Schrader (Knight of Jerusalem, 2014, etc.) delivers the second book in a historical fiction trilogy about12th-century crusader Balian d’Ibelin.
The first volume in this series saw Balian rise from the position of a landless knight to a baron over the course of nearly a decade. At the outset of this installment, the year is 1178 and Balian is married to the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria. The “exceptionally tall, dark-haired and well tanned” Balian visits with the very ill king of Jerusalem. The king hopes to settle his succession, so his concern rests with Balian, and those whose job it is to defend the Holy Land. Muslim forces, including those under the control of Salah ad-Din, are bent on the destruction of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and available resources are spread thin. What can be done “to keep the Holy Land safe for Christian settlers and Christian pilgrims”? Enter the infamous Knights Templar, who propose building a fort at Jacob’s Ford on the Upper Jordan. As construction progresses and blood is spilled, readers are taken on a journey into a time of hostile multiculturalism. People as diverse as Scottish knights, Greek clergy, and the Fatimid Caliphate converge in peaceful and not-so-peaceful ways as the book deftly paints a time of international conflict. The idea that Europeans ever had a stronghold in the Middle East, let alone a kingdom, may surprise readers unfamiliar with the time period. Regardless of readers’ knowledge, however, the era will prove indisputably fascinating as cultures (and swords) clash. The descriptions can be lengthy and occasionally obvious, such as when wealthy guests at an important wedding are said to come “bearing gifts with an eye to gaining favor,” or when Maria reflects on the possibility of her husband dying: “what a bleak and desolate place this world would be without him!” Taken as a whole, though, the novel succeeds in exploring not only Balian himself, but also the time and place that might produce such a man. Despite its many formalities, honorable words, and pleas to God, it’s an era that may leave many readers wondering, as one character does about the Christian forces, “Why didn’t God help them?”
Fans of the genre will find much to treasure in this action-ready, if occasionally simplified, historical depiction.