In this third installment of Schrader’s (Defender of Jerusalem, 2015, etc.) series of historical novels on the life of crusader Balian d’Ibelin, the Christian and Islamic worlds vie for control of the Holy Land during the Third Crusade.
As the story begins, Jerusalem has fallen to Salah ad-Din Yusuf, sultan of Egypt and Damascus. Through clever negotiation, Balian secures the citizens’ lives, as well as the release of anyone able to pay a ransom; still, many thousands of poor people get sold into slavery, a fact that haunts Balian through the rest of the novel. After the death of Jerusalem’s Queen Sibylla, many question the idea that the usurper, King Guy de Lusignan—characterized as being “despised for leading the Christian army to an unnecessary defeat and losing the entire Kingdom as a result”—has the right to rule. Against a backdrop of flailing military campaigns to retake lost cities, a complicated scheme unfolds to put the queen’s sister, Balian’s stepdaughter, Isabella, on the throne after she repudiates her marriage to the ineffectual Humphrey de Toron and marries the more ambitious Conrad de Montferrat. The rift between the two pretenders to the throne is further complicated by the arrival of the kings of France and England, who each back a different claimant. But the presence of the larger-than-life King Richard the Lionheart, who ‘had seemed invincible—indeed, immortal,’ reinvigorates the Christian fighting forces, leading the armies to improbable victories. Overall, the novel’s prose is fluid and engaging, and Schrader presents the dialogue in clear, generally formal, modern language. However, this style may frustrate sticklers who are more concerned with authenticity than accessibility; for example, King Richard uses contemporary idiom when commenting on Guy de Lusignan’s chances of being chosen king: “He doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.” The volume of characters in the book can be daunting, especially as many take turns providing their own points of view. When clearly signaled, these shifts can offer engaging glimpses into the world of the story, but when they happen multiple times in the span of only a few pages, it can become confusing.
An often entertaining novel of particular interest to fans of military epics and historical political intrigues.