I first met Seja Majeed a few years ago. I had criticised a poster campaign she was part of and the article led her to the blog I was writing at the time. She turned out to be a friendly presence online, very giving with suggestions for writing material and opportunities. It also turned out that we had a lot in common – we had both studied law and she had been to Brunel where I had done my master’s. She also mentioned to me that she was writing a book. I told her I would look out for the publication. Over time, I lost contact with Seja, but recently, I found out that the book had come into print. It was called The Forgotten Tale of Larsa and it had taken Seja over eight years to write while she was studying to become a lawyer and was involved with her humanitarian projects as part of the charity she represented. I searched for a book review online, but was unable to find one, so I thought since I had already said I would read the book I would write one on having completed it as a tribute to our brief online friendship. After all, reading the novel for a day or so was hardly anything compared to the time it had taken to craft it.
The Forgotten Tale of Larsa is a historical fantasy set in ancient Babylonian times. It is structured around the lives of a husband and wife in a time of war, the princess Larsa of a beautiful kingdom known as the Garden of the Gods (the name ‘Larsa’ is derived from a great, ancient Babylonian city) and the martial Marmicus, who is known as the Gallant Warrior. The war is prompted by the hubristic ambition of the Assyrian Emperor Jaquzan who wishes to become a god on earth. Jaquzan is a force of destruction: he wishes to reduce the Garden of the Gods to ashes. When the threat of war overshadows their kingdom, Marmicus sends Princess Larsa away to search for safety. However, on her journey away from home, her Royal Caravan is captured by the enemy and everyone is brutally slaughtered apart from Larsa, who is taken to the Assyrian emperor to become his slave. The story then follows Larsa’s encounter with Jaquazan and his sadistic cousin Nafridos and Marmicus’s mourning for the princess who he believes he has lost. The reader is left in suspense. Will the separated husband and wife be reunited? Will Larsa free herself from her captivity? Finally, the great war which has united the whole of Babylon against the Assyrians is fought and we learn whether good triumphs over evil and Larsa is able to free herself from slavery.
Seja’s storytelling is vivid and engaging. The writing style is simple and easy to understand and the twists and turns of the story are easy to follow. There are some striking and memorable phrases. For example, ‘Every dream has a window to reality: all you need is some faith to carry you there’. Again, there is the striking signature phrase of the novel, ‘Allegiance lies in the heart of the sword!’ Seja is also able to enter into the point of view of the various characters in the story with ease and describe their innermost thoughts and feelings. There are some memorable scenes in the novels which capture how the madness behind the destructive sadism of Jaquzan and his cousin Nafridos attacks reason and attempts to reduce the world of their victims to absurdity, for example the test that the Assyrian Emperor puts before Larsa or the test that Nafridos puts to the child, Paross. Seja is also unafraid of tackling serious subjects: the world that wars bring to birth, rape, prostitution, domestic violence, etc.
Seja’s fantasy world in the novel is clear-cut. There is good and there is bad, there is slavery and there is freedom and there are no shades in between. The Assyrians are constantly compared to bestial animals devoid of any aspect of civilisation and with no humanity. Similarly, her characters stand as symbols rather than as living persons. For instance, the martial Marmicus stands for justice and is clearly opposed to the bloodthirsty and inhuman Nafridos. Larsa herself represents the naïve consciousness that has to transform itself through the experience of war and suffering.
The major theme of the novel is war: the transformations it creates in the individual, its brutalities and other effects. In the novel we see how war forces the best and the worst out of individuals, acts of great altruism and cowardly acts of self-serving selfishness. Seja’s conclusion about war is summed up in a few sentences:
“Few men understand that war and peace are born of the same womb; they are brothers in battle, one fighting to preserve that which exists in the world, the other fighting to destroy it. What unites them is their mother and father for, in the world of men, light cannot be seen unless there is also darkness. The only gift of war is the prospect that peace shall follow it, giving birth to new hope and a new beginning.”
Seja’s thoughts about war seem to follow the trajectory of Marmicus’s thoughts on the subject. In the beginning, the battle-weary Marmicus says that war is only fought for gold. But as the Assyrian threat attempts to reach his own kingdom, he begins to say that war must be fought for freedom. Seja’s work therefore tackles the philosophical question of whether a war is ever justified. In the clear-cut fantasy world of the novel the answer is clear: since Jaquzan represents destructive and unrestrained egotism, one has to fight him to escape from slavery and brutal oppression.
While all this appears simple enough, it is worthwhile considering a different view point that is presented in the novel. Jaquzan makes the memorable quote that “freedom is what freedom has always been – enslavement to an ideal”. If peace, as Seja writes, attempts to preserve what is against the forces of destruction and oppression, clearly it is preserving the status quo. But is this status quo worth preserving, I wonder? The ideal of ‘freedom’ in our own country is a capitalistic and patriarchal ‘freedom’ with its own oppressions and enslavement. Similarly, one only needs to look at the rulers of our country and recent historical events to realise that these so called ‘representatives’ of us do not do what we wish them to do, but rather do what they want. How truly free are we in our supposed democracy? Were the recent wars we were involved in really about freedom? (and, a related question that was raised at my alma mater once, and is all to do with our recent involvement in war, can democracy be exported?) It is worth noting, that in Seja’s novel, the ‘freedom’ that is being preserved is that of the people of a monarchy.
