The Warrior by Judith E. French
(Leisure, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-8439-5395-0
****
Historicals set sometime and somewhere other than nineteenth-century England are becoming rarer and rarer. The Warrior, third in Judith E. French's Alexander the Great trilogy, is all the more precious because of this dearth.

Alexander, proud son of a famous father and Roxanne of Bactria and Sogdiana (the mountainous areas of northern Afghanistan), is to marry Princess Mereret, daughter of Artakama and Ptolemy of Egypt. The marriage will consolidate the alliance between the two distant regions of Alexander the Great's empire. There are those in the Egyptian court who believe Alexander aspires to the position once held by his father and who therefore fear this union. The unsuspecting prince, however, is pleased with his beautiful betrothed and happy with the Celtic slave girl he receives as a gift. Little does he imagine she will be the one to rescue him when trouble strikes.

Captured when still a child, Kiara has been forced to learn how to pleasure men. And yet, after all these years, she is still determined to make her way home to Eire. In exchange for saving Alexander's life, she makes him promise to escort her on the perilous trip. Her fortitude in the face of what must have been horrible circumstances make her a riveting character and a worthy heroine. Too bad she has to contend with a host of other equally compelling women, including Alexander's two sisters and his mother Roxanne. (The latter features in the other two novels in this trilogy, and I couldn't help thinking that this one remained more her story than anyone else's.)

Nor do the novel's complex plot and narrative help Kiara much. Without actually counting the scenes told in her point of view, my impression is that she doesn't have the majority. In fact, she doesn't become relevant until the second part of the book, when the interaction between her and Alexander really kicks off. But even then, as they are making their way across the Mediterranean and towards the north, far more interesting things are happening in Bactria and Sogdiana. Such detractions add to the intricate tapestry, but they also draw attention away from the main romance.

This is perhaps a good thing, given how little sympathy Alexander elicits. For a warrior and a future king, he follows his libido too much and isn't too savvy about rampant palace intrigue. Worse, he isn't too good at keeping his word. (It's no use saying that a promise to a woman didn't count much in those days. After all, his mother is said to be the descendant of an Amazon princess, and as a Greek, he must have known more than one legend about the fury of a woman scorned and abandoned.) I was much more in awe of Alexander's foster brother Val and couldn't help wishing he were the hero of the tale.

The introduction of a supernatural element in Alexander the Great's ghostly voice also annoyed me. I'm not sure whether French is appealing to the current craze for paranormal fiction or whether she was writing her way out of a plot dilemma. In either case, the apparition didn't add anything to the story.

French does do a marvelous job, however, conjuring up a wide range of ancient civilizations and peoples: the novel moves from ancient Eire to Ptolomaic Alexandria, from the unchartered northern seas to landlocked Bactria, crossroad between the Hellenic world, the settled Indus and the nomadic tribes of the Siberian steppes. While French takes more than a few liberties with history and has an irritating tendency of having her female characters roll their eyes in the fashion of snarky modern dames, she offers just the right amount of details to make the story come alive.

The Warrior may not win all the points as a historical romance, but it does offer appetizing glimpses of forgotten worlds. One of these days, I might even pick up the first two books. In the meantime, I have been browsing through the dusty ancient history books at my local library and reading up on Ptolemy, Bactria and the Scythians hordes. Surely, that can only be to the novel's credit.

--Mary Benn


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