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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Review for "Why Does the Heathen Rage" by J. Stephen Roberts


            If there was one word I could muster to sum up the stirring narrative contained in J. Stephen Roberts’ newest historical fiction novel Why Does the Heathen Rage, it would have to “intimate.”  Seldom have I read a story that incorporated such a high degree of intimacy within it – intimacy with regards to the characters and their relations with each other, intimacy in its portrayal of the historical setting, and the intimacy with which the author bears to the reader the “artistic soul” at the heart of it all.

            The setting is indeed a unique one.  Taking place during the reign of King Baldwin II (formerly Baldwin of Bourcq who, as a young man, had ridden alongside his elder cousins, Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne, during the First Crusade), it covers the pivotal period during the king’s reign as he faced the ever-increasing crisis of the Seljuk incursions under Balak Ghazi into the Principality of Antioch and the County of Edessa in the 1120s.  However, this is not a dry recounting of maneuvering armies or monolithic kings and commanders.  It is a story about the people, great and small – known and unknown, who lived through these trying and (at times) desperate years of the infant Crusader States in the Levant.  This is best seen in the two characters the story mostly centers around, Baldwin’s spirited daughter Melisande and her fictitious childhood friend, Robert Bures, now a newly minted knight of the Latin Kingdom.  The dance between these two characters alone makes this novel a must read – two children born and raised in Frankish Outremer, living under the imposing legacies of Crusading heroes whose deeds were still within living memory, and who now face the daunting prospect of having to risk and sacrifice all to ensure the dream of a Latin Jerusalem doesn’t die on their watch – all while struggling with the feelings and emotions natural to a young man and woman who may feel more for one another than mere friendship.

            In terms of historical authenticity, the intimate detail incorporated in this novel is superb.  While it is obvious that the author invested incredible amounts of scholarly research into the making of this work, he was able to infuse such details in such a manner that it avoids coming off heavy-handed or dry.  It also provides – perhaps one of the first such portrayals in medieval historical fiction – an incredibly honest look at the cultures and societies on all sides of the conflicts for the Levant – Latin Christian, Orthodox Armenian and Georgian, and the Muslim Seljuks.  While there are scenes of shocking brutality and violence, everything portrayed is supported by top-notch scholarly evidence and is refreshingly clear of anything remotely resembling modernist commentary or agenda.  Speaking as a military historian who specializes in the medieval period, the author’s depiction of the realities of combat in the Frankish kingdoms of the 12th Century is quite possibly one the best I’ve ever encountered in the historical fiction genera and his climax of the Battle of Azaz in 1125 rivals those from the likes of Bernard Cornwell or one of the Shaaras.

            Overall, Why Does the Heathen Rage is an intimate story of people, great and small, who lived in what is perhaps one of the most important (and, today, controversial) periods in the history of the West.  It will enthrall, shock, inform, and inspire any reader who encounters it.  Hopefully, if we are lucky, we will see more stories like this in the future of the genera.

-Rand L. Brown II is a founder and regular contributor for RCH.  He currently studies graduate-level medieval military history and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the RCH Society Blog.

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