cover image Queen of Swords

Queen of Swords

Judith Tarr. Forge, $25.95 (448pp) ISBN 978-0-312-85821-6

Readers are in for a surprise when they discover that the subject of this novel is not what its title promises. The 12th-century Frankish queen of Jerusalem is indeed one of the many characters in this long tale, but she's already an adult when it begins, and the events in her stormy life merely serve to create situations for the mostly fictitious protagonists. Tarr (King and Goddess; Pillar of Fire) vividly portrays the contrasts between the self-righteous, primitive Crusaders and the cosmopolitan, sophisticated residents of the sun-blasted land the Franks call Outremer. However, rather than focus on the colorful and strong-willed Melisende (a proto-feminist of operatic proportions), Tarr instead offers up a historical romance replete with standard-issue characters: blonde and noble Richildis of Anjou, who finds true love and sexual fulfillment with a noble, broad-minded and dark-bearded Byzantine; rugged Bertrand, Richildis's older brother, who has a lifelong liaison with enigmatic, half-Saracen courtesan Helena; valiant Arslan, their son, raised as a foster brother to Melisende's first-born, kingly Baldwin. As usual, Tarr excels at bringing historical events to life, such as the ill-fated Second Crusade and Baldwin's war with his mother over the throne. But her pacing is off this time, as the narrative is slow out of the blocks and doesn't hit its stride until after nearly half a volume of ho-hum action. (Feb.)