Judith Tarr,
The Devil's Bargain
(Roc, 2002)

Judith Tarr's alternative historical fantasy The Devil's Bargain ponders the possibilities of Richard the Lion-Hearted's last crusade.

In Tarr's version of history, Richard's mother, the infamous Eleanor of Aquitaine, is a powerful sorceress who has struck a bargain with Sinan, the Old Man of the Mountain. Her goal is glory and the crown of Jerusalem for Richard and the defeat of Saladin. The price? Richard's eternal soul. Richard has a half-sister, Sioned, a skilled healer and emerging sorceress herself and an indispensable part of Richard's army. She loves her brother, fears his mother and resists all attempts to turn her into a lady.

Saladin's brother, Saphadin, has become the diplomat conducting the negotiations between his brother and Richard. Also a powerful magician, he is drawn to Sioned and offers her a mentor to develop her own powers. The mutual attraction grows until Sioned wonders how she can resolve her conflicting loyalties

Murder and intrigue complicate her life, and only by the loyalty of Mustafa, one of Richard's devoted followers, is she spared from total ensnarement. As Richard marches toward Jerusalem, Sioned knows that her only hope is to destroy Sinan and release both her brother and Saphadin from his relentless grip.

Tarr has a reputation for careful and thoughtful research, and her reputation is borne out here. Alternate history requires not just changing one event but also tracing the "ripples" around the event. Much of the story depends on the fantasy elements, although even those stop short of deus ex machina. The interaction between the mundane and the magical drives the story.

The characterizations gives way to the complexities of the story, resulting in somewhat stock characters: the blustery warrior who forges on regardless, the unconventional and somewhat innocent young woman growing into her powers, the cool elegant sorcerer -- there are similar characters in almost any high fantasy novel. The difference here is that Tarr pins down her characters with her research, giving them authenticity and definite purpose. The character of Mustafa, a Muslim who is loyal to Richard, is especially well delineated as a man who seems to walk the borders of multiple worlds.

The story is engrossing and if the characters are not the most complex in literature, the reader still cares about them. Certainly, The Devil's Bargain is a fascinating and engrossing read and a good introduction to the works of Judith Tarr.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 1 March 2003

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