Although most of my reviews focus on books about the ancient world, I couldn't resist accepting a review copy of Knight of Jerusalem, about Balian d'Ibelin, the famous defender of Jerusalem, from author Helena P. Schrader a couple of months ago. I had enjoyed Ridley Scott's film "Kingdom of Heaven" but like Helena, I, too, had wondered how much was actually true. Since Helena has a Ph. D. in history from the University of Hamburg and assured me that her biographical novel, the first of a trilogy, used the actual historical record as the framework for her tale, I agreed to read it.
I was not disappointed! The novel not only closely follows Balian's rise to prominence, meticulously tracing his career trajectory, but Schrader fills his life with vibrant characters, many representing real people struggling with the social requirements of medieval society while facing a cataclysmic upheaval between diverse cultures with opposing religious beliefs.
Like Balian, I was drawn to the tragic predicament of the young leper king, Baldwin IV, a courageous boy who struggles with a body disintegrating moment by moment yet with an awareness of the problems of others and a determination far beyond his years to serve his people until his last breath.
Schrader admits in the author's notes that there is no mention of Balian serving as a riding instructor to young Baldwin in the period's sources. But this fictional association between Balian and Baldwin she incorporates into the story serves seamlessly to support two historical facts about these men that are known. Baldwin, though a leper, was renowned for his horsemanship and Balian did manage, despite the strict social hierarchy of the period, to obtain permission to marry Baldwin's stepmother, Queen Maria Zoe Comnena (not Sibylla as depicted in the film) even though Balian was a landless knight due to his birth position as third son of a local baron. Although the historical record is silent about how Balian accomplished this amazing social feat, it seems totally plausible that he did so because of a close bond forged between himself and the young king in some shared activity or momentous event.
As a U. S. Foreign Service officer, Schrader has traveled extensively in the Middle East so I felt totally immersed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem by her descriptions of various locales and castle structures. She has also obviously thoroughly researched the trappings and weapons of armored knights and refers to each piece with precise terminology. I just wish she had included a graphic of an armored knight with each piece labeled. Although Schrader thoughtfully included noble family genealogical charts and maps, as well as a clinical discussion of leprosy, there was no glossary so I had to use context to help me define some of the terms.
Of course a novel about Crusader knights would not be complete without a major battle and the Battle of Montgisard that took place in 1177 is the climactic action in this first book of the trilogy.
"On the afternoon of November 25,  King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne). The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights led (depending on which source you believe) by Reynald de Chatillon or “the Ibelin brothers” had smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream." - Helena Schrader, Defending Crusader Kingdoms.
Schrader deftly turns up the dramatic tension as each unit of the Crusader army impatiently reacts to the carefully measured advance of the highly disciplined Knights Templar, given the lead position by young King Baldwin. I felt I was riding alongside the Crusaders as they finally explode with pent up fury and charge into the heart of the Saracen camp.
After reading Schrader's tale, I cannot imagine why Ridley Scott chose to veer so far from the historical record in his film. Balian's actual life was full of intrigue, heart-wrenching personal choices and courage. I am definitely looking forward to Schrader's next installment, Defender of Jerusalem, due to be released in September 2015.