A knight in too much armour

A knight in too much armour

by Robyn Young
Hodder & Stoughton pp680, ISBN: 978-0-340-83974-4

Normally, I enjoy historical fiction. There's something engaging about being plunged into a particular period in history and experiencing life as it was or indeed will be; because a well-constructed historical novel can pull off a futuristic setting just as much as a past setting. If the future has the appeal of the expectation of things to come and allows for creativity in imagining what might happen, the past has the benefit of experience and retrospection, which both give the author the possibility of examining past events in various ways.

It is also true that perhaps the past has been romanticised rather too much, and that certain novels tend to suffer from an overzealous passion for authenticity in order to "bring out the flavour" of times past. Sadly, I found Robyn Young's Crusade, sequel to the best-selling Brethren, to belong to the texts of this ilk; an example of realism and mimesis in extremis.

Crusade continues the story of Will Campbell, a Templar Knight living in Acre in the Holy Land. While being a champion of the Christian cause and a defender of European-Christian power and supremacy in the Holy Land, Campbell is also a member of a secret brotherhood known as the Brethren, dedicated to bringing about peace and stability between religions.

His function as a knight is therefore not just religious but also political.

The novel explores the relationships between Will and his fellow brethren, their loyalty and solidarity towards each other and their conflict with personal and religious issues. Perhaps the emotion which seems to surface the most is the idea of conflicting relationships which Will and the other characters all appear to have.

Will finds it difficult to reconcile his supposed celibate life with his passionate and often consummated relationship with Elwen, the erstwhile lady-in-waiting to the queen of France, who now works as an assistant to a rich, Italian textile merchant in Acre.

At the same time, she finds it hard to trust him due to all the secrets which he keeps from her; and she falls into the trap of false friendship which Will's estranged friend Garin De Lyons extends to her in order to fulfil his own shady endeavours to spy on the Brethren for King Edward I of England.

In the meantime, the Order's new Grandmaster, Guillaume De Beaujeu, in agreement with the King of Sicily and Naples and the Pope's blessing, is hell-bent on stirring up the animosity of the Muslim Turks and the Arab world in general, by stealing the Sacred Black Stone from the Kaaba in Mecca, and thus providing them with a reason to retaliate against the Christians, resulting in a new Crusade on the part of the Christian world in order to protect Acre, Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

For the Pope this meant the inciting of renewed religious fervour in Europe, for the Grandmaster of the Templars it meant political sovereignty and international recognition as the defender of the faith, while for the merchant class, a crusade would lead to a much needed financial boom after the stagnant years of peace.

Will's aim is to endeavour to maintain that peace in a very precarious and unstable socio-political environment. Court intrigue, inter-faith loyalties and attention to detail, including a Muslim perspective mean that Young provides an extremely well researched overview and chronologically accurate account of matters in the Near East during the Middle Ages.

Yet the problem is that there is simply too much setting with meticulous descriptions where everything is dealt with in equal depth, resulting in a text with several climaxes and anti-climaxes but no real focus. One of the ways in which a novelist draws our attention to certain aspects of his work is by knowing when to withhold information and when to increase detail and flesh out the reader's basic ideas in order to satisfy our thirst for what happens next. In Crusade, this modulation of detail is denied to us in favour of information overload.

If the spirit of an age is what you're after, then look no further than Crusade, which captures it voluminously and thoroughly satisfies those with a passion of detail verging on the obsessive.

If, on the other hand, you're more interested in an author's narrative technique and original rendition of characters, then you're better off reading a spot of proper history.

• Mr Delicata is a teacher and freelance writer, with a Master's degree in English Literature.

• A review copy of this title was supplied by Agenda Bookshop.

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