Acre, one of the oldest continually-inhabited settlements on earth, has had a long and sometimes violent history. From about the middle of the 7th century CE, it was an Islamic city, until it fell to Baldwin of Jerusalem in the First Crusade in 1104. In 1187 the Ayyudib sultan Salah al-Din reclaimed Acre as a Muslim city, but lost it again to a combined European Christian force in 1191. Both militarily and economically important due to its strategic position and its access to the Asian trade, Acre would be fought over even by those who were meant to represent the same interests.
Elizabeth Andersen’s debut novel, The Scribe, is set in the years leading up to the siege of Acre in 1291 by Al-Ashraf Khalil, the eighth Mamluk sultan. Rumours of invasion are building, but harrying by the Mongolian Golden Horde is dividing Mamluk attention. But while this may concern the military and religious leaders of Acre, more immediate concerns occupy the three young people whose lives the novel follows.
Two are brother and sister, Emra and Ela, later known as Zahed and Sidika. Their village destroyed and their parents killed by Mamluk forces, both will become enslaved in different ways. The third is a noble child, Henri de Maron: European nobility, but also an outsider; his mother is ‘Saracen’, Arab. As the years progress and war looms, the lives of these three become, through a series of plausible coincidences, intertwined.
Henri is the central character, a bitter young man who must, on the sudden death of his father, take control of his family’s fortunes. Threatened not only by the political situation, but by an enemy, Philip, who wants Henri’s lands for his own, Henri must grow up – a lot. He has both his mother and his sisters to protect, and his duties as the lord of his manor. But Henri is neither old enough nor wise enough to make the correct choices very often.
The Scribe is well-researched, and of particular interest to me was the inclusion of the Mongolian incursions into the area, something rarely mentioned in the history of the wars for control of Acre, Jerusalem, and the middle East. The Scribe is not a story that glorifies the Crusades, but acknowledges the cultural and scientific knowledge of both Jews and Muslims, as well as the cruelty and violence imposed on them by Christian crusaders.
The device of the intertwined lives of the three young people, each of a different religion, works well for the most part, and the intrusion of the antagonist Philip adds to the sense of danger and intrigue. Description is effective, and the pacing kept my interest.
There are a few proof-reading errors, and a warning: there is a cliff-hanger ending. (The book is subtitled The Two Daggers: Part 1, and it is an incomplete story.) But a solid debut, and a more comprehensive look at the historical background surrounding the struggles for control of the Middle East in medieval times than I usually see. The Scribe should interest readers who like personal stories set against the turmoil of historical events.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Marian L Thorpe