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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

The Valleys of the Assassins

Freya Stark

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Valleys of the Assassins

Title: The Valleys of the Assassins
Author: Freya Stark
Genre: Travel
Written: 1934
Length: 311 pages
Availability: The Valleys of the Assassins - US
The Valleys of the Assassins - UK
The Valleys of the Assassins - Canada
La Vallée des assassins - France
Durch das Tal der Mörder - Deutschland
  • and other Persian Travels
  • The Modern Library edition (2001) includes an introduction by Jane Fletscher Geniesse

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Our Assessment:

B+ : daring, entertaining travels, nicely related

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 11/7/1934 V.S.Pritchett
New Statesman . 2/6/1934 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/11/1934 Charles G. Poore
The Spectator . 15/6/1934 Bosworth Goldman
TLS A 24/5/1934 .
Die Zeit . (2/2002) Ulla Biernat

  From the Reviews:
  • "She is given to salty commentaries." - Charles G. Poore, The New York Times Book Review

  • "But, however the landscape stirs her into expression of her delight, her wit continues as alert as ever. It must be a long time since any book of travels appeared that brought out so neatly and harmlessly whatever the writer found incongruous by her and our standards." - Times Literary Supplement

  • "Vielleicht ist diese laienhafte Unentschiedenheit der Grund, warum Durch das Tal der Mörder trotz seiner ethnografischen Schwächen ein Klassiker des Genres geblieben ist." - Ulla Biernat, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Valleys of the Assassins was the first of many volumes of travel-writing by Freya Stark, chronicling several excursions she made between 1930 and 1932.
       Stark lived in Baghdad at the time -- daring enough, one would imagine. But she wanted to see a bit more of this part of the world, and set out for the thoroughly inhospitable reaches of Luristan and Persia (now Iran). She claims she "travelled single-mindedly for fun", but she also gathered valuable information regarding these largely uncharted areas (and a skull or two as well).
       These were not areas where strangers generally ventured, and even if she only travelled "in that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered", danger was ever-present. The tribal and territorial locals looked upon all outsiders with suspicion. Robbery was a way of life, the countryside largely unpoliced, and even the national government had only limited influence (beyond trying to institute ridiculous laws such as those regarding proper attire -- a "European coat and trousers and a Pahlevi hat"). The difficult terrain only added to the complications. Stark was generally not the first Westerner to venture into these areas, but few had come before her.
       With the help of guides and locals (but generally not the police), Stark did manage to get around quite a lot. She went on a half-serious treasure hunt in Luristan, and then travelled to the Valley of the Assassins, the Assassins' castle in Lamiasar, and the throne of Solomon. She sought out graves and ancient sites (finding relatively little of much interest), but these -- like the supposed treasure she hunted -- were merely vague goals. Travel itself, seeing these places, seems to have been her main ambition.
       She succeeded well, charming and fussing her way to get to many places. "A bullet may meet one around any corner" in most of these places, but by and large she was very lucky and came through it unscathed -- though she did fall fairly seriously ill.
       Getting around was always complicated -- as, often, was just finding where the place one wanted to go might be. Stark wanted to seek out Hasan-i-Sabbah's Assassin stronghold, Alamut, but found "there were obstacles." Most notably: "One of them was that I could not find it on my map." Among the most valuable information she brought back was more detailed information about these often un- or badly charted regions.
       Her genial descriptions are quite impressive. It is the natural wonder and the people that make the greatest impression, though she does also try to bring in some history (especially regarding the Assassins). She is not blindly enamored of the locals, appreciating aspects of their lifestyles but also shocked by others. The poverty gets to her occasionally (and the lack of medical facilities or doctors forces her into the role of makeshift nurse as well). Her guides are a motley crew, but Stark displays astonishing patience -- as one presumably must in trying to get along in this area. Bureaucracy, at least, can largely be left behind (at least outside any vaguely urban area), and she gets the most out of her semi-official (or at least semi-official looking) papers.
       "The undeveloped mind is much the same in Lincolnshire or Luristan", she opines, and there are undeveloped minds galore here. She deals with them quite well, and shows some understanding for them.
       Change was already creeping in -- cities are being established, roads laid -- but it is still a very different world. Stark describes it well, her style a breezy one, with some nicely expressed observations. Most of the small adventures are not especially exciting, but the narrative as a whole still is gripping. Stark puts on a good show. Hers was a remarkable achievement and without glorying in it she she still manages to convey just how remarkable it was.
       An interesting and fairly entertaining volume, quite well presented.

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The Valleys of the Assassins: Reviews: Freya Stark: Persian travels: Luristan: The Assassins: Other books of interest under review:
  • Nicholas Clapp travels in search of Sheba
  • See Index of Travel-related books

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About the Author:

       Freya Stark (1893-1993) wrote extensively about her extensive travels.

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© 2001-2009 the complete review

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