Posts Tagged ‘knight’
The mid 12th century was, until recently, very unfamiliar ground for me. I know the late days of Henry II and his sons Richard and John because, well let’s face it, they’re what we think of in Britain when we hear the word ‘medieval’. But of Stephen and Matilda and the early life of Henry? No. Until recently, that is, when I read the rather superb Demon’s Brood, which was a history of the Plantagenet dynasty and rather opened my eyes to how interesting their era was.
King’s Company, then, takes place in this world. A world where King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, are at war, England a ravaged, torn and frightened place. The plight of the ordinary folk in this world is brought to the forefront with the protagonist William, who belongs to a family with a small estate in the south of the country and whose father died in the service of the King.
Dreaming his whole life of becoming a knight and doing glorious deeds, William remains tied by duty to the family holding and daily drudgery. Then one day things change when he is jumped by bandits on the road and is saved by a dashing young nobleman. The two become fast friends and the young man, Richard, spends much time at the family estate.
Only after many months of their bonds of friendship tightening does William realise that Richard is not quite what he thought and, with one ill-conceived act he finds himself launched into a world where his illusions of the glory of knighthood are torn away, his belief in the nobility and royalty shattered and his preconceptions all destroyed as he meets a young man who dreams of ruling an England not ravaged by war and torn apart by divided loyalties.
The characters in King’s Company are believable and likeable. Henry, in particular, stood out for me. As a protagonist, William is perfect: young, open-minded and strong willed, and pitted alongside a cast of older, more grizzled characters they drive the plot along well.
The basis of the plot becomes fairly obvious early on, when Richard pries information from the family that the reader can’t help but realise will lead to something, and there’s a faint predictability to that, but once that one predictable event passes, the story rolls on fresh, interesting and unforeseeable. Indeed, gradually as the novel unfolded I found myself wondering more and more where it was going to lead. Towards the end I feared it was bound for something of an anticlimax, since the novel does not reach the conclusion one might expect from early on, but Taylor throws us a final turn in the plot that brings us to a very satisfying conclusion.
The scene-setting is done well, and the prose is excellent. To give you some idea of the style, the book has gone onto my shelves next to Angus Donald’s Outlaw series. It is less brutal and dark than those books, though. In fact, while King’s Company is far from being a children’s book, the lack of extreme violence, graphic scenes and bad language make it a very acceptable and easy read for all ages.
King’s Company is an excellent medieval romp and comes highly recommended.
The seventh book in Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw chronicles is out today. Well, you know how I feel about the Outlaw books, don’t you? Just in case anyone’s still unaware of them, these books represent a whole new and very realistic treatment of Robin Hood, seen through the eyes of the minstrel (and so much more) Alan Dale.
Some series of historical fiction find a winning formula and stick to it. I would say, in fact, that most of those series do that. An author finds the sweet spot where his readers are happiest and continues to write in it. Some manage to continue with great success, though others start to feel stale some time around book five or six, I find. Other authors – rarer, braver ones – allow their series to grow and change like a living thing, which runs the risk of annoying those readers who enjoy that sweet spot, but allows the author to explore more and the reader to experience more. They do not become stale.
The Outlaw chronicles have grown and changed throughout Angus’ career as a novelist, and have done so with great success. In fairness, they would have to do, since they have covered two and a half decades of Alan’s life. He has changed from a young scamp to a mature, responsible knight in his time, and that journey from boy to man has been gradually reflected throughout the series, giving them a sense of growth and allowing the reader to identify with, and truly believe in, the character.
That being said, even with the general progression of time in the series, book seven has moved on more than usual, and feels slightly different – though far from in a bad way. Indeed, despite the ongoing plot threads I suspect a new reader could pick up book seven and not be lost by the missing of the previous books. A decade has passed since the siege of Chateau Gaillard and the events related in The Iron Castle, and that’s some gap to bridge. Needless to say it is bridged in style.
