Even the most casual students of medieval history, readers of historical fiction, moviegoers, and the public have long been familiar with the heroic King Richard I ‘The Lionhearted’ of England, and Salah ad-Din, Sultan of Egypt and Richard’s chivalrous nemesis as commander of Islamic forces over the course of the Third Crusade, the most enduringly famous of these fiercely fought holy wars that began over nine hundred years ago. Indeed, until the 2005 release of the at-best questionable Hollywood epic Kingdom of Heaven, other persons and events of great importance in the years preceding and during the Third Crusade remained the province of medieval scholars, their students, and those with sufficient interest to explore beyond the superficialities of cinema and, often as not, poorly researched novels.
With Knight of Jerusalem and its sequel, Defender of Jerusalem, Dr. Helena Schrader has brought academic rigor, her extensive knowledge of the Middle Ages and the Crusades, and her previous experience as an author of historical fiction to bear in recreating the lives and deeds of Baldwin IV, the ‘Leper King’, and his loyal vassal Balian of Ibelin, two great heroes of the Holy Land Crusades brought to long-overdue recognition by way of the well-played yet sadly inaccurate portrayals in Kingdom of Heaven.
Little is to be gained by summarizing Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem for this review; a brief biography of Balian should suffice to introduce readers to the principal character of both volumes. Born in 1143, Balian was the third son of Barisan, lord of the baronies of Ibelin and Ramla in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1169, Balian was granted lordship of Ibelin by his older brother Baldwin, giving the initially landless young knight an entreé into the higher aristocracy of Outremer. Balian had a significant role in leadership of the forces of the ‘Leper King’ Baldwin IV to victory over Salah ad-Din at the Battle of Montgisard in 1177, and in the same year, entered into marriage with Maria Comnena, grandniece of Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus and dowered widow of King Almaric I of Jerusalem. These fortuitous events, and the gain of the Barony of Nablus by his marriage, made Balian a powerful figure in the Crusader States.
Balian’s reputation was further enhanced by his unwavering support for the dying Baldwin IV and his opposition to the elevation of the incompetent Guy of Lusignan to the throne of Jerusalem. Most important was his survival, free and unharmed, after the disastrous Battle of Hattin in July 1187, which made possible his heroic role in commanding the defense of Jerusalem against the forces of Salah el-Din in September and October of the same year, and his hard promises that gained merciful terms of surrender from the Sultan when the fall of the city became inevitable.
Dr. Schrader brilliantly synthesizes the roles of academician and master storyteller. In contrast with Kingdom director Ridley Scott’s careless plot construction and deliberate distortions, Dr. Schrader has meticulously constructed an accurate geographical, environmental, political, and familial landscape using the proven historical record, as well as created finely drawn lead characters from the relatively scant existing information on the life of Balian, the more extensive records of Baldwin, and the numerous but oft-conflicting accounts of Salah ad-Din. The many supporting and minor characters, from the beautiful and wealthy Maria Comnena to the humblest servant, are brought to life with equal assurance.
Though ‘Knight’ and ‘Defender’ are exhilarating page-turners from first page to last, these very qualities of intricate construction make careful reading an agreeable necessity. The essentials of successful medieval novels are firmly in place: abundantly vivid and violent battle scenes; romantic situations entrancing for the modern reader as well as true to the times; and a sense of time and place convincingly evocative of the Middle Ages. But, beyond the pure pleasure of reading, ‘Knight’ and ‘Defender’ represent a growing and significant trend: the entry of talented academic historians who can write a rip-roaring story into the field of historical fiction; a trend which can only raise the bars of careful research and historical accuracy for all HF writers.
Needless to say, I eagerly await the third volume of Dr. Schrader’s Jerusalem trilogy; for ‘Knight’ and ‘Defender’, five stars and the highest recommendation! ~ Scott Amis