22 May 2008

The Road to Jerusalem: novella review

I wish this was a novel. It certainly feels like the back story for a character in a novel. Mary Gentle writes fantasy with a pragmatic feel. In this case, it's an alternate history where the knights Templar still exist, brawling with the knights Hospitaller, and fighting a war against terrorists whose identity and motives are somewhat unclear to me, at least.

The story seems to be set in an alternate US, with Japan colonising the west coast and someone else, possibly French, holding the east coast but struggling against Indo-Saracens for territory.

The exact political situation doesn't seem important to Gentle. What she really wants to tell is a the story of someone put into an impossible situation. In this case, the knight Tadmartin as been involved in a skirmish in which a number of what turned out to be innocent civilians were killed. There has been a media push for further investigation into the incident, and Tadmartin is called before the Pontiff and a board of the powerful to tell her story. Her predicament is that if she tells the story, she will have broken her vow to keep the secrets of her Order, and so will feel compelled to leave the Templars. If she refuses to tell, then she will have disobeyed the board and they will cast her out anyway.

Muddled into this is a question of what the truth is anyway. Tadmartin, for all her physical training, doesn't seem to have the philosophical wherewithal to to formulate her questions, never mind find an answer. All she can do is wonder idly whether to choose truth, or something she can live with, although it's not clear how this question relates to the incident in question. Finally, she chooses some semblence of honour.

The story ends with Tadmartin heading out into the big wide world, probably to make the pilgrimage to New Jerusalem. Since she is now a formidable fighter, with a sense of honour but no master, and a need to learn how to ask questions and seek answers, it is at this point that her character becomes most interesting. That's why I wish it was a novel. A quick check at Amazon Books, though, did not reveal a follow-up series.

What makes The Road to Jerusalem pleasant to read, though, is the texture provided by the idea of Knights in a modern world, and the emphasis on sweat and heat and the confusion of fighting that gives an idea of the will-power involved in keeping soldiers going.

The Road to Jerusalem, a novella by Mary Gentle, is a pleasant enough lunchtime read, available for free.

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