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Pride of Kings
Judith Tarr
Roc Books, 451 pages

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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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For those of you who have not as yet satiated yourselves upon the lore of Arthur or the realm of "faery," who have not already overfed upon the pages and pages of books written over the last decade or so by Marion Zimmer Bradley or the admirable, unfortunately largely overlooked Deverry and Westlands series by Katharine Kerr (in sheer scale the equal of Jordan's, though produced at a less protracted pace), the speculative Celtic reconstructions of Morgan Llywelyn, the various Arthurian-based epics of Stephen Lawhead or Bernard Cornwell, as well as various previous or recent minings by authors such as Diana Paxson, Jennifer Roberson, Parke Godwin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Jack Whyte, Nikolai Tolstoy,  Juliet Marillier, Jo Walton and Judith Tarr herself, let alone older work by C.S. Lewis, T.H. White,  and Clemence Housman, naming perhaps only the more visible, this is a book that should garner your attention.  That contemporary authors continue to return again and again to Celtic folklore and Arthurian legend for material speaks to the ready wealth available and the fascination these sources continue to possess, both for the authors as well as their anticipated audience.  It would appear, regardless of how many times retold or recontextualized, this material continues to captivate and attract readers, even when little substantively is added to the already overflowing flood of narrative.  Those of you who have not yet drunk your fill will likely be delighted by yet another round in Judith Tarr's Pride of Kings.

Loosely based around the historical events following Richard I's ascension to the throne, his departure for the Third Crusade and, after rather abortive results in the Holy Land, his subsequent imprisonment, with the connivance of King Phillip II of France, by the Hohenstaufen king and emperor, Henry VI, this novel focuses upon the role and actions of Richard's youngest brother, John Lackland, largely through the eyes of an Outremer-born, landless knight, Arslan, the bastard son of minor nobility and a mysterious, Eastern ifritah.  In this novel, Tarr stands the conventional historical view of John on its head, transforming the scheming, ambitious and rebellious younger son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine into a somewhat calculating, if sympathetic, hero who, despite his projected public and historical persona, defends Britain in Richard's absence against the machinations and a magically-wrought invasion by the French king.  He accomplishes this, all the while maintaining the public subterfuge of his enmity towards his brother, by assuming the hidden crown of Britain, the magical and spiritual inheritance of Bran and Arthur, whose source is the land and the realm of faery, separate and distinct from the mortal crown worn by Richard.  In this effort, John is assisted by Arslan and four guardian sorcerers, protectors of the realm, with magical support from faery's ephemeral denizens and the spirits of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire.

All the major historical participants are present in this tale: besides the various kings and queens mentioned above, also William Longchamp, bishop of Ely, papal legate and justiciar and chancellor in Richard's absence, whose enmity and quarrels with John was well documented; Walter of Coustances, William the Marshal and Richard and John's illegitimate brothers, William Longsword and Geoffrey, archbishop of York.  Even the sister of Phillip II, Alais makes a brief appearance.  In large, these figures as characters conform to their roles in history, following the known events between Richard's coronation in 1189 and his eventual return to England and his public reconciliation with his troublesome brother in the spring of 1194.  Tarr has included in her characterizations of these figures personality traits and incidents well authenticated, though on at least one occasion questionable: John's reputation for philandering, Richard's love of verse and his close relationship with Phillip in his youth, in the novel reputed to homosexual, along with Richard's preferences.  However, as John Gillingham has shown in his definitive biography of Richard, these rumors were speculative at best, with far more evidence existing that point to Richard as being heterosexual in his sexual appetites.  This is perhaps a problem often found in "historical" fantasy, especially that based upon the Middle Ages or earlier cultures, such as the Celts, where available evidence is often scanty or suspect in itself, where an author does not fully research their sources or finds rumor more useful or titillating than truth.  Nonetheless, in the main Tarr, except for her recontextualization of John and the presentation of certain events within a framework of the magical and faery, the intentions here obviously fictional, cleaves to the historical outline and characters of her story.

In terms of the magical, the author borrows and blends from a wide range of traditions, including Middle Eastern jinn and fire myths, golems from Judaic scripture, the Germanic sagas and folklore, such as the Lorelei and the Ring of the Nibelung, as well as the various welter of Celtic and Gaelic deities.  Figures such as Morgana and Robin make an appearance, as does the Summer Country and Avalon.  As the author's use of mythic and folkloric traditions has been wide-ranging in the past, this should come as no surprise for her readers.  Here she grounds her diverse use of magical systems within a concept of kingdoms defended and supported by magical realms whose interests are warded by guardian sorcerers and the Arthurian notion of kingship.  While each kingdom shares a similar magical foundation, their interests and goals are not mutually inclusive, and thus allow the author a premise for including at times divergent mythical traditions.  While successful in establishing a rationale for this blend of differing cultural traditions, it serves no other purpose beyond the plot, adding nothing new to the literature, only guising the various magics in different roles.

This novel is as much romance as fantasy, a fair amount of time spent in the evolving romantic relationships between four of the characters, six if you include that of John and Susanna.  Description lingers on the sexual union of the two idealized main characters, Arslan and Eschiva, the latter with "skin like milk," "a crown of fiery braids and the spray of sun-kisses across her cheeks."  Arslan is invariably depicted as a physical ideal of bronze-skinned manhood, broad-shouldered, muscular, who draws the eye of every woman around him, making even practical matrons, "who had never blinked at anything in heaven or hell, [blush] and [dimple] and [simper] like a girl."  Love between them wakes at first sight, and the kisses that follow are "dizzying."  Further, Arslan comes skilled in the exotic and fabled arts of love of the East, his abilities at seduction and pleasure so well honed that he is able to turn the tables on an immortal seductress, just his knowing touch leaving her "limp," "until she is almost blind with it, her face blank, empty of wit or will."  The associative language identified with romance fiction is plentiful here, "rampant" a favorite adjective for the male genitalia, for some reason Arslan's circumcision appearing singularly important as it is repeatedly noted in comparison to the prevalent practice of the period that left Christian men uncircumcised.  While this might be deduced as evidence of historical verisimilitude, its repeated mention leads me to suspect otherwise.

There is little question as to Tarr's ability to refashion history around fantasy, as well as draw upon the research that went into this book to create a skillfully wrought story.  It is a tale told with an economy that, while at times leaving, especially near the beginning of the book, some of the characters' decisions seeming mildly precipitous and unconsidered, moves the narrative along, rarely dawdling.  While some readers may find the amount of time spent on romance and affairs more melodrama than drama, and perhaps revolving to a greater degree around the physical rather than the emotional, those that like this sort of thing will not be put off, anymore than those that enjoy continually revisiting the realm of faery and Arthurian legend.  While not the equal, I feel, of some of the recent historical fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay or the superb novel The Black Chalice, by Marie Jakober, similarly set within the framework of the Crusades, this is a well done story that, in terms of its plot and characters, successfully merges its historical elements with the fantastic.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.


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