Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Genre: historical fiction
I read it as an: ARC
Length: 688 pp
Published by: Putnam (3 March 2020)
Many people are at least a little familiar with the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin. Far fewer, 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 think I had this vague notion that the two societies were mostly segregated from each other because of the religious wars between them. I think my favorite thing was learning just how closely tied the societies were and how much they had in common. Though, really, that shouldn’t surprise me at all, since rationally I knew the region was something of a melting pot; I just hadn’t really thought much about it.
Related to that, I was fascinated by the way they treated each other. For example, once Saladin accepted Jerusalem’s surrender, he allowed the people to put forth a ransom rather than have them all shipped off to the slave markets in Cairo. Of the roughly 15,000 people who were too poor to help raise a ransom and would have been sent into slavery, he released 7000 of them, then granted his brother, Balian, and Patriarch Eraclius gifts of 1000 slaves each, which they immediately manumitted. The way the Saracen guards/escorts treated the group who was able to leave Jerusalem was also wonderful to read. They took good care to protect them, even though they were defeated enemies; however, Saladin had ordered them to treat them well, and so they did. In Penman’s extensive Author’s Note, she indicated, rightly, that she would have been hard pressed to believe that if it had been described so only in Saracen chronicles, but the description came from several Christian chronicles.
Also, Penman has a great talent for taking her characters, whether fictional or historical, and making readers care about them. I was so sad when William of Tyre died; I felt awful for and was sad when Baldwin died, because he was so brave in facing his illness; I was furious when Guy de Lusignan did, well, all the stupid things he did; I loved and was grateful to Anselm for his unflinching service to Baldwin. So many other examples. Even though these people, the ones who were real anyway, 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.
Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):
- “You can get Amalric to pay his ransom.” Others might have found that answer cold, uncaring. Agnes did not. Her mother was simply recognizing the reality confronting them, as women had been compelled to do down through the ages.
- William suddenly found himself on the verge of tears, almost as if he knew he’d just been given a precious gift, a memory of the young king at a perfect moment in his life, one that held no shadows or dread, only bright promise.
- “This is the first course, honey dates stuffed with almonds. I am sure you’ll like them if you give them a try.” Balian leaned over and put a date on the other man’s plate. The knight let it lie there untouched. He was gazing at it as if it were offal, not a delicacy sure to please the most demanding palates, and Balian began to entertain a fantasy in which he held Gerard down and force-fed him every date in Outremer.
- He gestured toward the arrow with a grimace, saying it was only a flesh wound. [Was this a deliberate reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail?? If so, well played, Ms Penman, well played.]
- Almost as if sensing how dark his thoughts had become, Cairo padded across the chamber and nudged Baldwin’s hand with a cold nose. He’d noticed years ago that the dog never touched his right hand, the one without feeling; it was always the left, crippled but still capable of sensations. How did Cairo know? [Another thing I love about Penman’s writing is how she always portrays the dogs as noble and loving. Dogs are so much better than we are. We do not deserve dogs.]
- [Balian playing with his children upon arriving home from battle] Once his father had boosted him up onto his shoulders, he whooped with delight, and for reasons he was too young to understand, that moment imprinted itself upon his memory. Long after he was grown, with sons of his own, he would recall very little of their flight from Nablus. But he would vividly remember the afternoon that his father came home and made him fly.
- He wondered if the other man had acted impulsively, moved by the misery of the enslaved Franks. Or had he always intended to make this request, confident that his brother would welcome an opportunity to display mercy again? … Balian smiled, realizing he’d never have the answer to that question. He could answer another question, though, one that he’d pondered since their first meeting in Salah al-Din’s tent at Marj al-Safar. They shared neither the same faith nor the same blood. But al-Malik al-Adil Saif al-Din Abu Bakr Ahmad bin Ayyub was his friend.