Angus has never shied away from handling the great events of the 12th and 13th centuries in his books, from the Third Crusade, the rescue of the Lionheart from Germany, the Holy Grail, the Cathar Heresy, right to the siege of Gaillard. All these events have been inextricably entwined with the characters in his books, both Robin and Alan as well as the supporting cast. And book 7 takes on one of the most important events in British history – the signing of the Magna Carta. Propitious timing, given that only a few days ago that event celebrated its 800th anniversary.
A quick note on the plot and events within (avoiding spoilers at all costs): This tale takes us on from Robin and Alan’s previous position as landowners of England suffering the whims and oppression of the tyrant King John. The last two books or so have languished solidly within that nightmare situation. Well, with book 7 that tense, dangerous world is coming to a head. John is determined to reclaim his lost lands in France, but he is unpopular and poor as kings go. Wars cost money and need men. To get the men he needs he will have to hire mercenaries and send cash to his friendly rulers across the sea. And that means more money. And where does that money come from? Clearly from men like Robin and Alan. England is being squeezed until every last penny pops out, and that is crippling the people and fomenting unrest among the nobles. Though they will fight in France to reclaim his territory, John’s nobles are beginning to think the unthinkable: of the death of a tyrant. And you can be sure that Alan is expected to play a part…
King’s Assassin masterfully weaves together three or four major plot threads, with each one having a bearing on the others, each having an immediate connection to the current tale while also recalling events in the previous books. There is war. There are daring escapes. There is betrayal – LOTS of betrayal. There are assassinations and sieges, desperate flights and heroic duels. But there is also a grounding in the real world. None of this is Errol Flynn leaping onto candelabra and laughing as he pinches the sheriff’s hat. It is all a tale that could so easily have happened as it is written.
I was interested to see the return of a few old characters I had all but forgotten, and impressed and surprised at one particular event that was very brave of Angus to handle, I have to say. Enough said about that. No spoilers is my policy. But you’ll know what I mean when you get to it. The book is extremely well written, as you would expect, the prose poetic and carrying a feel of the language and idiom of the era, and is up there at the very top of the series, and indeed of the whole genre. King’s Man has always been my favourite of Angus’ books, but King’s Assassin is truly every bit as good.
There is a palpable feeling of closure about this book, which at once makes me sad and makes me want to shake Angus’ hand. There can be no doubt that the Outlaw Chronicles are coming to an end soon. Not with this book, but with one or two perhaps left to go. While that means that I am facing the possibility of no more Robin and Alan in a few years time, it does mean that Angus is determined not to drag out the series to its detriment and can instead take it out with a bang, which is the perfect thing to do. And, of course, it means we might then be treated to a new hero from one of my favourite Hist-Fic writers.
Go and find King’s Assassin in your favourite store. Read it. You won’t be disappointed. It is one of those really hard to put down books.
Bravo again Angus
I recently had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Andrew Latham’s ‘The Holy Lance’. Initially I was hesitant, I have to admit. I am reasonably familiar with the Knights Templar in both popular myth and actual historical record, and am, frankly, a little sick of the endless connections made between the Templars and various supernatural or secret cult activities. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to read the book and discover that, although it revolves entirely around a group of Templars and the eponymous artefact, there is not a hint here of the ‘secret society and weirdo damned Templars’. This is a tale of knights, duty and the battling of inner demons, not the Rosicrucians or the Masons in armour trying to hide the body of Christ or some such.
Once I realised that it was a work of historical fiction about the real Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon and had not fallen into that most common and woeful trap of ‘Dan-Browniness’, I was properly enticed, and dived right in. In fact, despite the artefact at the heart of the tale being such a mythical, sacred item, the book remains grounded and realistic. After all, just because something is mythical has never stopped real people hunting it and believing in it (witness not only the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, but also the Nazi obsession with relics and occult objects.)
