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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Book Review: Envoy of Jerusalem

Envoy of Jerusalem, third volume in Dr. Helena Schrader’s superlative Jerusalem trilogy, opens in the first week of October 1187, on a distinctly bleak note. Three months after the disastrous Battle of Hattin and ensuing onslaught of Salah ad-Din, displaced fighting men gathered in a shabby tavern behind the walls of Tyre, the last Crusader stronghold remaining in Christian hands, take a bitter potion with their ale: the fall of Jerusalem to the Sultan. In that city, holiest to Christendom, thirty thousand women and children, elderly, and poor spared on the strength of the heroic Balian d’Ibelin’s hard negotiations desperately scramble to meet the Sultan’s price of ransom from a fate worse than death, a lifetime as slaves forever lost in the far-flung Islamic world.

Little is to be gained by further summarizing the story. Suffice to say Balian d’Ibelin and his wife, the Dowager Queen Maria Zoe Comnena, continue their leading roles in this vast, immersive, and well-told tale of the tumultuous events in the Holy Land preceding, over the course of, and after the Third Crusade. For review purposes, most pertinent is Dr. Schrader’s continuing success in translating her encyclopedic knowledge of the Crusader States and her proven abilities as a purely creative writer into works of high literary and historical value.

As in the previous two volumes, a convincingly evocative sense of physical environment marks every setting. In Envoy, a kingdom ninety years in its building lying ravaged, fallow, and desolate in the wake of Salah ad-Din’s armies, remains hauntingly poignant in memory.

Action, be it a meeting among dissenting hot-tempered barons, cruel words between husband and wife, or an all-out blood-splattered battle on land or sea, is vividly shown with a sure hand for all aspects, verbal, emotive, and physical. In characterization, Balian d’Ibelin faces a formidable challenge to his leading role with the show-stealing Richard I Couer de Lion, capably portrayed  as a great king, leader, and warrior who yet shows human strengths and failings, whose deeds and persona match the historical record, and is worthy of his legendary status.

As known to serious students and scholars of the Middle Ages, women in High Medieval Europe and its transplanted culture in the Crusader States were most decidedly not a class of downtrodden beings, solely present to be used by men as sexual toys, heir factories, or currency. In her numerous and extensive characterizations of women of all social stations, Dr. Schrader strictly avoids the clichés of modernist feminism, as well as the common ‘medieval’ stereotypes regularly seen in historical fiction. Consequently, her female characters stand in strong and authentic contrast to these too often seen typecasts. She doesn’t neglect to sharply illustrate the wide disparities between the status and treatment of women in the Christian and Islamic cultures of the time.

Envoy of Jerusalem continues at the same compelling, page-turning pace established in Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem, not relenting until the conclusion of the final scene. Also, like these preceding volumes, Dr. Schrader’s unfailing attention to the complexities of the historical and environmental frameworks make careful reading an agreeable necessity. The extensive supplementary materials:  genealogical charts, maps, introduction, historical afterward and notes, and the glossary and list of additional reading, are easily accessible, and contain answers to any questions that might arise. In themselves, these well written and organized resources provide ample evidence of the author’s scholarly qualifications and standards.

In conclusion, Envoy stands alone as captivating and entertaining, as well as scholarly and far-reaching in scope and intent. As a complete work, the Jerusalem trilogy represents an outstanding achievement; a literary oeuvre constructed in keeping with the highest academic principles for research and verifiable accuracy.

From Real Crusades History, a solid five stars and a hearty Deus Vult for Envoy of Jerusalem! ~ Scott Amis

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