S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

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Posts Tagged ‘Saladin

The Holy Lance

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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.

Written by SJAT

March 26, 2015 at 10:27 am

Birth of a legend

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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.

Written by SJAT

November 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm