A holy war is derailed by opportunism and profiteering in this witty chronicle of the Fourth Crusade.
Galland (Revenge of the Rose, 2007, etc.) takes as her narrator a wastrel known only as the Briton, who trails an enemy to Venice intending murder followed by suicide—his own. Instead, he finds himself in the camp of Gregor of Mainz, a saintly German knight who is readying an army with Venetian financing for debarkation to the Holy Land. Unexpectedly, the Briton finds an incentive to live: Jamila, a widowed Saracen princess whom he rescues from the Venetian merchant who kidnapped her. He vows to return her to the Middle East, but the crusaders must first earn their war chest by invading Zara, Venice’s rival across the Adriatic. Loath to fight their fellow Catholics, a splinter group of knights negotiate a peaceable surrender, but Zara is sacked anyway. The Briton, whose ironic perspective is enough to keep us slogging through 600-plus pages, gains entree as a musician to meetings at which Venetians, prelates, Franks and Germans wrangle over strategy. The army is ordered on another detour, to unseat an imperial usurper in Constantinople. The Venetians expect full reimbursement from the new emperor, Alexius, but a delay in payment forces the army to winter in Constantinople. It turns out that Jamila is Jewish. Her late husband’s brother, Samuel, is the patriarch of Constantinople’s Jewish community, and he needs a wife. The Briton and Jamila are in love, but she dutifully agrees to marry Samuel. Alexius and other pretenders to the throne are wiped out by the crusaders’ former ally, Mourtzouphlos. His accession causes an impasse that will nullify the crusade, with tragic consequences for the Eastern Empire and its reluctant Western invaders.
The pace drags, but Galland’s astute rendering of political intrigue make for an ultimately rewarding long march.