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Knight of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin Paperback – September 15, 2014
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From the Author
"The Kingdom of Heaven," the Ridley Scott film released in 2005, featured "Balian d'Ibelin" as the hero. Yet the Balian d'Ibelin who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 was a historical figure with a very different biography to the one Scott gave him in the film. Indeed, the real Balian had a far more intriguing life and a more important historical role than the film Balian, and this is what inspired me to write a biography. The uneven historical record, providing great detail about some aspects of Balian's life, but leaving other parts of his story blank, made a conventional biography impossible. On the other hand, the period in which he lived and the story of the fall of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was the ideal backdrop for a historical novel. Hence the resulting biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts.
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The plot revolves around Balian d’Ibelin, third son of Barisan d’Ibelin, an adventurer from Western Europe, who rose in the mid-twelfth century to become Constable of Jaffa and later a baron in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It traces the rise of the younger d’Ibelin from an obscure and landless knight in 1171 to one of the heroes of the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 to landed and fabulously wealthy baron in his own right and member of the royal family by marriage by 1178. In the course of this meteoric rise, it chronicles Balian’s martial exploits, his diplomatic successes, his romantic entanglement with the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, and his evolving friendship the leper king, Baldwin IV.
This could easily have been a novel as bad in its own way as Ridley Scott’s stylish but ultimately fatuous film The Kingdom of Heaven. Faced with the inevitable trade-offs between historical accuracy and dramatic license, Scott’s film almost invariably opted for the latter, twisting and wrenching characters and events to fit a story that in the end was faithful neither to the historical facts nor the deeper historical truths regarding the world inhabited by those like Balian d’Ibelin in twelfth century Outremer. Happily for those of us who like our historical fiction to be faithful to history while still telling a cracking tale, Helena Schrader has struck an altogether different balance. To be sure, she does take some dramatic license. Her version of the story of Balian’s rise, for example, hinges largely on his close relationship with King Baldwin, despite the fact that there is no direct historical evidence that such a relationship ever existed. When she does so, however, it is for all the right reasons: because there are gaps in the historical record that she can flesh out without interfering with recorded history; because there are hints in the historical record that she can build upon; or because doing so enhances dramatic punch without unduly distorting the historical truth. In the end, Helena herself puts it best in her Historical Note: “Given these gaps and contradictions, this novel has opted for a lucid story line that is not inconsistent with key known facts and in no way violates the historical record, but condenses or simplifies some events to make the story more coherent and dramatically effective.” That she is an historian as well as a novelist probably has much to do with the fact that ultimately she strikes a much more appealing balance between history and drama than either Scott’s film or many other fictionalizations of historical events or characters circulating in the popular culture.
Lest I have left you with the wrong impression, though, I want to be clear: Knight of Jerusalem is not simply an academic work of history dressed up as fiction – it is a well-plotted, tightly written tale that vividly depicts the life and times of an intrinsically interesting historical figure. The characterization is well done, particularly in the case of the protagonist, but also notably in connection with some of the minor characters. The prose is smooth, the dialogue believable, the attention to historical detail (especially around matters equine) flawless, and both the martial and marital dimensions of the story are convincingly developed (which is not always the case in historical fiction). Finally, I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable on the subject of the Third Crusade and the decades leading up to it, but the breadth and depth of Helena’s grasp of this era leaves me in awe. As far as I can tell, the story is marred by not a single mistake related to the complex and interwoven genealogies that are both an important element of this story and of life among the nobility Outremer.
Any downsides? Not really. The only misstep, and it is so minor a misstep that I hesitate even to mention it, is the use of the diminutive Barry to refer to Baldwin d’Ibelin. I understand why Helena has done this – to differentiate that Baldwin from King Baldwin. Still, I think restricting herself to the use of the name Barisan (which she also uses in connection with Baldwin d’Ibelin) would have been a better move.
At the end of the day, though, this is a truly minor quibble. Knight of Jerusalem is an entertaining and well-written tale that kept me engaged even in the midst of a busy university semester when I had plenty of non-fiction reading to do to stay ahead of my students. If you’re in the market for a thoroughly enjoyable work of historical fiction, I enthusiastically recommend this wonderful book.
I greatly enjoyed learning about all the main players in the kingdom and the different factions of the high court. Weaving fact into her tale, Schrader gives highly plausible reasons for the way history played out during Baldwin's reign.
I look forward to books two and three of the series. Anyone with an interest in the Crusader States would enjoy this book.
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, their 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!
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