Friday, May 1, 2009

The Road to Jerusalem

The Road to Jerusalem: Book One of the Crusades Trilogy
by Jan Guillou
$17.15 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
This is an exciting and easy to read new piece of historical fiction. It takes place in Sweden during the 12th century, in the middle of the Crusades.
Arn Magnusson is our story's young hero. Born into an aristocratic Swedish family, Arn seems touched by God from birth. As a boy he falls from a tower in his father's castle and is pronounced dead, only to be miraculously revived thanks to his mother's prayers and a promise that, if Arn lives, she will dedicate his life to God's service.
Soon Arn is sent to a monastery for training as an oblate (a boy monk). It's interesting that, although Arn has very little to say throughout the book, his character is still developed surprisingly well. The monks charged with instructing Arn quickly notice that he has some unusual talents: he's ambidextrous, for example. He also soon becomes a gifted archer and soldier while still keeping his monastic vows.
All this is set against the backdrop of the crusader army losing in the war for the Holy Land, as the Islamic empire reasserts is power over the cities on the Mediterranean coast. Additionally, war among the Scandinavian kings who are fighting for dominance brings added instability and intrigue to the story.
Guillou does a truly masterful job of explaining the history of the Crusades to those of us who are interested, but don't know too much about them. It's not a history book at all: entirely fiction, but it still manages to keep the facts straight.
We never get to the Holy Land in this first volume of the trilogy. Arn's talent for swordplay earns him a place in the hugely respected Knights Templar, whose mission is to protect religious pilgrims traveling from Europe to Jerusalem, so a visit to the blood soaked land of history's most disastrous war is imminent for volume two. The Road to Jerusalem takes place entirely in Europe, mostly in medieval Sweden, which is interesting in its own way: full of violence and intrigue while still outside the hotbed of European politics.
If you enjoy fiction about war and medieval history, you'll love this book. It's engaging from the first few pages, with frequent surprising plot twists and endless adventure. Arn is highly sympathetic as the male lead, with a terrific cast of supporting characters. Fans of the Da Vinci Code and its ilk are especially encouraged to check this one out.
The Road to Jerusalem offers the entire panoply of medieval Christendom: brave knights, treacherous royalty, pious monks, seductive maidens, and one of the most gruesome wars of all time. This is a surefire winner, certain to become the thrill-ride hit of the summer.

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