(2018) Ian Watson & Andy West, NewCon Press, £24.99, hrdbk, 263pp, ISBN 978-1-910-93569-9
Assassins’ Legacy is the first volume of the 'Waters of Destiny' duology; the second will be Assassins’ Endgame. The story is set in three time periods: the mid-twelfth, the late-twentieth, and the early-twenty-first centuries, and it tells of the plaque - the Black Death - and that it was not a happenstance of nature but an early form of germ warfare.
We start in the first of those periods, in the Jebel Bahra mountains of Syria, with Hakim; as a boy he tended goats and was always very good at caring for them and tending to their injuries and illnesses. When Christian pillagers killed his parents the village looked after him and sponsored him to study in Cairo and become a doctor. He studied hard and became a very good doctor but the killing of his parents had left him with a hatred of the Infidel and a determination to purge the world of them. His studies introduced him to the plague: a wonderful weapon, he thought, if only he could control it. Hearing that the disease might have originated in north-east Africa, he then studied under Arwe, the priest-witch of a small tribe in southern Ethiopia. There he learnt that the disease lives in certain monkeys yet does them no harm, though when they infect humans the result is deadly; furthermore, there are a few monkeys that can confer immunity.
Hakim returns to Cairo; his theory has been substantiated but he does not yet possess a working method of delivering it. Meanwhile, his next task is to rise through the religious hierarchy to a position from which he can wage his war. He is a Nizari Ismaili, a hard-line Muslim order determined to wipe out all that do not worship God correctly (which includes Shari’ah and Sunni Muslims as well as the hated Infidels), and his intelligence, religious knowledge, and deep-seated views eventually see him promoted to the very top, into the service of Hasan Ali, the Fourth Master of Alamut. The castle of Alamut is perched on one of the highest of the Elburz Mountains in Persia, almost impregnable, and is known as the Eagle’s Nest. It is also the home of the Assassins of Alamut; Hasan and his predecessors had long supported highly trained warriors who could sneak into the securest of castles and kill an opposing leader, a much more efficient and terrifying way of overcoming one’s enemies than having armies fight. Outlining his idea to Hasan, Hakim is granted all that he needs to return to Ethiopia and come back with what will become known as the Water of Death and the Water of Life.
Only a century later the Mongol hordes sweep across the area, destroying all before them, and it is assumed by historians that the Nizari Ismaili died out. A few, though, survived and the order has been in hiding ever since, still determined to finish the job. In the 1980s a small group finally locate a cache of the Waters, hidden in a cave high up in the Elburz Mountains of what is now Northern Iran. They take the Waters to their laboratories, ready to duplicate them and prepare for a devastating new attack on the Infidel.
And so we come to the final period. Whilst the fanatics prepare to unleash their attack on an unsuspecting world, Dr. Abigail Leclaire, of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, MA, is more concerned with a fragment of poetry written by a poetisa in fourteenth century Granada. It was translated from the original Arabic into Provençal and is of curiosity only; any depth of meaning it might have had was lost in the translation. At least, it would have been of mere curiosity had she not been visited by Jack Turner of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement); he thinks its mention of an eagle teacher is a link to terrorism.
Jack Turner is not a very nice man; he is the sort of official that breaks rules with regularity and stomps all over people’s rights. In his eyes, he has to keep America safe and the requirement justifies the methods, although he is not above giving in to his vindictive nature just for good measure. Furthermore, he is from the Christian Right and keeps a bible in desk - just in case he needs a little inspiration. However, he really does have a nose for trouble and threats to his country, even though he has no rational reason for thinking a seven hundred-year old poem could be connected to modern terrorism.
Jack’s attitude to Abigail gets right up her nose and she determines to give the nasty man no more help than she absolutely has to. However, she is inspired to look further into the poem and the goings on at the time; her researches reveal, among much else, a Knight Templar and his Muslim friend at about the time the Black Death arrived. She soon finds herself working with Professor Kamal al-Mustafa Abu al-Bashir, a visiting historian from Syrian, and he persuades her to join him on a tour of Iran, to visit the places of historical interest. Clearly she must be getting too close to something, else why would someone be trying to kill her?
This is of course just the beginning of the story. Will Hakim succeed in his attempt to find the Waters of Death and of Life? Given history, I suspect ultimately he does, but how, and what adventures befall him? Who are the people trying to kill Rachel and Kamal? Will Jack figure out what is going on and stop it? Will the few remaining Nizari Ismaili succeed and reintroduce the Black Death to the world? Ian Watson has long had a way with words and so, it seems, does Andy West. The story takes its time to set scenes and fill in history but it remains interesting and relevant throughout. I found myself reluctant to put it down. Telling the story over two books works well and I await Volume 2 with anticipation!
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