The Legend of Tarik
by Walter Dean Myers
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A young African captured into slavery in medieval Spain seeks vengeance for the murders of his father and brother, becoming a legendary hero in the process.
Reason for Begining: I’d never read a story following a heroic African in medieval Spain before, and it sounded quite interesting, especially since I know a thing or two about medieval Spain.
Reason for Finishing: A quick, reasonably entertaining read.
Story Re-readability: It’s easy enough to reread considering its length and quick pace, but it doesn’t hold enough interest for me personally.
Author Re-readability: I’d certainly be willing to read Myers again, although his story felt a bit rushed and didn’t have quite as much texture or unique interest as I would have liked.
Recommendation: It’s worth a read for dedicated bibliophiles, and may be quite appreciated by younger readers who are less picky than me about having fully fleshed-out stories with unique elements. Also recommended if you are starved for fantasy quests featuring non-European heroes.
“How easy this killing business becomes,” Tarik said. “Once it can be done when the heart is angry, it comes as a child to its mother. Is this the gift that Nango and Docao have given me?”
“It is a gift to do what has to be done,” Stria said. She was twisting strips of leather into a wide band. Her fingers moved deftly, pulling each strip of leather, before tightening the weave, to see if it would stretch.
“The words come easy,” said Tarik. “ ‘This is Evil and this is Good.’ Choosing which is which comes hard.” (123)
There is a pleasant directness to The Legend of Tarik which helps alleviate some of the blandness in the story’s telling. In a brisk one hundred and eighty pages our hero suffers the loss of his family, is trained to be skilled warrior, and goes on quests to retrieve three magical things, before finally embarking on another quest to avenge his family. There’s plenty of action and an admirable clarity to the plot. But both characters and plot are too thinly developed, and in the end the story is merely satisfactory without leaving any memorable impression.
Tarik himself is sympathetic and understandable without being particularly enjoyable. His black skin color constantly marks him as an outsider and prevents him from being too easily accepted by the populace, but his native culture is so little touched upon that it barely seems a part of him at all. For the most part he is the stern, virtuous, driven young hero out to defeat evil and right wrongs that we’ve seen in many a tale. He is trained to be a superb warrior in fairly short time, page-wise, and never seems to be in any real physical danger due to his rapidly high skill level. He struggles a little bit with being too revenge-driven and being too dismissive of other people when they don’t immediately further his goals, but the moral struggles never felt deep or emotional enough to really move me. We are told more than shown what he thinks and feels. The writing for him his competent, but unremarkable. There is little humor, and some, but not quite enough, humanity in him.
When this humanity does peak through, it’s mostly in two contexts. The first is through the frequent flashbacks to his childhood on the River Niger. Tarik’s memories of his father and brother are melancholy and moving. To see what he has lost helps us understand his grief. The second context is his interactions with a few of the supporting characters. Nongo, a blind and genial countrymen of Tarik’s, and Capa, a Spanish baker, are both amusing and reasonably lively figures who inspire some patience and kind humor in Tarik. Neither is particularly unique or creative – they fit neatly into the Wise Mentor and Amusing But Loyal Sidekick roles, respectively – but they each have cares and joys outside of the plot, and thus are able to support Tarik while still reminding him that there are more important things in life than riding down one’s enemies.
Speaking of enemies, the sinister El Muerte could also have stood to be more developed. He’s the villain Tarik seeks to kill, but we know precious little about him—not even his real name! He is a mercenary given a carte blanche by the local king to use the king’s soldiers pretty much any way he wants, which mostly means satisfying his own personal sadism and hunger for power. There is a brief mention of El Muerte’s desire to overthrow the king, and a prince looking for evidence against this plot, but nothing ever comes of it. Which is a pity, because a strong dash of political intrigue would have been a fascinating complement to Tarik’s predictable heroics.
This also would have allowed the story to make use of its most interesting asset—its setting in medieval Spain, which was a kaleidoscope of small Christian and Muslim kingdoms whose politics frequently changed. Into this boiling pot of religious and political intrigue would have waded the African, pagan Tarik, who in his quest for revenge befriends Christians, Muslims, and even gypsies. But sadly, in the story as it stands, Tarik’s diverse set of friends don’t end up amounting to much thematically, since neither the setting nor the villain are much developed.
The Legend of Tarik is a quick, reasonably effective adventure. It feels a bit too lean and would benefit from more detail, or just more story, in certain areas. It certainly does not overstay its welcome, though, and may well capture the attention of young, energetic readers whose imaginations are eager to flesh out the story with their own dreams.