Judith Tarr (1955-)
Novelist Judith Tarr, according to a reviewer for Washington Post Book World, "has plumbed the well of ancient lore for her novels." A trained historian, Tarr uses her academic background to add depth and realism to her works. All her novels to date use historical characters, settings, or prototypes: the three volumes of her "Hound and the Falcon" series, for instance, take place in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in Europe and the Middle East; Lord of the Two Lands is set in Egypt during the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.; and Pillar of Fire tells an alternative version of the fate of the ancient pharaoh Akhenaten. Although her work is at heart fantastic rather than historical, explained Faren Miller in Locus magazine, "Tarr grounds it as firmly in research as the soundest historical novel."
Tarr's "Hound and the Falcon" fantasy series, consisting of The Isle of Glass, The Golden Horn, and The Hounds of God, traces the adventures of Alfred, an immortal of unknown origins. Alfred was abandoned at birth, as many unwanted children were in ancient and medieval times, and was raised in a monastery as an oblate. Because of his ancestry, Alfred suffers from a conflict between "his spiritual needs as a monk, his magical ability, and his physical reality as a non-human," explained Phyllis J. Day in Fantasy Review. In The Isle of Glass, Alfred is sent on an important mission to the Crusader king, Richard I of England. The Golden Horn finds him and his immortal lover Thea in the city of Constantinople, which is besieged by Crusaders, while The Hounds of God places Alfred as chancellor of the kingdom of Rhiyana, where the few surviving immortals are under attack by the Inquisition. Many critics reacted positively to Tarr's mix of history, romance, and fantasy: "Tarr provides loving detail to each characterization, subplot, image, and interaction—her craft is exceptional," Day concluded.
In the "Avaryan Rising" series, Tarr's historical erudition is less explicit. According to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, The Lady of Han-Gilen, the second volume in the series, is "less original than Tarr's 'The Hound and the Falcon' trilogy, but it's also livelier and more engaging." Elian, the title character in this work, recalls the ancient Greek legend of Atalanta: she is beautiful, intelligent, and determined not to marry until she finds someone she cannot best. Her chosen mate turns out to be a childhood friend named Mirain, who is a demigod. "Proving herself an able warrior as well as a royal hellion with prophetic gifts," Anne Raymer wrote in Voice of Youth Advocates, "Elian wins more than the admiration of her child love." Later volumes in the series tell about the future of the kingdom Mirain and Elian establish. Spear of Heaven, about one of their descendants, "owes more to adventure novels such as Kim and—in particular—Lost Horizons," stated Faren Miller in Locus, who added that it reads like "an exotic hybrid of Lost Horizons and The Taming of the Shrew." Praising Tarr's "elegant" prose, a Publishers Weekly reviewer observed that the author "beautifully conveys splendid regal settings, realistic politics, convincing cultural details—and cultural clashes."
In her other novels, Tarr places actual historical characters in fantastic contexts. The title character of His Majesty's Elephant, for instance, is Abul Abbas, an elephant given by the Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al-Rashid, to the Frankish emperor Charlemagne in the early ninth century. Tarr adds a subplot about a magical talisman that arrives with Abul Abbas. A sorcerer wishes to use it to cast a spell that will kill the king. Charlemagne's youngest daughter Rowan and a British slave named Kerrec confront the sorcerer. "Tarr has written a marvelous fantasy tale," asserted Renee Troselius in Book Report. "Rowan is a strong-willed character that readers will care about." The Eagle's Daughter, set in the tenth century, uncovers the world of a chaotic Roman Empire, which has been divided into eastern and western halves. A "fully realized novel," noted a contributor to Booklist, who found that Tarr recreates successfully the complex politics of an ancient empire at the cusp of the modern world. Three of Tarr's works—Lord of the Two Lands, Throne of Isis, and PillarofFire—are set in ancient Egypt, and tell, respectively, of the country's conquest by Alexander the Great, of the reign of Cleopatra and her romance with the Roman soldier Marc Anthony, and of the career of the pharaoh Akhenaten and the prophet Moses. "If she hasn't yet proven herself a successor to the likes of Mary Renault and Bryher and Rosemary Sutcliff," a Washington Post Book World reviewer concluded, "Judith Tarr . . . [takes] a step in the right direction."
Egypt's infamous Queen Hatshepsut is the focus of King and Goddess. Tarr's novel, which is set in ancient Egypt, captures the spirit of Hatshepsut's life and the unusual events that marked her years as ruler of the kingdom. Booklist reviewer Whitney Scott called the novel "meticulously researched" and noted that Tarr's "artistry again brings [an ancient world] to life for twentieth century readers." Reviews of Queen of Swords, which focuses on the female ruler Melisende, the Frankish Queen of Jerusalem, were also positive.
