions in the German Bight become truly fearsome.

“German Bight. Wind: south nine to ten, backing ten to gale eleven, perhaps severe gale twelve later in the day. Seas: rough with waves in excess of forty-five [feet] or more. Rain: squalls and storms, possible hail. Visibility: low to poor.”

It is in conditions such as these, with horrific death beckoning from just over the rail, that sailors’ superstition can arise, especially given the understanding these men have of the sea, a most unforgiving mistress. They would certainly have known of the lands previously turned into islands, coasts broken to bits and a city such as Rungheldt, swept in its entirely under the sea by the Grote Manndränke all those years ago, though by no means had that been the last casualty.

“The hair on [Patrick’s] neck began to rise and he felt a cold chill pass through him, because what he saw was a ship. Not a modern steam ship, but a sailing ship of pure white with all sails set, and it came straight at them. Shit! “The Flying Dutchman”!

 The ship flew towards them in eerie silence while he clutched the rails. He remembered what the legend said: The Flying Dutchman was a portent of disaster for ships and sailors who beheld it in a storm, for when they did their ship was in grave peril and would go down with all hands.”

As he and others battle with pirates as well as their own fear—of natural forces and human agents of evil—contact with land authorities is sporadic as those back in London become aware of certain activities, though not necessarily the connections between them all. Boschert knows exactly how to spin a yarn and draw gasps from readers who will find themselves unable to lay the book down. Throughout history the sea has captivated many, and Boschert effortlessly uses its allure to reel us in with a thrilling tale that ranks along with the very best in the industry. Readers will thrill, marvel, sweat and cheer as a delicate balance of anticipating and acting must be undertaken, and there are no second chances.

For book lovers of all genres, Force 12 in German Bight is a top-notch thriller that will take you to a world you may or may not know. Its gripping narrative will hurl you around with the storm as you follow the characters in their aim to best those who would destroy them first.

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JamesBoschertSmallIconJames 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. Force 12 in German Bight and all of the author’s books are available for purchase at Penmore Press.

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The reviewer received a free copy of Force 12 in German Bight in exchange for an honest review.

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This post was updated to include reviewer’s notation about copy acquisition.

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