Inside, what I came across was a solid tale based during the Third Crusade, in the aftermath of the dreadful battle at the Horns of Hattin. Rather than being some ‘Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail’ knock-off, the story does not wallow in the supernatural, raising the spear of Longinus – the Holy Lance supposed to have pierced Christ on the cross – to be some kind of earth-changing relic. It is simply a religious relic, albeit an important one, sought by a number of the power groups active during the crusade, for its morale-boosting effects and the belief that it aids an army in victory. Richard Coeur de Lion sends the protagonist on a mission to recover the spear and aid his cause in the Holy Land. Completely as an aside from the main plot and characters, incidentally, I also have to point out that I love this unusually realistic portrait of the great Richard I, as opposed to the usual ‘bearded action hero’.
I will not delve too deeply into the nuances and details of the plot, for that way lie spoilers and disappointment. What I will say is that this is a hunt, and something of a race, to acquire the Lance, run by more than two groups. The political situation is nicely put, with conflicting forces not always on opposing sides of the war. Indeed, the oiliest, wickedest bad guys in this nominally belong to the same side as the Templar protagonist. Characters struggling to regain prominence or to maintain it in a world where power and position are most important are pitted against unwilling hunters who are bound by duty and oath to service. Christians both pious and base struggle against each other, as well as against the agents of Saladin (also, incidentally, a refreshing and unusual characterisation) in an effort to bring the lance back to their faction. Don’t forget that in this awful crusade, the English and the French probably hated one another more than either of them hated the Saracen!
Strangely, for me, the most important and most powerful thread (themes?, ideas?) in the novel, which so outweighs the main plot concerning the lance and the machinations of the powerful, is the personal journey of the protagonist. A former knight who joined the Templars to seek a way out of a world of blood, violence and base impulses, Michael Fitz Alan faces a daily battle against his inner demons and, while he is a strong, often irritatingly unyielding and deadly character, this dark, uncertain side of him is what makes him real to the reader. He is a character that sits well in his place in the plot and will drive the story on beyond this volume with ease.
The upshot is that the Holy Lance is an action packed, tense race to recover a holy relic, pitted against the hordes of the Saracen, power-hungry Christian nobles, his own masters of dubious ethics and various side-groups. Throughout the story, the character of Fitz Alan unfolds, and thus is born the series of the English Templars. Roll on book 2, I say.
What Pompeii the movie should have been.
The benefit of such a tale being told in six different stories by six different people is that it bears a certain resemblance to the good old-fashioned disaster movie. These days they tend to be released as love stories or thrillers or suchlike against the background of a disaster, but you remember the old ones? The Poseidon Adventure? Airport? The Towering Inferno? Even Volcano, I suppose. Part of the joy of those movies was that the story was not one plot but a basket of inter-weaved plot-lines set against a single series of events, often throwing disparate characters together and telling the whole tale from a variety of viewpoints. And that’s what we have in Day of Fire, with the stories cleverly interlinked to a greater or lesser extent.
Off the bat, I’ll say that the only writer of the six included here that I’ve previously read is Ben Kane, but his pedigree is such that it would hook me regardless. Happily I was pleasantly surprised. There being such a variety within I couldn’t hope to review the book as a whole without attention to the individual tales, so here’s a blow-by-blow review, interspersed with a few appropriate pics of Pompeii ripped from my collection for colour.
The Son by Vicky Alvear Shecter
introduces us to the locale, the time, and the initial problems with Vesuvius, taking us through a story of young lust, betrayal and intrigues, told with an easy, familiar style that is well informed and thick with Pompeian atmosphere, dropping us into the troubled life of the nephew of the great admiral Pliny the Elder. I was initially unsure of it as an opening tale, perhaps because it is so often said that a novel will only sell if the opening scenes are crammed with blood and action (and such is my most common reading fare) and perhaps, given the fact that this is a tale of Vesuvius, I was expecting an opening scene filled with volcanic action. But very soon I settled into the tale and started to enjoy the ride. The last stages of the story were particularly well presented and the story left me with an impression of polished style and a solid understanding of human nature. All in all, it was a superb opening to the collection.
