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The famous Muslim leader Saladin believes that he has finally driven the Christian crusaders from Israel’s shores. The King of Jerusalem has surrendered, most other nobles have gone home, and there’s only a small, stubborn contingent to deal with outside the town of Acre. Newly-crowned King Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart) sees this as his chance to win everlasting fame and glory. He rallies his forces to travel back to Israel and try again. With his brilliant strategies and fearless leadership, the Muslims won’t know what hit them.
I guess in a nutshell you could say that this is the story of the Third Crusade told from a Muslim point of view. I found it incredibly interesting. It’s always a little–what’s the word?–enlightening to see things from the “enemy’s” point of view. This took place so long ago that I didn’t go into it feeling invested one way or another. Still, if you learn anything about the Crusades in school in the Western world (and I don’t remember learning much), it’s probably that the Christian knights were fighting to take the Holy Land back from the “infidels.” I found it fascinating to see what the Muslims thought of Westerners at that time. Of course they saw them as infidels also. But they also saw them as dirty, ignorant, and without honor. They were medically and scientifically advanced and I’m guessing that Europeans hadn’t progressed past leeches and wouldn’t for several hundred years. The book opens with Saladin re-taking Jerusalem. The Christians still living in the city are cowering in fear, knowing how their soldiers had treated the Muslims when they took the city earlier. Saladin makes it clear that he’s not going to harm anyone. The war is over, enough people have died, and if you don’t harm my people, we won’t harm you. That’s Saladin’s take on things. I’ll keep this vague, but it’s a very different, horrifying story when the Crusaders win over a city later.
I’ll freely admit that I know very little about Islam. I try to keep an open mind about things, so I do know that what we see on the news is just a small group of radicals. Other than that? I don’t know much. I do tend to think that women in the religion are awfully repressed. True? Sometimes true? I don’t really know. I learned a few things here. I don’t watch the news much, but even I’ve heard the stories about wives being stoned to death by their husbands for adultery. According to this book, the husband has to provide four eyewitnesses before he can punish his wife for that. If he accuses her and can’t produce the witnesses, he’s the one who’s punished. Really? I didn’t know that and had to readjust my thinking a little. There’s also a line in the book where Saladin says, “The Jews are People of the Book and are protected by our religion. The Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, forbade us to oppress them.” Another shocker. With all the fighting that seems to go on between them, I had no idea that was in the religion anywhere. Time to readjust my thinking yet again.
Enough about all that. I’m making this sound like a straight-up history or religious book. That’s all well and good, but what about the story?
I enjoyed it. There were plenty of twists and turns, and I did manage to restrain myself from cheating and checking Wikipedia to see how things turned out. Saladin became a very real character for me. It’s clear that he’s a legend in his own time, and even to this day, but his responsibilities weigh heavily on him. He’s always trying to do the right thing, but sometimes it’s hard to see what that is. He’s very much a man who knows his own mind, but he’s not too proud to seek the advice of others, no matter the source. Miriam, a completely fictional character, was a strong woman whom I enjoyed reading about. She’s lived through unimaginable tragedy. It’s left a mark on her soul, but she chooses to live her life to the fullest rather than cower in fear. She speaks her mind at all times and takes brave risks to try to help her people. I also liked William Chinon, another fictional character. He’s a Crusader with a conscience. He doesn’t feel any need to go on Crusade, but he travels along with his friend King Richard to try to be a voice of reason amid all the madness of war. He doesn’t judge people by their beliefs (well, not too much), but rather judges them by their actions. He was a welcome relief from Richard’s cruelty, and he was by far the most truly Christian person among those forces. There was one section where this otherwise-prosaic story took on an element of the fantastic to explain some stuff that happened. It was only a few pages, but those pages had big ramifications for the entire war. I wish the author had found a way around the mysticism.
Really, I enjoyed this book on a lot of levels. There are obviously some people who are going to be uncomfortable with the point of view. But if you’re curious about stepping into someone else’s shoes for a while (assuming you’re a Westerner), go ahead and pick this up. It was rather eye-opening for me.
Thanks to FSB Associates for sending me a copy for review.