Book Review: ‘Alamut’ by Vladimir Bartol

Posted: 11 August 2015 in Book reviews
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Synopsis

Alamut follows the lives of Halima and ibn Tahir as they are used as unwitting pawns in a dangerous game. Filled with deception, devotion, and intrigue, Alamut gives a glimpse into a world where people are willing to do whatever it takes to follow what they believe to be true. Set in the backdrop of 11th century Iran, discover what it takes to create a legion of devout fanatics.

Halima is bought by the mysterious Sayyiduna to live in wonder at a magical paradise on earth located below the castle of Alamut. There she makes friends with Sara (who develops a crush on her), Zainab, Fatima, Zuleika, and many other girls who all learn woman-craft under the tutelage of the eldest girl Miriam and Apama, an ageing courtesan, a couple eunuchs, and other tutors. But they are unknowingly being groomed as tools in a larger plan by Sayyiduna. A plan built upon deception and man’s longing to believe. But the plan backfires in an unexpected way. After three of the feyadeen are brought into the garden (a ploy used by Sayyiduna, known as Hasan ibn Sabbah, to get them to believe he has the keys to paradise), Halima and Miriam fall in love leading to their tragic deaths. Some of the girls end up pregnant as well.

As the girls learn their art, up at the castle ibn Tahir, whose grandfather was an Ismaili martyr, is becoming one of the elite fedayeen for the Ismaili brotherhood. They learn to be elite soldiers while having it pressed on them why their way is the only right way. Scripture mingled with the desires of man. But unlike the other boys, ibn Tahir has his doubts. When he and two others are sent to ‘paradise’ as a final test by Sayyiduna (during which Hasan reveals the truth behind his actions to a couple trusted advisors who can hardly believe it), he is slow to believe it’s real. He eventually gives in to his senses and accepts Sayyiduna as a prophet. In a possible final mission, he is sent as an assassin to kill Hasan’s arch-nemesis the grand vizier Nizam al-Mulk. As the vizier lay dying, ibn Tahir learns how Hasan used him and deceived them all. He is charged to return to Alamut to kill Hasan and atone for his actions.

While ibn Tahir is away, Sayyiduna’s plan comes to fruition as an army from the grand vizier attacks. The Ismaili army thwarts their attacks each time. Hasan causes the other two feyadeen who entered paradise with ibn Tahir to kill themselves as a show of their devotion, which causes dissent amongst the enemy. When word reaches the army of the death of the grand vizier, some retreat and others join the Ismailis. All seems to be going as planned until ibn Tahir returns to exact his revenge.

My Thoughts

I’m a huge fan of Assassin’s Creed and was excited to discover that the game was actually based off a book. I looked into the background of the book and was further intrigued to learn it was written in the late 1930s by a Slovenian author. From the premise of the book to the background of it’s writing, I knew it was something I had to read. And I’m glad I did.

I found the book incredibly fascinating. I don’t typically read historical fiction type books, but I loved it. It’s reminiscent of any secret society. What surprised me was the vast amounts of research Bartol would have had to do for it. It wasn’t like he had a vague concept of the history of the religion and then filled in the gaps with some clever fiction. No, he filled it with accurate historical facts. Like the Persian love story of Shirin and Farhad that Halima loves so much. Bartol obviously knew the facts before he wrote this.

All the characters are well crafted and beautifully different. Halima is so young and innocent, but is also clever. She is a pleaser and so incredibly naive. This naivety gives her a charm that draws people to her. She is very dramatic and loves to have attention. Ibn Tahir is practically her exact opposite. He is a bit older and very smart. He’s a quick learner and very practical. He doesn’t just give in completely. He considers all things before letting himself believe. He and Hasan are very similar, except that ibn Tahir would never use people like Hasan did. He has honour and a desire to understand. In a way, I can relate to him, which makes him the perfect character in my eyes.

The writing is superb. Bartol paints amazing pictures with his words. He brings the characters to life and draws you in. He also doesn’t give away the ending too soon. You keep wondering which way the story will go up until the very end. It is written simply enough to drive the story forward, and complex enough to cause you to slow down and absorb it. Truly a remarkable work.

If you are a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, or a fan of historical fiction, this book will be right up your alley. It is fascinating and insightful with complex characters and a griping plot. I cannot recommend this enough. Enjoy 😉

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Comments
  1. AK says:

    I’m just wondering why ibn Tahir didn’t kill Hassan ibn Sabbah. What was the philosophy that Hassan explained to ibn Tahir?

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    • cetracy says:

      sorry for the really late reply. that is a complex question. the answer is on pages 335-38. there Hasan explains to ibn Tahir why he did it. he starts with the plan that started it all, what he learned about people along the way (basically that people are awful), and also the pursuit of knowledge. ibn Tahir doesn’t kill him because he isn’t like the other mindless followers. he can think and understand what Hasan is telling him. he may have come to this understanding a little late, but he gets it and wants to learn more. i believe this is why he didn’t kill him. he understood him. hope that makes sense 😛

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