The Heiress by Sophie Perinot
I found a little more troublesome. Not for the story or the characters, which were both very well presented, and again the flavour was just right, but for the fact that the story was written from two viewpoints and one of them was presented in the first person, present tense, which I find faintly headache-inducing to read. Still, as I said, the story was well enough told that it made me persevere, and I’m glad I did, for the end result was one of enjoyment and, after all, half of the tale is told in the first person past tense. This story of a woman hurtling with unstoppable momentum towards an arranged marriage she fears has a real feel of humanity about it, and introduces us to a number of recurring characters. It also perhaps made me reconsider the importance of the arranged marriage in Rome and the effects upon those involved.
The soldier by Ben Kane
is a Kane tale in spades. Ben is one of the leading lights in both the Roman and Military genres for a reason. Unlike many who can admirably present a battle and a tale of spilled blood and spilled brains, Kane is one of the very best for interlacing a human element that gives such stories a real depth of feeling, and that is if anything more pronounced here than in his previous novels. This tale of a broke and desperate ex-soldier pinning all his hopes of surviving his creditors on a gladiator is a real gem. Kane’s usual military action comes here in the form of the games in the arena rather than battle, but that is a small part of the whole, which is a tale of brotherhood and survival more than anything else. This is also the first tale in the collection that focuses heavily on the effects of the eruption on the city of Pompeii, which has been building in the previous two.
The Senator by Kate Quinn
was the biggest surprise of the collection for me. It was, I think, also my favourite tale in the book. I’d not read anything by Kate before, and while I may well read other books by these writers going on, I have already bookmarked Quinn’s ‘Mistress of Rome’ on the strength of this. Essentially this section, which builds beautifully on the back of characters and events that have already appeared in the earlier tales, tells the story of a disillusioned senator about ready to give up on life who finds himself, after an earlier encounter, trapped in the doomed city in the company of a feisty young woman (also following her earlier appearance.) It is the story of their journey through the destruction and terror of the disaster and their interaction, in particular the effects said interaction have upon each other. It is told with warmth, understanding, humour, love and at times a bleakness. I would rank it one of my favourite explorations of character I’ve ever read.
The Mother by E. Knight
to be quite honest I had a little trouble with again, since again the whole tale is written in first person, present tense for each point of view. I persevered, since the story once again built upon characters and events from earlier in the collection, and by the time you hit tale 3 in this book, you want to know what happens to everyone (which is a good sign.) And once again, I have to say that the story was fine and well-told, but made hard work for me by the tense in which it was written. The story of a woman about to give birth in a doomed city is a deep and troubling one.
The Whore by Stephanie Dray
Curiously, I’m at loggerheads with what I want to say about the the sixth and final tale in the collection. It is another (like the second) that tells two viewpoints with two different ways – one of them being First Person, present tense. Upon first realising that I almost gave up and skipped it but, having been through the other five and knowing that this tale revolved around two characters who have been part of the series from the start, I found myself reading and soon discovered that I could not stop. I managed to overcome my aversion to the tense very easily to read this tale of two whores in the last throes of Vesuvius, confronting and overcoming their long-term issues as they try to decide whether to stay in hell and do their duty for their owner, to flee the disaster, or – in one case at least – follow the dictates of their heart. This is the tale that ends the book. This is the on that makes you think. This is the wrap up and it is beautifully done in terms of character.
So there you have it. Six tales, interlinked and telling the stories of numerous inhabitants of Pompeii on the day Vesuvius erupts – the Day of Fire. As is noted in the book’s introduction, while all the tales are connected, none of the connections are critical to the understanding of the others, so if one does not take your fancy, you can easily skip to the next. The interweaving is extremely well done and becomes clearer as the collection progresses, and the progress of the eruption and the destruction of the city is well-portrayed, advancing slightly with each tale. I am pleased to see a realistic approach to the eruption here, by the way. No vast lava flows snaking through the streets or fireballs or explosions. The eruption described here follows the known sequence of events and does not – as is apparently so often the case – mix up what happened to Pompeii with what happened to Herculaneum (or even in the most dreadful cases Mt Thera or Krakatoa!)