In White Mare's Daughter, Tarr creates a world populated by peaceful, goddess-worshipping nomads who come in conflict with a tribe of warrior horsemen who deny freedom to their women. Library Journal reviewer Laurel Bliss stated that the book "showcases Tarr's ability to create fascinating, passionate characters and to bring their unique cultures to life." This world is also the setting for a later novel, Daughter of Lir. The city of Lir, which was founded by the goddess-worshippers in the prequel, must combat invaders armed with chariots. Determined to build her own chariot army, Rhian, the chosen one of the White Mare, must ally forces with her brother, Prince Emry, to save her people. "Lir's matriarchal utopia will please feminist and romantics alike," maintained a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
Tarr chooses the Kingdom of Egypt again in The Shepherd Kings to create a world cast into despair by foreign invaders. The hopes of the Egyptians rests on a slave girl called Iry who resolves to rid her land of the barbarians and free Egypt. A Booklist contributor called the story a "dramatically imagined chapter in ancient Egyptian history."
Tarr joined forces with noted fantasy writer Harry Turtledove in Household Gods. The authors adapt the story of the Wizard of Oz to invite readers into the life of Nicole Gunter-Perrin, a frustrated single mom who wakes up one day in the body of a second-century Roman woman. Nicole quickly discovers that life in the ancient world was much more difficult than she imagined. Jackie Cassada of Library Journal noted that the story "emphasizes the human qualities that transcend the limitations of history."
"Tarr's ability to give equal weight to both history and myth provides her historical fantasies with both realism and wonder," commented Library Journal contributor Jackie Cassada about Kingdom of the Grail, Tarr's retelling of the Camelot legend. Pride of Kings, a historical fantasy set in the twelfth century, is based on the story of King Richard the Lionheart. When King Richard leaves for Palestine on a crusade, he assigns his brother John to watch over his kingdom. John is tempted by the lust for power and attempts to claim his brother's kingdom as his own. "Gracefully and convincingly told" remarked Jackie Cassada in Library Journal. A contributor to Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, commented: "The fantastic may be subsidiary to fact . . . but it lends an eerily beautiful, sometimes frightening undercurrent to this engrossing, thoroughly satisfying novel."
Tarr once commented: "As a writer of fantasy, I have found my academic training to be truly invaluable. Fantasy is more than an illogical escape, or a conglomeration of elements from Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. Good fantasy requires a knowledge of history, a feeling for language—one's own and, preferably, a number of others (I have classical and medieval Latin, classical Greek, Old and Middle English, medieval and modern French, some German, and some Provençal)—and an affinity for plain old hard work. The training and techniques required to earn a Ph.D. adapt themselves very well indeed to the exigencies of creating and populating a world. If nothing else, I have learned where to look for what I need, what to look for, and what to do with it when I have it—not to mention the ability to produce work of consistent and, I can hope, high quality, on command and against a deadline.
"I write what I write, and not (by choice) scholarly monographs or historical novels, or, for that matter, contemporary fiction, because I like writing fantasy. The challenge of historical fantasy is to adhere as closely as possible to actual historical events, while incorporating elements of fantasy: magical beings and powers, imaginary kingdoms, and straightforward alternate history. In high fantasy, the challenge becomes at once simpler and more complex. The need for scrupulous historical research is less, but in its place comes the task of creating lands, people, languages, histories, cultures, and all the manifold aspects of a living world. Not only must I create them, I must create them as a whole, connected logically and plausibly, with characters drawn to the best of my ability. It is not easy. There are few shortcuts. The result is never as close to perfection as it might be, but the sheer, exhilarating fun of it is well worth the effort."
Biographical and Critical Sources
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, February 15, 1993, Denise Perry Donavin, review of Lord of the Two Lands, pp. 1036-1037; September 15, 1993, Roland Green, review of Arrows of the Sun, p. 132; January 1, 1994, Julie Corsaro, review of His Majesty's Elephant, p. 817; April 15, 1994, Whitney Scott, review of Throne of Isis, p. 1516; November 15, 1994, Roland Green, review of Spear of Heaven, p. 582; March 15, 1995, Brad Hooper, review of The Eagle's Daughter, p. 1310; June 1, 1995, Whitney Scott, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 1732; August, 1996, review of King and Goddess, p. 1891; January, 1997, review of Queen of Swords, p. 822; June 1, 1998, Whitney Scott, review of White Mare's Daughter, p. 1729; July, 1999, review of Household Gods, p. 1896, and review of The Shepherd Kings, p. 1925; June 1, 2000, Diana Tixier Herald, review of Lady of Horses, p. 1862; August, 2000, Roland Green, review of Kingdom of the Grail, p. 2126; August, 2001, Whitney Scott, review of Pride of Kings, p. 2102; October 1, 2002, Whitney Scott, review of Devil's Bargain, p. 309; November 1, 2002, Roland Green, review of Tides of Darkness, p. 481; October 1, 2003, Whitney Scott, review of House of War, p. 308.
