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WesternSFA
Knight Assassin
by James Boschert
Fireship Press, $20.95, 464pp
Release Date: November 3, 2010

This is a splendid historical adventure, set during the early stage of the Crusades.

Talon, who grew up in the Holy Land , had been kidnapped by Saracens and trained as an assassin, like an eagle feather fletched to be aimed at the very eagle who lost the feather. But after many adventures he has been reunited with his father, Sir Hughes, and they are returning to his father’s holdings in France .

Traveling on a merchant’s ship with his father, his uncle Philip (a Templar knight), his uncle’s squire Max, and a band of Welsh archers, Talon distinguishes himself when pirates attack. Pirates were a terrible menace on the seas, for pilgrims usually were easy targets for slavers. But Talon and his company are no mere pilgrims, and under Talon’s direction, they wage a battle that demonstrates the truth of the adage - sometimes the best defense is a good offence.

Remember, Talon has been raised primarily by Muslims for most of his life, so as he travels across France he sees all the sights that were commonplace to Christian Europeans with fresh eyes. All his senses, including his common sense, are evaluating what everyone else takes for the way of things. Lacking the standard prejudices, he befriends the Welshmen and becomes, in effect, their patron. Most significantly, Talon has not grown up in the shadow of the Church – and some bishops did cast very dark shadows indeed, amassing fortunes through alliances and power by intimidation. So when he discovers that his mother’s cousin and the local bishop have formed an unholy alliance to disinherit his family of their estate, Talon is neither cowed nor helpless.

Talon is welcomed warmly by most, but not by all. His mother is overjoyed to have her firstborn son restored to her, and Talon’s young brother, Guillaume, quickly decides that Talon is his hero. Talon’s maternal cousins Marcel and Roger, however, make it plain that they would like nothing better than to eliminate him from the inheritance pool.

As a well-formed, handsome, and courteous young man – and one who actually bathes – Talon attracts his share of attention from the ladies. There is no lack of romance in his life, and Boschert does a superb job of showing different behaviors for women of different social classes in the middle ages. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine has left her mark, and ladies of the noble courts emulate her. Even in the towns and market places, Eleanor’s influence is felt, for under her patronage musicians had flourished, and villagers enjoy the songs that are a mixture of bawdy humor and sweet romance. Talon himself is drawn to one maiden, the fair Aicelina, who is both brave and independent-minded. Her storyline is one of the outstanding subplots of this book.

At one point, Talon is invited in no uncertain terms to share another young lady’s bed. Is such behavior realistic? Weren’t maidens supposed to be retiring and shy, not so forward? Well, given that the lady’s usual options were uncouth, unwashed, drunken men, that she herself had had wine at supper, and that one of the bishop’s clerks had just tried to construe hospitality as permission to force himself on her, I’d say she’d lunge at the opportunity for something much, much better in the way of a bedmate.

One important aspect of knighthood that this story makes clear is that a knight’s primary loyalty, his fealty, was to the lord who knighted him – not to king and country. This is how lords built their power base, and this was how lords became powerful enough to rebel against kings. Men who aspired to knighthood rarely thought this through. They were too politically naive, too ambitious, or too eager to distinguish themselves to be bothered much by the inherent conflicts of loyalty. Talon, almost as soon as he is knighted by the Count of Carcassonne, is sent on a mission that can be viewed as treasonous to not one king, but two. The Duke is attempting to ally himself with Prince Richard Lion-heart, very much behind the backs of both the French King and the English King. Talon is bothered by the nature of his errand; even more so when the treachery cuts both ways and his party is attacked with deadly effectiveness. Now Talon has two situations to resolve that threaten his own life and the safety of his family.

Full of adventure, with moments of romance alternating with tournaments, sneak attacks and counter-strikes, as well as accurate descriptions of politics, customs, places and historical figures, this sequel to Assassins of Alamut is a great book in its own right. It’s pacing is exactly right for the observations and reflections Talon is making as a stranger in a strange land called home. – Chris R. Paige

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