The short novel is set around the time of the Third Crusade. It kicks off in 1178, and more or less ends with the death of Barbarossa in 1190. With the exception of one element in the final pages suggesting a supernatural entity, this is intended to be an essentially straight historical novel. We can ignore the faintly superhuman qualities of our antihero, Abdul-Wahid, who later assumes the name Haytham. This is characteristic of much of Steven Barnes’ fiction. Starting with the initial novel Streetlethal, he specialises in characters with supreme fighting skills.
Let’s begin this discussion with the faintly unusual decision to tell the story from the point of view of one of the Hashishiyyin. Western writers tend to support the Christian sides of the wars so it makes a change to see what a contemporary American author makes of the politics of the times. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the original assassins have never had a very good press. Starting almost immediately after their appearance in the conflict, they have been demonised as drug-soaked religious fanatics. A manipulation you would expect from those controlling the discourse in the West. Even now, Arab-based freedom fighters are smeared with the “al-Qaeda” label, guaranteed to make Western readers think them all dangerously militant Islamists. So, this choice to look at the recruitment, training and activities of the original assassins makes a welcome addition to the historical fiction set in the twelfth century.
The result is good news and bad news. It has the chance to present a different view of the conflict by the recruitment of Abdul-Wahid who will become the ultimate fighter, and Hakeem who is destined to become a top intellectual. Switching between the two characters or showing them meeting up more often would give the novel the chance to define the historical context and more clearly state the Muslim view of the conflict as they defend their land. As Hakeem rises in the ranks of the hierarchy, he would gain an increasingly informed overview that could be pitted against the on-the-ground experiences of the fighter. Sadly, we only get to see the conflict from a superior foot-soldier’s point of view. This is rather frustrating because a better understanding of the relationships between the different Muslim factions and the different groups comprising the Crusader forces would enhance the novel. In this respect, the plotting is rather dated in approach. It reminds me of The White Company by Conan Doyle and similar books in emphasising the adventure to the detriment of the history. That said, the novel is actually refreshing in showing Abdul-Wahid as an essentially honourable man who increasingly acts as his conscience dictates rather than as a mere killing machine. It’s good to see a Western author make a hero out of someone killing Western Christians.
“The Woman in the Wall” is classic propaganda with an American woman finding herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. As anyone with intelligence would expect, ultimately, everyone will do whatever it takes to survive. In this, race or creed makes no difference. The imperative of self-preservation means the sacrifice of the veneer of civilisation. This is a straight polemical piece set in an African state after a military coup and only vaguely interesting.
“Trickster” is one of two stories jointly written with his wife, Tananarive Due. It’s a post-apocalypse story set in Africa some years after the War of the Worlds invasion, H. G. Wells style. It assumes that after the Martians died, the surviving humans cannibalised their tripod machines, creating simpler but no less deadly machines that could be used to take over the world. This is an interesting premise and, for once, the execution strikes a good balance between human relationships, surrounding events and consequences.
“The Locusts” was jointly written with Larry Niven and nominated for the Hugo Award in 1980. It’s a melancholic story, ruminating on one possible life cycle for the human race. Once you start going down the track of this particular idea, you get locked into the consequences and the authors are to be commended for allowing some residual humanity to assert itself towards the end. Anything less than this would have been unreasonably depressing.
“Father Steel” is a telestory that failed to make it through the animation process and on to the small screen. It’s rather good, this time using history to say something interesting about how fighting men can be moulded into an army and what must be done to maintain their morale when the going gets tough. Finally, “Danger Word”, the second story jointly written with his wife, takes us post-apocalypse again, this time with the living dead. It has a grandfather trying to protect his young grandson as the world around them collapses into anarchy. It has nice touches but, like all such stories, requires the old experienced man to act like an idiot. While the structure of the narrative is highly professional, it’s less than original.
Putting all together produces rather an odd result. The bulk of the content is straight or historical fiction, with three shorter genre pieces. Assassin has a slightly old-fashioned feel. It reminds me of the work produced by Conan Doyle, A. E. W. Mason and others, but does offer interest in giving a voice to Moslems defending their own land against invaders. “Trickster” is the most effective story and, if you have not read it before, “The Locusts” remains a clever idea, well-executed. So your decision whether to buy this book is simple. Given that Barnes, whether on his own or in tandem with others, produces readable prose, you take a view on whether the price of $30 is too much to pay for faintly controversial and what is to me not very original fiction.
Jacket art by Duncan Long.
For another review of a book by Steven Barnes, see Shadow Valley