Book Report, May-June, 1994, Renee Troselius, review of His Majesty's Elephant, pp. 46-47.
Fantasy Review, January, 1986, Phyllis J. Day, p. 26.
Horn Book, January-February, 1994, Ann A. Flowers, review of His Majesty's Elephant, pp. 76-77.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1994, p. 173; June 15, 1996, review of King and Goddess, p. 853; December 15, 1996, review of Queen of Swords, p. 1764; June 1, 1998, review of White Mare's Daughter, p. 775; May 1, 1999, review of The Shepherd Kings, p. 667; July 1, 1999, review of Household Gods, p. 1000.
Kliatt, July, 1996, review of Throne of Isis, p. 56; September, 1997, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 54; November, 1997, review of The Eagle's Daughter, p. 38; January, 2002, Liz LaValley, review of Pride of Kings, pp. 20-21; March, 2003, Liz LaValley, review of Devil's Bargain, pp. 36-37; May, 2003, Ginger Armstrong, review of Daughter of Lir, p. 28.
Library Journal, March 15, 1986, Jackie Cassada, review of The Hounds of God, p. 81; May 15, 1988, Jackie Cassada, review of A Fall of Princes, p. 96; December, 1989, Jackie Cassada, review of Alamut, p. 176; February 15, 1991, Jackie Cassada, review of The Dagger and Cross, p. 224; April 1, 1994, Mary Ann Parker, review of Throne of Isis, pp. 134-135; October 15, 1994, Jackie Cassada, review of Deals with the Devil, p. 90; November 15, 1994, Jackie Cassada, review of Spear of Heaven, p. 89; June 15, 1995, Cynthia Johnson, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 96; February 1, 1997, review of Queen of Swords, p. 108; June 1, 1998, review of White Mare's Daughter, p. 161; August, 1999, review of Household Gods, p. 147, and review of The Shepherd Kings, p. 143; August, 2000, Jackie Cassada, review of Kingdom of the Grail, p. 167; June 15, 2001, Laurel Bliss, review of Daughter of Lir, p. 106; September 15, 2001, Jackie Cassada, review of Pride of Kings, p. 115; October 15, 2002, Jackie Cassada, review of Devil's Bargain, p. 97; November 15, 2002, Jackie Cassada, review of Tides of Darkness, p. 106.
Locus, August, 1993, p. 49; November, 1993, p. 54; February, 1994, p. 76; April, 1994, p. 53; October, 1994, p. 57.
New Statesman, July 24, 1987, p. 23.
Publishers Weekly, April 10, 1987, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Lady of Han-Gilen, pp. 85-86; April 1, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of A Fall of Princes, p. 78; July 28, 1989, Penny Kaganoff, review of Ars Magica, p. 215; February 1, 1993, review of Lord of the Two Lands, pp. 76-77; August 30, 1993, review of Arrows of the Sun, p. 80; November 1, 1993, review of His Majesty's Elephant, p. 81; March 21, 1994, review of Throne of Isis, p. 56; October 17, 1994, review of Spear of Heaven, p. 68; March 20, 1995, review of The Eagle's Daughter, p. 44; May 22, 1995, review of Pillar of Fire, p. 50; July 8, 1996, review of King and Goddess, p. 74; January 6, 1997, review of Queen of Swords, p. 66; April 27, 1998, review of White Mare's Daughter, p. 45; May 31, 1999, review of The Shepherd Kings, p. 67; August 23, 1999, review of Household Gods, p. 54; September 4, 2000, review of Lady of Horses, p. 91; June 18, 2001, review of Daughter of Lir, p. 61; August 13, 2001, review of Pride of Kings, p. 291; October 14, 2002, review of Tides of Darkness, p. 69.
School Library Journal, February, 2000, Christine C. Menefee, review of Household Gods, p. 143.
Science Fiction Chronicle, April, 1986, p. 42; December, 1992, p. 57; August, 1993, p. 39; August, 1999, review of Household Gods, p. 40.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1987, p. 181; August, 1993, p. 171; February, 1994, p. 387; August, 1994, p. 150.
Washington Post Book World, May 20, 1993, p. 9; October 17, 1994, p. 68; May 22, 1995, p. 50.
Judith Tarr Home Page, http://www.sff.net/ (January 18, 2004).*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II BiographyJudith Tarr (1955-) Biography - Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards