Publication Date: March 3, 2020
Length: 688 pages
This book will always be special to me for two reasons. First, it is Sharon Penman's last novel before her death last year in January 2021. And second, it introduced me to a period of history I knew nothing about. I'd never even heard the term, Outremer, or "the land beyond the sea" until I read this book. We lost a gifted historical novelist with the passing of Penman and I'm so glad she chose to write about this unique period in time. I've searched in vain for another similar book to continue reading about the topic and just haven't found one. I'll have to settle for straight history books and that's okay but this book pulled me into the characters and their feelings in a way no non-fiction book can match. That was Penman's speciality.
In the late 11th century the people of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem from the Saracens and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was born. In this world of many competing cultures and faiths the throne of the Kingdom and its outlying principalities was always undergoing internal strife due to the different factions and families that wanted to rule. This is the basis for this novel and it includes such an array of colorful characters that I feel each could have their own book.
The story focuses initially on the life and rule of Baldwin IV. A mere child of fourteen when he takes the throne, he is also dealing with the terrible disease of leprosy. His mother Agnes de Courtenay is always scheming behind the scenes to make sure her children are given their place of importance over their stepmother, Maria and her children. Baldwin suffers with his disease, balancing family squabbles, and facing down the Kingdom's greatest threat: the army of the dynamic Muslim leader, Saladin. He is supported and beloved by his tutor, William of Tyre and Penman does a wonderful job of drawing on his writings from his book written during the period, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea. We see the relationship between the two as an affectionate father/son interaction.
Balian d' Ibelin, a prominent nobleman, is the other focus of the book as he is intent on supporting Baldwin and keeping the kingdom stable. His marriage to Maria Comnena, Baldwin's stepmother increases hostilities with the de Courtenay faction including Baldwin's mother and Uncle, Joscelin. Much of the novel we see the d'Ibelin faction competing with the de Courtenays in their quest to control the politics of the day.
Saladin and his brother Al-Adil are only too happy to attempt to use this strife to their advantage. The Muslim leaders see the weakened ties of the Franks and this allows an opening for the Saracens to gain a foothold through attacks which ultimately lead to the downfall of Jerusalem. Through her recreation of their interactions with one another, Penman gives us a glimpse of the relationship between Saladin, Al-Adil, and Balian d'Ibelin. She lets us see the human side of the Saracen leaders and while no doubt brutality is the order of the day, it is clear that neither side is all good or all bad.
This book was definitely challenging and I had to take my time reading it. Thankfully, Penman gives an overview of the main players at the beginning and I found myself referring to it often. When I read historical fiction I tend to look up a lot of the events and people to see if they really occurred. This story reads like a soap opera and it was always fascinating to find that each time I checked it was all true! I'd really like to read it again now that I have been listening to a wonderful podcast, History of the Crusades, which has recapped the events of this book. I was frequently confused the first time around but now think I'd enjoy it more, having a good grasp of the characters and main events.
It is absolutely fascinating to think that all of this was going on in the Middle East while there was so much happening in Europe during the reign of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. It makes me curious as to why very few authors have attempted to write about it. It is no doubt a very complex subject and time period but it is so rich with possibility I hope we will see more books about Outremer in the future.