It’s not often that the sequel to a great piece of literature surpasses the original. The Blood Star, the follow up to Nicholas Guild’s The Assyrian, manages to do this with little effort. Every now and then I put a book down and say, “Wow, I’ll never equal this.” Such were my feelings after I read the final page of this solid piece of literature.
It opens with Tiglath Ashur, the exiled prince of Assyria in the seventh century before Christ, reflecting on his life. He’s an old man who’s seen a lot. The only thing we know from this phase of his life is that Ashur survived his exile from the city of his birth at the hands of his stepbrother Esarhaddon.
Ashur, now an exiled prince without a country or funds, finds himself on the run from the assassins of Esarhaddon. Esarhaddon has killed their father, the mad king Sennacherib. Since Ashur is the only one who can link him to the murder, he needs to see that Ashur doesn’t return to claim the throne, which he owns as a birthright.
On his way out of the city, Ashur links up with his former servant, the obese physician Kephalos, himself captured by a raiding party from his native Greece where he was sold into slavery to the royal Assyrian family. They manage to outwit every killer sent to eliminate Ashur. They even cross the marshes of lower Mesopotamia into the Mediterranean Sea. But Ashur, ever the cunning warrior who’s led armies to victory, knows there will always be on assassin on his tail. The price on his head is too high for them to give up.
Eventually, both survive the crossing of the Sinai Peninsula and make their way to Egypt. Ashur manages to set himself up as a trader, with the help of his former servant. Meanwhile, he makes the acquaintance of the Lady Nodjamanefer, a noblewoman whose husband is the vain Lord Senefu. The two start an affair that ends in tragedy and serves as the focal point for a rebellion in the city of Memphis. Along the way, he acquires a street wench known as Selana from a slave galley. She’s a tough and scruffy little ruffian, but he takes a liking to her. She will become his one true love, but that is years into the future.
As the author describes her:
This was the first time I had really noticed her appearance, and it did little enough to recommend her. She stank, for one thing—Master Strophios had been right on that point. Her cheeks were dirty and scratched and her hair looked as if nothing could ever untangle it. Her broken fingernails were encrusted with black ship’s tar. And she was thin and ungainly, with hands and feet too large for her body—but she was only a child, and starved in the bargain, so no one had any right to expect she would be a beauty.
Escaping from the riots in Egypt, Ashur and his entourage make their way to Sidon, on the banks of the Mediterranean. There he encounters another one of his royal half-brothers, Nabusharusur, the one who was turned into a eunuch to protect the royal bloodlines. This stepbrother is commanding a rebellion against Esarhaddon’s forces. Once the old king died, the city of Sidon rose up in rebellion against Ashur’s other stepbrother. It doesn’t end well, and Ashur is forced to go on the run again with his former servants.
His next stop is Sicily, where Ashur falls in with some Greek settlers who are trying to avoid the oppression of the local king. He becomes their champion. His physician servant acquires a boyfriend and Ashur settles down with his Selana, whom he marries. But Ashur’s fate pursues him as it always does. Brigands attack from the center of the island and lay waste to the villages of the Greeks. It’s up to Ashur to use his battle skills to defend his newfound community and friends.
And even though he triumphs again, Ashur’s past follows him. One day a royal messenger appears from Assyria. There’s trouble in the empire and he’s needed. He’s forced to make the journey back to Nineveh and confront his own bitter past in person.
The Blood Star is one of the greatest epics I’ve read. The author has done research on the world of the Assyrian Empire and the kingdoms which it faced. Narrated in the first person, the novel doesn’t drift off into endless speculation. However, the inner voice of Ashur is always with the reader. Nothing happens off scene. He’s always in the middle of whatever violence takes place at the time. Many times, Ashur is visited by the ghost of his father the king, but the reader is never certain if this is a real shade or Ashur’s inner self.
Such as this passage:
I spoke many such brave words. And brave words are very fine, yet wars usually have more cautious beginnings than one would gather from listening to the commanders’ speeches, and opponents try each other’s strengths many times in furtive, whispered exchanges before ever sword rings against sword in the fierce dissonance of combat. It is almost as if the two sides must first agree between themselves who will be the victor and who the vanquished, and only later is this accord sealed in blood.
It ends on a sad note, but one that’s hopeful. After all that he’s endured, Ashur realizes It’s the closeness of friends and family which matter more than anything else. He’s lived as a prince, outlaw, farmer, and merchant. Still, it’s his children that bring him the greatest joy. And this seems to be what the author wants us to learn from this novel. Glory, war, wealth, these things are transitory. The only thing that matters, in the end, are the people who are around you. They will bring you more happiness more than any throne could ever.