Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
With a title like Jerusalem Fire, and a blurb that begins “To most of the galaxy he was a legend without a face…” goes on to mention “Iry, the world of the Irin warrior-priests” and finishes “it needed only his presence to cause a jihad to boil out across the universe”, a reader might be forgiven for supposing Meluch had written a Jewish version of Dune. In fact, the back-cover blurb manages to completely misrepresent the story of Jerusalem Fire. Yes, there is some romanticisation of Jewish history – specifically Masada – much as Frank Herbert romanticised the Bedouin lifestyle. But the differences between Meluch’s novel and Dune are greater than than their similarities.
The “legend without a face” is Alihahd – which means “he left” in the language of one planet – who is a rebel runner in the Na’id Empire. After two millennia of dark age – a standard space opera trope – the Na’id conquered the galaxy under the aegis of “Galactic Dominion/Human Supremacy”. While their motives were initially pure, their unwillingness to brook any dissent has resulted in a near-totalitarian state. Their campaign of conquest ended some thirteen years earlier with the taking of Jerusalem, symbolic of the whole Earth, in a bloody battle.
Jersualem Fire opens with Alihahd’s ship being chased by a Na’id squadron. The refugees he’s carrying manage to escape in the lifeboats, but his ship is destroyed shortly afterwards. Alihahd and three other crew-members survive. They are rescued by a mysterious ship, which is also damaged. The ship crashes on a planet both recognise as the semi-mythical world of Iry. Only Alihahd, a young crewman called Vaslav, and Harrison White Fox Hall, captain of the mysterious ship, survive the crash.
They are taken in by Iry’s resident aliens. These come in two forms: the short, jolly, gnome-like ranga, and the tall, lithe aghara warrior-priests. The latter live in the Aerie, a village high up in the mountains, either side of a mile-deep chasm. The two halves of the village are joined by a single rope-bridge.
The aghara are indeed the warrior-priests of legend, though almost nothing about the “priest” aspect is described in the book. They are superlative sword-fighters, excellent marksmen, and possess psychic powers. Though they occasionally leave their planet, they have remained aloof from human affairs. Even the presence of a handful of humans on Iry – there are others beside Alihahd, Vaslav and Hall – is accepted begrudgingly. One of these humans is Jinnin-ben-Taire, who came to Iry as a child stowaway and, against all odds, trained to become a warrior-priest. He hates Alihahd the moment he lays eyes on him.
Meanwhile, Alihahd undergoes alcohol withdrawal, tries to work out if Hall is actually the captain of the Marauder, a mysterious pirate ship which uses a vast hologram of the Flying Dutchman as a disguise, and tries to find a way off-world. During this period, Alihahd’s disguise, which had darkened his skin, hair and eyes, works its way out of his system and reveals his true colouring: white, with blond hair and blue eyes. The Na’id operate a policy of miscegenation, and throwbacks to pure races such as Alihahd are hated and feared. One famous such person was the “White Na’id”, Shad Iliya, the general who took Jerusalem in a week, after a century-long siege by other generals.
It doesn’t take much insight on the part of the reader to realise Alihahd was Shad Iliya, and that he became an enemy of the Na’id Empire as a direct result of the battle of Jerusalem. The story leads up to an extended flashback describing the exact events and their effect on Shad Iliya. This section of the story is also what gives the book its title.
Then there’s Jinnin-ben-Taire, who scares the Itiri with his single-mindedness. He is banished after losing a fight for leadership against the Fendi, Roniva, and goes on a rampage across Na’id territory, which in turn explains his own origin.
Events come to a head when the Na’id land on Iry, and attempt to capture Alihahd, who by this point has dropped his disguise. At no point, do the Itiri (not “Irin”) ” boil out across the universe”.
Jerusalem Fire is a space opera that takes place almost exclusively on a single alien world. Only in that respect is it similar to Dune. On rereading it for this review, I found myself wondering why I had rated it so highly on previous reads. But somewhere around the middle, the story started to gel and I finished it liking it much more than I’d expected to. There are, however, some problematical areas. The Itiri, for example, speak an archaic form of Universal, the galactic language, and this is rendered as cod Elizabethan English. Such speech patterns don’t work in fantasy novels, and in a space opera they’re even less successful. Also, in the Na’id Empire humans who share Alihahd’s colouring are derogatively called “nazis”. There is far too much baggage attached to that term for it to be used in such a way – especially given the role the Jews play in the section set during the battle of Jerusalem. There is also a nasty streak of speciesism running throughout the novel. The Na’id are serious about their “Human Supremacy” – Shad Iliya spent much of his early military career butchering aliens. He hates aliens still – which does affect his dealings with the Itiri (and especially with some of their guests).
Jerusalem Fire is not a great sf novel, but it’s a better one then I had thought it would be. The central quartet of Alihahd, Hall, Roniva, and Jinnin-ben-Taire are perhaps a little one-note, and the setting is somewhat uncomfortable in places, but it’s a well-plotted and very readable novel. The trio depicted on the cover art, incidentally, bear no resemblance to the actual characters in the book.