The Crusades are a particularly intriguing historical subject these days, given their lasting echoes through contemporary events. The phenomenon of European armies rolling through the Middle East, intent on subjugating the land and its peoples in the name of Jesus Christ, is compelling enough in itself. Seen in light of today’s headlines, as Western powers continue to play military, diplomatic and economic chess in the region, the resonances between past and present become even more striking.
Never mind George W. Bush’s comment that the 2002 invasion of Iraq would be a “crusade for freedom”—although many in the Middle East are unlikely to forget that unfortunate phrasing anytime soon. Events speak for themselves: few if any other regions of the world have seen foreign powers commit so many resources, both military and economic, for so many decades. The goal may no longer be to control the Holy Land for religious purposes (although even that is debatable) so much as to control access to resources and geopolitical alliances. Nevertheless, the region has long been a battleground between people who inhabit it, and outsiders who do not.
One might hope, then, that a novel set in this milieu might reflect some of these modern-day concerns, however elliptically. Expectations are raised even further when the novelist in question is Sharon Kay Penman, an established literary force whose impressive ouevre includes books like The Sunne in Splendour (concerning Richard III) and the “Welsh Trilogy” focusing on Edward I’s subjugation of that land: Here be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning. Penman has proven herself to be a meticulous researcher, but just as important is her storytelling ability. She is able to imbue her historically distant subjects with motivations and emotions recognizable to modern readers. No easy trick, that.
All these skills are on display here. Penman turns many a skillful phrase, and her scenes tend to roll right along, especially in the first three-fourths of the book. (Things lag a bit later.) She is adept at writing battle scenes as well as dramatizing the tenderest exchanges between men and women. What is missing, though, is any sort of big-picture resonance concerning the life of Richard, King of England and would-be conqueror of Jerusalem.
Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe a book can’t be criticized for what it lacks, rather than for what it contains. In this case, though, much of what is missing proves a good bit more interesting than some of what is actually here.
Good news first: the book starts well. Focusing on the kingdom of Sicily, which is ruled by William II, married to Richard’s sister Joanna, Penman chronicles William’s difficulties and premature death, which leads to a succession crisis. This is resolved only by the arrival of the titular Richard, some 100-pages-plus into the novel. He travels in the company of the vacuous Philippe, King of France and the book’s primary villain. In short order, Richard sets things right in Sicily, gets himself married, launches the Crusade, encounters bad weather on the Mediterranean, washes up on the shores of Cyprus, fights some battles, gets in a jam and resolves it, and scores himself an awesome horse.
Whew! At this point we’re one-third into this Yellow Pages-sized volume and haven’t yet sniffed the Holy Land. Admittedly, the novel is entitled Lionheart, not Lionheart’s Adventures in the Holy Land, but nonetheless a reader will be forgiven for experiencing some degree of impatience at the pace at which the story unfolds. Individual scenes are quick and lively enough, but the overarching narrative arc develops—as did Richard’s life—with countless asides, detours, and distractions both major and minor.
In part this is because of the enormous scope of the novel. Readers who are intimidated by long lists of characters in the front of their books should run away from this one, which enumerates 64 individual characters by name, title and geographic location. Whether the reader is actually expected to keep track of this abundance is an open question; for my part, I was content to keep in mind Richard’s immediate family, a few close advisors and a handful of his enemies both European and otherwise.
The downside of this approach occurs when one or another of the minor characters takes center stage for a time, leaving the reader to puzzle out the significance of this scene or that. Nowhere is this more unhappily demonstrated than in the final 100 pages of the novel. Just when events should be ramping up to their most dire and exciting, Penman introduces a 30-page detour involving Henri, who is—wait, let me check the list—Count of Champagne, Richard’s nephew, and also nephew of Philippe, the nasty King of France. This unfortunate subplot, which involves Henri’s unexpected betrothal and marriage, contains rich helpings of soap opera and is incomprehensibly shoehorned into the main storyline involving Richard’s travails. The episode could have compressed into a handful of pages with no loss of reader interest and considerble service to the story’s momentum.
Not everything is bad. As mentioned, Penman writes effective action sequences, and she effectively recreates the medieval mindset, which placed physical courage as the most vital of manly virtues and didn’t allow much questioning of the whole Crusade project. The fact that many of the Knights of the Cross were criminal, brutal, lecherous degenerates occasioned little comment in their conremporaries, although—one hopes—might raise the eyebrow of a modern reader.
Ultimately, Lionheart is the sum of its parts: a capably researched recreation of what happened, or what might plausibly have happened. It’s a long book that reads like an even longer one. Its literary delights are minor, but it works reasonably well as a meticulous document of the time.