Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Crusader - Michael Eisner

 Ah The Crusades. Just how controversial are they even today, 1000 years after the last Crusaders were booted out off their last enclave, Acre, in 1291?! But that aside they are a period of history that cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. Like all dubious historical events they happened and must be dealt with. As a history lover the Crusades hold a real interest. Not all the major Holy Land Crusades, but certainly the initial 1098 Crusade, and then Richard the Lionheart's attempt to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims between 1189-1192. And to a certain degree the Fourth and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

 I will state now I'm not an expert!! I did do several papers that had Crusades content for uni and have read a few books, but I'm more a buff than a serious aficionado. Anyway I'm not averse to reading a novel that is based during those times. In fact any decent look through your public library will undoubtedly unearth a plethora of Crusade based novels ( certainly the two Holy Orders of the Hospitallers and Templars alone are juicy ground for a novelist ). My own  public library has many but you know the old proverb..too many books and not enough time.Honestly I would need 20 lifetimes to read even half of what I would want too!

 I read Michael Eisner's 2003 novel The Crusader when I brought it new several years ago. I have actually gone back to reading non-fiction for the time being. And yet this is such a light easy read I whipped through it in between the non-fiction stuff. Over the last few years I have read a few reviews on this novel and opinions vary widely. I suppose that can be said about any novel. But I have taken an interest in this because I like  the novel and don't consider it as dull as so many do.

 The story revolves around the experiences of a Spanish Knight's Crusade in the Holy Land.  It is based in the later half of the 13th century and is a well imagined, clearly writen novel. After his brother Sergio drowns on his way to the Holy Land with 500 other knights, main protagonist Francisco de Montcada dedicates himself to the Cross. Reported dead after the siege and loss of the great crusader castle Krak de Chevaliers, Montcada returns to Spain a wreck and shadow of his former self. Seemingly possessed  he is chained in a Cistercian monastery's dungeon. There Monk Brother Lucas attempts to get Montcada to speak of his experiences. In the process he hopes to earn the reward Montcada's wealthy father has offered for his son's recovery.

 When he starts to speak he begins with his brother, his strong, confident cousin Andres, and his sister Isabel. Montcada tells of slowly falling in love in her before he goes off to train in Catatrava to become a knight before departing for the Holy Land. The novel artfully balances Montcada's reminisces and a sub-plot involving Brother Lucas and his dreams of glory within the Church. What transpires is a tale of salvation that not only concerns the mind of Montcada but of Brother Lucas as well. Montcada's tale involves an encounter at the Krak with Don Fernando who has subsequently risen to high authority with the church. It transpires Fernando conspired to keep Montcada imprisoned by the Muslims and keep his secrets safe.

 Suffice to say good conquers the evil hypocrisy of Don Fernando with Brother Lucas gets his reward and desires in the process. I liked this as an historical novel and especially its structure. The way Eisner bounces back and forth through history and the lives of his characters is fantastic. Whilst not strictly speaking a Crusades novel it uses it as a backdrop to what transpires between Don Fernando and Brother Lucas. There are only two somewhat short battle scenes of which the first involves Montcada and his cousin Andres storming a Muslim held castle. It is well realised and very vividly written The second is a great scene of the Muslim investment and subsequent capture of Krak de Chevalier, which is based on real events.

 The scenes where Montcada is imprisoned in a Muslim dungeon are excellent and the reader can feel his fear and despair. This is especially so as one by one his fellow prisoners either die, or are taken out of the pit because their ransoms have been paid by rich relatives. But for me the highlight of the novel is the broken spirit of Montcada. Eisner has graphically written of a man who is completely broken and seemingly possessed. It is a novel that shows how historically mental health and well being were unknown in the Middle Ages. Any sign of brokenness was mis-construed as possession. Of course today Montcada's condition would be identified as untreated post traumatic stress ( or in old parlance shell shock ).

 So yes if you like historical fiction and the Crusades in particular, then this is for you. It isn't a hack and slash Crusades novel as such, but uses them as a backdrop to a sub-plot involving corruption within the church. It isn't an overly long novel and is quickly read but there is enough meat to satisfy. I liked how Michael Eisner cleverly jumps between time frames, from the present, back to past, and back again. In the process he tells the tale of two men who serve the cross and how their lives have crossed with each having a different tale to tell.


  1. Read this a while ago myself, wasn't too bad, your review pretty much nails it.

  2. Thanks. Yeah it is indicitive of modern novels. Realitively short, decent but not overly spectacular. Still worth reading and as a comparison I found it far superior to John Stack's Ship of Rome which I reviwed sevearl months ago as a far as an historical novel goes.