Essentially, A Day Of Fire has something for everyone, and I cannot imagine any reader of historical fiction not finding within one or more tale that suits them. I have picked up a number of new authors to follow, which is the symptom of a good read.
The book is available tomorrow and can be pre-ordered beforehand. Go get it and have a good read, folks. And to finish, a little something about the authors:
VICKY ALVEAR SHECTER is the award-winning author of the young adult novel, Cleopatra’s Moon (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011), based on the life of Cleopatra’s only daughter. She is also the author of two biographies for kids on Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. The LA Times called Cleopatra’s Moon–set in Rome and Egypt–“magical” and “impressive.” Publisher’s Weekly said it was “fascinating” and “highly memorable.” Her young adult novel of Pompeii, Curses and Smoke (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic), released in June 2014. She has two other upcoming books for younger readers, Anubis Speaks! and Hades Speaks! Vicky is a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. Learn more at http://www.vickyalvearshecter.com/main/
BEN KANE worked as a veterinarian for sixteen years, but his love of ancient history and historical fiction drew him to write fast-paced novels about Roman soldiers, generals and gladiators. Irish by nationality but UK-based, he is the author of seven books, the last five of which have been Sunday Times top ten bestsellers.Ben’s books have been translated into ten languages. In 2013, Ben walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall with two other authors, for charity; he did so in full Roman military kit, including hobnailed boots. He repeated the madness in 2014, over 130 miles in Italy. Over $50,000 has been raised with these two efforts. Learn more at http://www.benkane.net/
KATE QUINN is the national bestselling author of the Empress of Rome novels, which have been variously translated into thirteen different languages. She first got hooked on Roman history while watching “I, Claudius” at the age of seven, and wrote her first book during her freshman year in college, retreating from a Boston winter into ancient Rome. She and her husband now live in Maryland with an imperious black dog named Caesar. Learn more at http://www.katequinnauthor.com
STEPHANIE DRAY is a multi-published, award-winning author of historical women’s fiction and fantasy set in the ancient world. Her critically acclaimed historical Nile series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into more than six different languages, was nominated for a RITA Award and won the Golden Leaf. Her focus on Ptolemaic Egypt and Augustan Age Rome has given her a unique perspective on the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Learn more at: StephanieDray.com
Now, unusually, the Iron Castle has been out a week before I’ve got my review up. Why? Simple: I have had a plethora of books and manuscripts to read all arriving in a short time and most of which will never see the light of review day, but all had deadlines. And shuffling them around, one thing was clear… Angus Donald’s Outlaw novels do not deserve to be shoe-horned into the middle of such a rush. They deserve to be savoured like a 12 year old single malt. So I have taken my time and enjoyed every nuance of the book.
Anyone who’s followed my blog or my Goodreads or Amazon reviews will know my opinion of Angus’ books. They are one of the top series of historical fiction out there. I have enjoyed each of the books, though I have always maintained that the best in the series was King’s Man (the third of six). Well, the Iron Castle might just topple that for me.
I think that anyone who’s read the first five books will agree that with the death of the Lionheart and the somewhat off-shoot nature of the plot of book five, we all wondered how the interactions and situations would work with King John on the throne, what with Robin being such a loyal follower of Richard. How could the series continue to work? Well the good news is that with this return to the intrigues and dangers of interacting with the Plantagenet dynasty, the whole feel of the book has actually taken a step up rather than down. Serving a man the protagonists dislike more than the enemy has its own special fascination and informs not only the plot of the book, but the deeds and desires of the characters.
