available for pre-order. Release date March 2020
"Penman has a great talent for taking her characters, whether fictional or historical, and making readers care about them."
Available for pre-order
Many people are at least a little familiar with the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin. Far fewer, (outside of historical fiction) I would wager, know about the life of Balian of Ibelin, a Frankish lord born in the Levant. Penman tells his story in The Land Beyond the Sea. The timespan of the novel is actually fairly short, beginning when Balian is a young man. Penman takes readers on a journey among the Poulain, the people born in the Levant and descended from the Crusaders who remained in the region after the First Crusade; she shows us the complex and surprisingly collaborative interactions between the Poulain, the migrant Crusaders, and the Saracens, which influence the local politics to an extraordinary degree; and she demonstrates, above all else, that history is not always what we’ve learned from school.
Balian’s story here starts with his relationship with King Baldwin, known to history as The Leper King. The two had a relationship built on respect and Balian rose high at the court in Jerusalem as a result of Baldwin’s favor. Balian also had a good relationship with Saladin himself, as well as his brother, Al-Adil, one of Saladin’s most trusted advisors. These relationships came into play at the height of Balian’s influence, when he convinced Saladin to accept Jerusalem’s peaceful surrender after a prolonged siege that would have left thousands of civilians dead or sold into slavery.
The labyrinthine politics of the court are described in detail and were an interesting change of pace, for me anyway, from the court politics I’m more used to reading about. I understand the politics of periods like the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, or the Plantagenets, but I had never read anything set in the medieval Levant. Penman does a thorough and highly accurate job of showing these twisting intrigues. It was a bit surprising to me to learn how much the European and Saracen societies mingled and cooperated with one another. I had this vague notion that the two societies were segregated from each other because of the religious wars between them.
Penman has a great talent for taking her characters, whether fictional or historical, and making readers care about them. Even though these people, the ones who were real, died nearly 1000 years ago, Penman breathes life into them, brings them springing forth with their wonderfully messy, complex, endearing, irritating humanness.
All in all, while I have come to expect nothing short of amazing writing and research from Sharon Kay Penman’s books, it is nevertheless a delight to dive into a new book of hers and discover that her reputation as a precise and vivid storyteller remains intact and well-deserved.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Kristen McQuinn
ARC copy reviewed
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