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It's probably better in its native French, but even of that I'm not so sure.
on August 2, 2012
1.5 stars (I don't quite hate it, but 2 stars seems too generous.)
I'm sorry, but I just have to throw in the towel. I gave it the ol' college try (which is a phrase I've used before, but this time is apt as I'm actually going to college; part-time, true, but it counts and... I'm babbling, so I'll be moving on). I gave myself until 150 pages for the story to finally get good and capture my attention/imagination, but it never happened. One hundred and fifty pages in, I put the book down and almost sobbed with happiness because I didn't have to keep trying anymore.
The author obviously did her research. There's a great deal of historical detail: cultural, military, religious, geographical. And it's done in a way which doesn't beat you over the head in a "look at me and all the research I did!" sort of way. Yet, for all that, it didn't capture me or immerse me in either the setting, the story, or the characters. Writing about a culture completely foreign to me, the author failed to connect me to the story even on a basic human level--it started foreign and it stayed foreign. As I read, I couldn't help but keep thinking about Conn Iggulden's masterful Genghis series and compare his writing to Lapierre's. Both stories deal with cultures completely foreign to Western lifestyles and mores, Iggulden's with the Mongol empire of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, Lapierre's with the Muslim tribes of early 19th century Chechnya; both stories are well researched. Yet Iggulden's, even with its foreign subject and the sometimes off-putting actions from the characters, actions which go against Western standards of appropriate behavior, pulled me in to such a degree that I barely noticed the differences between his characters and myself; I felt what they felt, I ached when they ached, I exulted when they exulted. I was in the story. Not so with Lapierre's novel. Her characters were simply names on a page; their actions frustrated, disgusted, and baffled me and I didn't understand their motivations at all. They remained decidedly and defiantly foreign.
But what really angered me about Lapierre's book was the fact that, even 150 pages in (one-third of the book), we hadn't even started on the main story. Supposedly the novel is about the real-life story of Jamal Eddin, the son of Imam Shamil, who was provided as a hostage to the Russian empire in order to seal a truce of peace between the two warring nations. Jamal, a young boy when he's "adopted" by Czar Nicholas I, grows up in the glittering imperial court and though he maintains his Muslim faith, he becomes an accomplished courtier. However, his faith becomes a problem when he falls in love with Elizaveta Petrovna Olenina, a beautiful Russian aristocrat; in order to marry her, he must convert to Christianity, a move he's willing to make. Until he's called back to his homeland, to his Muslim faith and rightful place as leader, and he must decide: Love or Honor. (Hence the title, see?) Sounds fabulously dramatic and romantic, yet at 150 pages in, we've only just gotten to the point where Jamal's father decides to give in to Russia's demands and send Jamal to them as a hostage. That's one-third of the book gone and we haven't even gotten to Russia yet? As Charlie Brown would say, Good grief! That certainly doesn't leave a lot of time to watch Jamal grow up in the imperial court, which should account for several years, not to mention the development of the romance between Jamal and Elizaveta or the final act to their story. Now, I can see spending some time in Jamal's childhood, setting his character up; I could totally get on board with that treatment. If only that had occurred. Instead, during all the time spent in Jamal's childhood, we really only see his father, Imam Shamil, and his father's actions: Shamil's quest to become the holiest of holy men, Shamil in his holy war to cleanse the world of every single Russian, Shamil as he rids the tribes of all traitors by systematically slaughtering all those who push for peace between Chechnya and Russia, even if that means eliminating entire villages, women and children included. Heck, the man even has his elderly mother whipped for acting as mediator in a push for compromise, because "Allah" told him so. What a jerk. Not a character to inspire any kind of sympathy in me. So, anyway, it's all Shamil with just a little bit of Jamal sprinkled in. It's very frustrating, not to mention a very questionable move on the author's part. If it were me, I'd show Jamal's childhood from his P.O.V. and only a little bit at that; just enough to set up the situation and his abduction to Russia. Later, as an adult, during dramatic moments, Jamal could flashback to his childhood memories and use them to follow his father's example or avoid his father's mistakes.
Stylist choices aside, this novel, what I read of it, bored me to tears and didn't inspire me to invest any emotions in either the characters or story. Which is a shame, because I heard such great things about Alexandra Lapierre and was really looking forward to immersing myself in what promised to be an exciting and romantic novel. A promise which went unfulfilled.