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Devil's Bargain
Judith Tarr
Roc Books, 387 pages

Devil's Bargain
Judith Tarr
Judith Tarr was born in 1955 in Augusta, Maine. Her education includes time spent at Mount Holyoke College (AB), Newnham College, Cambridge (BA and MA) and Yale University (MA, M.Phil and PhD). Her first books, the 3-volume Hound and the Falcon series (The Isle of Glass, The Golden Horn, and The Hounds of God), brought a new freshness to fantasy. It follows the adventures of Alfred, a half-human, half-elf hybrid.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Pride of Kings
SF Site Review: Kingdom of the Grail
SF Site Review: Household Gods
SF Site Review: The Shepherd Kings

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

When Judith Tarr first wove her magic around one of the bloodiest and most fascinating periods of history ever, the Crusades, she held me rapt in the palm of her hand. The Dagger and the Cross, for instance, was a gem of the genre, scintillating with both real history and magical characters who could never have lived but -- if there was any fairness or rightness in this humdrum world of ours -- ought to have existed if only for the charm they lent to everything around them. Real historical characters who moved through those books -- Saladin, the Leper King of Jerusalem, his flighty sister Sybilla, the feckless Guy de Lusignan who rose to prominence as her husband -- were portrayed with both skill and flair.

Devil's Bargain, her latest foray into that theme, is, by comparison, somewhat lackluster.

It gives an impression of a "plot-by-numbers" kind of book. There is no real coherence in it, no cohesion. The main storyline seems to be the love affair between King Richard the Lionheart's illegitimate sister Sioned and Saladin's brother Saphadin, a star-crossed partnership apparently doomed to founder on the reefs of war, cultural disparity, age difference and the fact that the gentleman, in the accepted fashion of Islam, was already married -- to several other people.

Attached to this romance is an attempt at a book full of undercurrents. Sioned is sent by her brother -- for oddly flimsy reasons -- to the court of a rival claimant to the throne of Jerusalem, where she is framed for murder and accused of being an Assassin. One of the legendary kind, that is, the ones from Masyaf who owed their allegiance to the Old Man of the Mountain and whose trademark was a hashish cookie, the so-called Assassin cake, left by the corpse of the mark after he was dispatched. Unlikely as this seems (just how credible is it that Franks would believe a lady of Richard's court and his close kin to be an Assassin?) Sioned is thrown into prison, and condemned to die. Her gallant Saracen swain rides to the rescue after having sold his soul to Sinan, the Old Man of the Mountain himself, at the head of an army of wild spirits. But this bargain is not the "devil's bargain" of the title -- that sobriquet belongs to a somewhat shadowy deal struck between Sinan and Richard's mother, the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine.

When I was young, I wanted to be Eleanor of Aquitaine (not the part where she spent all those years behind bars at King Henry's command, of course, but the early years, when she was strong, glittering, the wife and mother to kings, her influence in the courts of Europe staggering). But, see, she did all this through sheer force of personality and charisma. Having it portrayed by Tarr as due to her being a black witch who haggled with the Devil without a care for her soul jars me deeply -- and diminishes a grand character and one of the only women in the Middle Ages who made some kind of impact on the times. On Eleanor's behalf, I resent it. She is made less than what she was.

And then, heaping sin upon sin, having no less than branded poor Eleanor a witch, Tarr makes the bargain she strikes an oddly amorphous one -- and the denouement of the book, in the fight for Jerusalem in a version of history where Saladin did succumb to the Assassins sent to slay him and Richard did get crowned king of Jerusalem instead of hotfooting it back to be best man at Robin Hood's wedding after a period of being a guest in the dungeons of Leopold of Austria, is curiously rushed and unformed, as though the author wasn't quite sure what was supposed to happen and simply glossed over everything with a happy ending worthy of a Disney movie of the Crusades.

I love reading about the Crusades. I love reading about Eleanor, about Richard, about Saladin and about the Outremer of the Franks. I know I am not alone in feeling a frisson at the name of Jerusalem, the Golden, which meant so much to so many. And yet, with all this magic fairly bursting from it, Devil's Bargain simply never quite gets off the ground.

Copyright © 2003 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves". When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her latest fantasy work, a two-volume series entitled Changer of Days, was published by HarperCollins.

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