Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Sun Jun 09 23:25:48 EDT 1991

Raymond's Reviews #105

%T Alamut    
%A Judith Tarr
%I Bantam Spectra
%D December 1990
%O paperback, US$4.95
%P 391
%G 0-553-28786-9

Judith Tarr's "Alamut," which returns us to the world of her "Hound and Falcon" trilogy, epitomizes both the strengths and weaknesses of her writing.

On the positive side (as she takes pains to tell us, in a postscript), Tarr has researched the period of the Crusades and used her research to create a plausible medieval Middle East for the characters to inhabit. As in all of Tarr's novels, the characters are lovingly imagined, meticulously described, and made sympathetic through our empathy with the genuine moral dilemmas they must resolve. The problem with Tarr's work is harder to describe. Despite the fascination of its characters, "Alamut" is not a gripping read. Why? Because the only tension in the novel arises from personal relationships between different individual characters. Will immortal Aidan accept the love of the infidel and Assassin, Morgiana, despite his vow to avenge his kinsmen? Will Morgiana forsake her master for Aidan? Will Joanna return to her dour noble husband? Will Sayyida and her husband mend their differences? Once you know the answers to these questions, "Alamut" holds no further surprises, and that is regrettable.

A novelist must depict characters that feel "real" to hold the reader's interest. But "real" characters, standing alone, are simply not sufficient to hold a reader's attention throughout a novel's 200-odd or 300-odd pages. The reader also needs to see those characters act in their world and gain a picture of their efforts to achieve ALL of their goals, not merely those that are integral to their relationships with other characters.

This "context gap" is the main problem with "Alamut." We have no context for the parts of the characters' lives that bear on their politics, their personal and social survival, and Tarr refrains from supplying such context even where doing so would be natural. For example, we see Joanna in the harem among her mother's kin, observing the cloistered Arab women gathering political information and subtly using that information to manipulate their husbands' political decisions. But these scenes give us no information about the political climate with which Joanna was supposedly born to deal. Instead, we see this process only insofar as it enables Joanna to assist Aidan and to meet him in secret, further fostering the illusion that nothing is important to these people -- except for their relationship to each other.

Tarr should re-read "Les Miserables," or a similar classic, to learn how much drama a writer can generate by addressing the mundane context of her characters' lives. Unless she gains such perspective, she will undoubtedly continue to write dull novels packed with dramatic scenes between interesting people.

[This by guest reviewer Cathy Olanich -- ESR]

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Sun Jun 09 23:25:48 EDT 1991

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>