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Kingdom of the Grail
Judith Tarr
Roc Books, 464 pages


Jerry Vanderstelt
Kingdom of the Grail
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: Household Gods
SF Site Review: The Shepherd Kings

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven H Silver

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One of the greatest monarchs of the Medieval period was Charlemagne, initially king of the Franks (768-814), later the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (800-814). During the Middle Ages, stories of legendary figures were associated with Charlemagne's court, much as King Arthur's legendary Camelot gained new members as minstrels added their tales. However, the cycle of stories about Charlemagne does not have the durability that the Arthurian tales have had.

Perhaps the most famous of the stories about Charlemagne's court is the 12th-century Chanson de Roland, a poem about one of Charlemagne's companions who was killed in an ambush. The chanson is based on the historical figure of Roland, the Lord of the Breton Marches, who was killed by Basques at Roncevalles in 778.

Judith Tarr has taken the epic Chanson de Roland and the historic Charlemagne and created Kingdom of the Grail, a fantasy novel which explains Ganelon's treachery and Roland's death while mixing in the more familiar and popular grail legend from Arthurian mythology. Tarr's representation of Charlemagne's court is a composite of the historical court and the Charlemagne depicted in the chanson.

Tarr, who holds a Ph.D. in Medieval history, clearly has a deep understanding of such primary sources as Einhard's Vita Caroli, Notker's De Carolo Magno, and the 12th century Chanson de Roland, as well as secondary sources such as Pierre Riché's La Vie Quotidienne dans l'Empire Carolingien. Her tale draws elements from all of those works and her use of short paragraphs is reminiscent of the verse style of the chanson.

The novel follows the basic plot of the Chanson de Roland, with Ganelon's arrival at Charlemagne's court, the decision to battle the Muslims in Spain and the subsequent ambush at Roncevalles. After the battle, Tarr follows the historical record, specifically the revolt of Charlemagne's son, Pepin. However, this is juxtaposed with Roland's adventures in Montsalvat, the Kingdom of the Grail, where his greater destiny is revealed.

While Tarr takes an interesting an under-explored legend and mixes it with the more popular tale of Arthur, the ideas she presents are more interesting than the novel itself. She never manages to get the pacing correct, and the characters are led by their fates rather than any sense of free will, although towards the end of the novel, the question of free will becomes important in and of itself.

Early in the novel, Roland forms a relationship with the mysterious Sarissa. However, the sense of mystery feels forced and the reader never really wonders where Sarissa comes from. Of more concern is why the two characters are together, since there does not appear to be any real chemistry between them.

Tarr has a great ability to create potentially interesting situations using historical precedents. Unfortunately, she has not yet mastered the ability to turns these stories into entertaining novels. While a fast-paced novel certainly isn't required, especially when dealing with more philosophical issues, Tarr could certainly increase the pacing in Kingdom of the Grail.

Copyright © 2000 by Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver in one of SF Site's Contributing Editors as well as one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He is Vice-Chairman of Windycon 28 and Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is trying to get his short stories published and has recently finished his first novel. Steven is a Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer. He lives in Illinois with his wife, daughter and 4000 books.


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