So what’s it about? Well you know I avoid spoilers as much as possible, but there are certain things I think I can say without ruining anything for you. Through Robin’s desire for settled security for his wife and children, he finds himself taking an oath to John. Through Alan’s ongoing fealty to Robin, so does Alan. Both men therefore find themselves dragged to France to take part in John’s wars over the ownership of Normandy, with King Phillip of France looming in the east, Arthur of Brittany in the west and other troublesome characters in the south. The defence of the crown land of Normandy would look utterly daunting were it not for one thing: the route for Phillip into Normandy is guarded by Chateau Gaillard, the great Iron Castle built by King Richard a few years earlier. This imposing and unconquerable fortress is the one great bastion holding the enemy from John’s lands. I think you can probably see where this is going, particularly given the book’s title. Expect a siege. I did.
The siege of Chateau Gaillard is a familiar event to many lovers of medieval history, and was one of the most brutal of the age. It made it recently onto Dan Snow’s TV series Battle Castle. Given the fact that I was already familiar with the siege and many years ago spent a day exploring the ruins of the castle, I was particularly interested to see how Angus handled the great and horrible event. The answer is: masterfully. There are a few books out there that have portrayed a siege in a fashion that actually had me sweating and biting my nails for the heroes as I read. Nick Brown’s ‘Siege’. Douglas Jackson’s ‘Hero of Rome’ and Paul Fraser Collard’s ‘Maharajah’s General’ are three of the best. The Iron Castle has now joined that list. It has all the tension, glory, despair and horror of a Zulu or a Masada and more. The fate of the ‘Useless Mouths‘ still leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
And as the threads of the characters and plot weave about the siege, there is a hint of treachery and betrayal that informs some of the more critical events and which will leave the reader guessing until the very end.
The main characters continue to grow, which is pleasing, especially six books into a series. Robin is becoming a straighter, less despicable character, which had to happen with Royal commission and a family. Alan seems to have finally tipped past that point where the concerns of youth guide his hand – he’s been heading that way for three books – and is now a grown man in all respects.
Simply, this series is a long way from done, clearly. Book six reaches heights I had not expected and injects new strength into the Outlaw books.
The Iron Castle is now available in hardback and various e-formats. Go buy it, people, and see how a siege is written.
One of the highlights of my year is the new Angus Donald novel, but this new book was slightly more anticipated than usual. You see, while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all Angus’ books, I have noted the opposite of what they used to say about the Star Trek Movies (the even movies were the better ones). While I thoroughly enjoyed Holy Warrior (2) and Warlord (4), it was Outlaw (1) and King’s Man (3) that were outstanding in the series and eclipsed many other great reads of the time. So would book 5 continue this trend?
Simply, yes. Grail Knight may well be the best of the five and, even if not, it is on a par with the outstanding King’s Man, which is about the highest praise to give anyway.
Why is it a win? Well to start with, Angus has consistently managed to take Robin Hood (one of the most cliched subjects in history) and write a series about him that repeatedly side-steps cliche and delivers fresh, engaging and fascinating tales that do not irritate in the way Robin Hood could so easily do (ahem, Ridley Scott!) That in itself is a feat. But this tale is also about the Holy Grail. No it’s not a spoiler. Even if you didn’t realise from the title (giveaway #1) the lead-up in book 4 made it obvious this was going to happen. And if there’s anything that delivers more cliche and general awfulness than Robin Hood as a subject, it is the Holy Grail. And yet in this book, Angus has managed to avoid cliche and awfulness very neatly. The result is that, in a book about two things that are a minefield of cheese, Angus has created a gem of a tale that delivers shock, joy, fascination and sheer power. Kudos.
The tale delves deeper into the awful and mysterious ‘Master’ and his secretive order within the Knights Templar. It portrays the Templars in an unusual light, making them bad guys, dubious and selfish, harsh and outside the law, while not accusing them of heresy and demon worship as seems to be the norm for writers these days. (Minor spoiler coming here:) The quest for the grail leads Alan from his home in Westbury, alongside his liege lord Robin, leaving a ruined home and a dying love to search for the one thing that can save her. It leads us to Cathar country in south west France and explores that beautiful world, centring on somewhere I have always wanted to visit. The plot never falters, hurtling along at pace, ever goading the reader to ‘just a few more pages’. The plot is neatly constructed and leaves no loose ends, in fact tying up a number of frayed threads from the previous books!
