For some reason, I always had Judith Tarr down as an author of historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt. However, though she has written some books with this setting, it turns out she’s a prolific author of historical fiction more broadly, as well as historical fantasy. I discovered this book completely by chance thanks to a post Tarr wrote at Tor.com on C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy, and have been utterly charmed by it. It’s an Arabian-Nights-style fantasy, set in Cairo in the 13th century during the rule of the young sultan Salah Al-Din: a tale of enchantment, arrogance, romance, and self-realisation, with a fiery young heroine and a most unconventional hero.
Over the years, I’ve read several books which I know I would have adored as a teenager; this one, however, stands out because I love it as much now as I would have done then. In fact, it reminds me very strongly (though more complex and sophisticated) of a book I had when I was ten or eleven, at a time when I was completely horse-obsessed: Marilyn Singer’s Horsemaster. I hadn’t thought of this book for years, but seem to recall it had a similar theme of a young woman mastering an enchanted horse. Once I’d tracked the book down on Amazon, I found that the cover was similar too. It’s always pleasant to be reminded of a childhood favourite. I’m not sure I even have Horsemaster any more…
But I’m getting distracted. Back to Cairo and Hasan al-Fahl Sharif, the beautiful, spoiled and reckless son of Ali Mousa. He cuts a swathe through Cairo with his reprobate friends, drinking, gambling and chasing women, to the despair of his conservative father and to the dishonour of his bloodline, which descends from the Prophet himself. But one day Hasan goes too far. After a foolish wager, on which he stakes his father’s prized mares, and an equally foolish attempt to escape his punishment, he finds himself beaten and wounded on the streets of Cairo. He is taken in by a gentle Hajji, who washes and tends him with the aid of a beautiful woman. When he allows his lust to overpower him again, Hasan makes a terrible mistake and his host, who turns out to be far more than he seems, exacts a correspondingly terrible price.
Zamaniyah is the only surviving child of Al-Zaman, a Turkish lord who has followed the new sultan Salah Al-Din to Cairo. Al-Zaman has lost all his sons in battle, one in tragic circumstances to the blade of a supposed ally, the Egyptian Ali Mousa, for whom Al-Zaman maintains undying enmity. He will not be cheated of an heir and so raises his only daughter as a boy, encouraging her skill in archery and horsemanship, stimulating her lively mind and dressing her in men’s robes. Not for Zamaiyah the cloistered peace of the harem; not for her the idle chatter of women. Instead, she lives fierce but not exactly free, bound always by her father’s will rather than her own choice, wondering always what she’s given up. But for now that doesn’t matter overmuch. Still half a child, she’s content at playing the boy, riding out with her father’s mamluks and her own devoted eunuch Jaffar, who loves her more than she will ever know. And, one day, while out riding, they come across a band of horse dealers and, among their stock, a half-wild, headstrong red stallion, whose unbroken spirit touches something in Zamaiyah’s heart.
This is, at root, a story about a horse and his girl, or a girl and her horse, frame it as you will. It’s about Zamaiyah’s patience and the stallion she names Khamsin for his fire and pride, and the long struggle of wills which it takes to break a horse. Tarr breeds horses, specifically Lippizaners like those used in Vienna’s Spanish riding school, and her deep understanding of their psychology and moods informs Khamsin’s deft characterisation. There’s perhaps slightly too much ‘dancing’ from the horses, rather in the way that head-tossing or braid-tugging is too frequent in other novels, but it’s a minor point. I am no longer the pony-mad girl that I was when I was ten, but I still throroughly enjoyed this as a kind of indulgence to the child I used to be (though I stress this is aimed at grown-ups, or at the very least older teenagers): it’s a smart, shrewd and historically well-informed fantasy. It’s romantic in the best way, without a hint of simper, and its proud warrior-girl makes for a pleasantly robust protagonist.
I’d definitely recommend this for a heartwarming read if you fancy a spritz of oriental glamour, the luxury of medieval Cairo and a glimpse of the Crusades from the other side. I’m especially impressed by Tarr’s writing and have ordered a hard copy of this book, with the lovely cover you see above, so I can reread it in due course. I’ve also started making a list of Tarr’s other books on which I plan to get my avaricious little hands. But, of course, I am always open to recommendations. Share your Tarr favourites with me!