Seja’s novel also falls prey to a certain celebration of war. The thinking on war has always been ambiguous. In Homer’s Iliad, for example, which seems an out and out celebration of warfare, the shield of Achilles, with its picture of peace, contradicted the apparent message of the work, because it celebrated the absence of war. In the same way, Seja’s work celebrates the ‘necessary’ war and the ending of the novel relies on what anthropological work has described as ‘the cult of the dead soldier’ to reach its denouement. Here, the work comes dangerously close to the jingoistic celebration which the tabloids and the right wing have accustomed us to. It is here worthwhile remarking on a small factual detail in the text. It appears that Larsa’s kingdom has as its goddess Ishtar, the goddess of fertility. At first sight, this fact seems to suggest that the Garden of the Gods, which believes in ‘the sanctity of peace’, is completely opposed to the men’s world of warfare: it is concerned with life and birth, not death and destruction. However, this is misleading. An attribute of the goddess, a little research reveals, is that she is also the goddess of war. And here, one has to question the existence of the martial Marmicus in the Garden of the Gods – what need do they have of such a warrior, and why is he so weary of war at the beginning, when he claims that wars are only fought for gold? Why is he so jaded if the kingdom believes in ‘the sanctity of peace’?
There is another philosophical question that the work raises. This is so obvious that it is hard to miss. Everyone in the novel suffers. Marmicus and Larsa suffer the pangs of separation, while the Princess suffers the humiliations and brutality of slavery, rape and the tattooing of her face and body when she becomes the possession of the Emperor. Yet, it is not just the war that forces people to suffer. Even in the Garden of the Gods, which is presented as a heaven on earth, Sulaf, a childhood friend of Marmicus who is in love with him, was beaten by her late husband. Similarly, there is prostitution in the Garden of the Gods and therefore the want that gives rise to it. The question then arises, is anybody free from suffering, even in heaven upon earth? I wonder if Seja’s world-view is as bleak as her novel seems to suggest.
There are various faults in the work which I will now address. Obviously, the work is not historically accurate in its details, but I will not dwell on this, since it is a work of the imagination and such a criticism is part and parcel of a certain ideology which suggests that only a certain form of historical fiction is possible. My main criticisms are firstly, that the main characters lack personality (I also feel that feminists would be deeply displeased with the passivity of Larsa, who could have been a very different character). As I have suggested beforehand, they stand for symbols. Seja could have breathed more life into them by portraying more of their pasts through the device of inserting their memories into the text or by allowing them to interact more with other personalities. Here, it is worth mentioning that perhaps the most interesting character is Abram, but this is from a psychoanalytic perspective. This castrated slave, who believes in the god of monotheism, begins to stand for a friend, a father and a homeland to the young child Paross. Other characters are just stock types: the jealous woman, the selfless martyr, King Nelaaz who is lecherous and greedy, and stupid, and thus stands for the appetite and the body in opposition to the mind.
Secondly, the writing style does not appeal to me. Seja’s writing style is to do all the work for the reader. She is the omniscient narrator personified. Although she investigates the thoughts and feelings of each of the characters, she does not leave enough to the imagination. For me, the reader has to be as involved as the writer to make the adventure of reading truly immersing. There is an art of presenting and an art of hiding which has to be mastered. Seja’s style does not appeal to the senses, either. The novel lacks descriptive density. An English teacher once told me that you have to engage every sense when you are writing. Seja has chosen to disregard this rule and there is therefore very little description in the novel.
Thirdly, the fiction lacks plausibility at certain points. For example, there is a certain familial resemblance which would have been evident to all, but is only noticed by one man and thus preserves his secret. The obvious part of the ending which is implausible I will pass over, since it would spoil the pleasure of anyone who wishes to read the work after reading this review, but another one is also to do with identification. At one point, a distinctive birthmark on a body does not allow a person to identify it, even though that person knows the body intimately.
My final criticism is that the work seems to lack structure. At some points, structure is evident, as in the mirroring of the kisses of infidelity, and the redemption of Marmicus’s friends who at first seek to betray him, but then come to their senses, elsewhere it is absent. This fault is also evident at the novel’s end: the final confrontation does not even involve the Assyrian Emperor. This is not rationally or emotionally satisfying.
Overall, however, I am happy for Seja that the novel seems to have been a moderate success. As I wrote at the outset of this review, it is an engaging tale. Seja’s gift is as a storyteller and she has the potential to be more successful in the future. The novel, with its clear-cut universe, is a good read for the young adult audience that it has been marketed to. The question is, whether time will allow her to develop as a writer and add sophistication to her work, because there is a great difference between being a storyteller and a writer. Writing is a craft which has to be worked at if one wants to be taken seriously. But this is only Seja’s first novel and it is full of potential of what she could achieve. I am glad that I read it and, surely, that is the main thing in a book: that after one has read it, one should consider it time well spent.