Probably the biggest win for this book with me, though, is the cast. As well as the essentials, a number of old friends return, including one of my faves – Sir Nicholas de Scras. And… Nur. You see I had become rather irritated with the witch woman in the previous books and had even gone as far as to grumble about her on Twitter at Angus! And yet she returns in Grail Knight to take her place in the cast and does so in such a well-crafted way that I thoroughly enjoyed it and found that I was appreciating her part as much as any other.
The book is happy and sad, full of subterfuge and open action, tense and calming, magical and spiritual and practical. It has everything you might expect from one of Angus’ books, but in spades.
Be prepared to put aside all your other hobbies and much sleep (I read 80 pages in the middle of the night yesterday) and enjoy a book every bit as good as King’s Man. Fans will not be disappointed and, if you haven’t read Angus’ other books, I would recommend them as always, but now with 25% more voracity!
Oh and the ending? Masterful. Simply masterful.
I sent the author a message when I had almost finished it, calling Grail Knight a Tour De Force and that is what it is. This stunning piece of Historical Fiction is out in hardback today and you can go get it here.
I just finished a back-to-back read of the first two books in Jack Hight’s Saladin series – Eagle and Kingdom, so this is very much a review of both.
The story follows the youth and growth of the young Yusuf, from his childhood when he is considered weak and unworthy through to becoming the legendar character that is Salah Ad Din, scourge of the crusaders.
The first thing that struck me about these books (and I would say is still the outstanding review factor after book 2 ends) is the fresh perspective Hight has written from. The crusading era is not uncommon for writers of Historical Fiction, and Hight’s offering might easily have become run of the mill, despite his obvious knowledge and talent, had he not done something different to stand out. Eagle and Kingdom are both written largely from the Arabic Saracen perspective, though seen often through the eyes of a westerner (John of Tatewic), which gives it relevance to a western reader. The main characters are generally Saracen, and that people are portrayed, unusually in this milieu, as an honourable, ethical, family-oriented, pious, friendly and likeable people. That fact alone could have driven me through the series.
Couple that with High’s clear knowledge of the era of the Second Crusade and the world in which the future Saladin grew up, and also his understanding and presentation of Islam and the Islamic peoples of the time, and it creates a story that is not only fresh and interesting, but also informative and revealing. I’m no expert on the time, but I do have a grounding in the early crusades from schooling and private reading and, while the author makes a couple of small tweaks or takes a tiny liberty with direct fact for the sake of story (which all such authors do and without which Historical Fiction would simply be non-fiction) everything seems to fall perfectly into place with geography and timelines.
The story follows a general arc of personal growth, mirrored in the growth of Saracen power in the Middle East.
The first book follows how young Yusuf, in the shadow of his brutal brother, comes across John, a Christian knight, after a battle at Damascus following which he is taken prisoner. Yusuf buys John as a slave and a bond slowly begins to form between the two, granting John more freedom and hope than a man in his position should ever wish for, but teaching young Yusuf everything he needs to become the man he is destined to be. The interplay between the two characters of totally different cultures and the interplay as they learn from each other is lovely and makes the book an easy read.
The second book moves more into the world of politics and intrigue, and takes us to Egypt and into a world of internecine warfare. In the meantime, John is having troubles of his own in Jerusalem. The interplay between the characters is still there when it can be, but by necessity the series has grown and moved on in the second book and there is more of a focus on the activities of the two friends (Yusuf and John) as individuals than there was in the first book. This is, of course, wholly appropriate for the plot arc, as is the warfare that is becoming more and more prevalent and central as the story progresses.
I look forward the the conclusion of the trilogy and what it means for the friendship between John and Saladin.