© 2021 Ben Kane
Lionheart introduced readers to Rufus, an Irish noble turned household knight in the court of England’s own King Richard. Exiled to England as a surety for his father’s good behavior, made an orphan by insurrection and the malice of an old enemy, Rufus’s best hope for returning home as lord of his own lands is in faithful service to the king – and even were it not an option, he would serve Richard nonetheless, for what young man of ambition could resist the opportunity to stand in the ranks besides such a man – one who not only looked every inch a king, but acted like it as well? It is such devotion that leads Rufus to accompany his lord far from the British islands, into southern France, Spain, and across the wide Mediterranean – to Jerusalem, in hopes of redeeming the city of God from the hands of the Saracens. Crusader is a more-than-worthy sequel to Lionheart, offering constant military action in addition to diplomatic and personal intrigue in Richard’s court.
Crusader opens with Richard’s long anticipated but much delayed departure for the Holy Land. Although leery of leaving England in the hands of petty subordinates, especially with his weaselly brother John skittering around, Richard can’t ignore the demands of duty – or his own appetite for war. His entire progress towards Outremer (the Crusader states) is marked by violence, arguably defensive: the people of Sicily despise the English who overwinter with them, and their antagonism requires response. Cyprus, too, is hostile, held by a would-be Byzantine emperor who has to settle for being the head honcho of his little island – at least until Richard and company arrive. The eastward journey is also marked by political tension, as Richard and the French king’s temporary alliance is constantly tested by the kings’ mutual arrogance, and then there’s Rufus’ private drama. In addition to carrying on a secret affair with the king’s sister (the widowed Queen of Sicily, yet!), Rufus and a fellow knight are mortal enemies, each hiding their enmity from their lord, each watching for the opportunity to dispatch the other to Hell – and Rufus’ furtive liaisons with Queen Joan only heighten his exposure to the other’s mischief. The other man, FitzAldelm, also spends a curious amount of time speaking in whispers with Frenchmen, making Rufus’ private war with him all the more important.
Crusader‘s multiple drama-streams feed into one another, creating a story that brims over with interest and excitement. There’s so much done right in this book, from the action scenes to the skillful use of medieval terms to add to the period flavor. (Mostly skillful: Rufus refers to the Arab/Turkic forces before them as ‘the accursed race’ so often that if you created a drinking game out of it, you’d be drunk as a lord before the book’s completion.) Even the love affair, which I normally complain about, was compelling — though it helped that Rufus is skirting disaster by falling for a member of the court. (Rule of Acquisition #112: Never have sex with the boss’s sister.) There’s enormous appeal, too, in the settings: Sicily, Crete, and Outremer are much different worlds than the British isles, and Rufus is fascinated by them — as is Richard. Although they both savor battle with the Saracens, they also find the culture they’re immersed in of great interest, and Rufus even spares the life of a young Arab so that he might learn more. As the action in Outremer peters out, Richard learns of schemes happening back in Europe: I for one am looking forward to King, and the completion of this trilogy.