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Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite
Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin is an historical novel written by Helena P. Schrader. This is the second book in Schrader’s historical trilogy which follows the life of Balian d’Ibelin during the 12th century. The author precedes her story with a detailed list of characters, the family trees of the Ibelin family, the kings and queens of Jerusalem and the Greek/Byzantine Emperors, as well as maps of modern-day Jerusalem, the 12th century kingdom of Jerusalem and a map showing the Baronies of Jerusalem. In her introduction, Schrader gives a brief digest of the contents of the first book in the series, Knight of Jerusalem, which followed Ibelin’s life from 1171-1177. As the youngest son of the first Baron d’Ibelin, Balian was landless and was charged by Jerusalem’s King Amalric to care for young Prince Baldwin, who had been diagnosed as having leprosy. The two became close friends; a relationship which survived Amalric’s sudden demise and Baldwin’s unexpected accession to the crown. At first, little changed within the kingdom until Baldwin reached his majority. He then turned from the advice and counsel of his former regent to that of his mother, Agnes de Courtenay, whose ambition and bitterness towards Maria Comnena, Amalric’s second wife would precipitate a rift between Balian and his former royal friend. Before that break, however, Baldwin approved the marriage of Ibelin to his step-mother, the dowager queen, Maria Comnena, and persuaded Ibelin’s eldest brother to give Balian the barony known as Ibelin.
In the opening pages of Defender of Jerusalem, the barons and counselors to Baldwin have met to discuss their lack of access to the dying king. Agnes, his mother, has blocked all of them, supposedly to protect him, but Balian knew exactly how to get past the gatekeeper and gain access to his friend. Baldwin’s main concern during his illness was for the future of Jerusalem if he should die, which he fully expected would happen. His younger sister, Sibylla, would have to be married off, and quickly, as she was not queen material and would need a strong hand to guide her. While the fever that had nearly killed the king had abated, his concerns about the succession remained; however, his plans ran counter to everything that Balian and his other counselors recommended. She would marry the Duke of Burgundy, a match that would empower the kingdom, but Baldwin’s plans for Princess Isabella, Maria’s daughter from Amalric, caused the beginning of that great rift between Ibelin and Baldwin. The eight-year-old, who lived with her mother and Ibelin, would be married off to Humphrey de Toron, and while the marriage would still be some years away, she would be leaving immediately to live with him in Kerak, under the care and supervision of his mother, Stephanie de Milly. This, Agnes de Courtenay believed, would remove Isabella from the influence of Balian and her mother.
This was the worst of times for a break in ties between the ailing king and his traditional counselors as relations between Jerusalem and the Kurdish leader, Salah ad-Din, continued to break down. A series of skirmishes between the Christian Franks and the Muslims seemed destined to end any attempts at truces and negotiations. Truces were often broken by barons for their own profit or glory, giving no thought to the impact of their action on the kingdom. While Jerusalem had the barons, the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers to defend the Kingdom and the Holy City, there was no getting past the fact that Salah ad-Din had infinitely larger forces at his command. There was so much at stake as well. Jerusalem had historic religious importance to both Christians and Muslims, and the pilgrims who arrived daily had to be kept safe.
Helena P. Schrader’s historical novel, Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin, is a meticulously researched and well-written work that examines a crucial time in the history of the Christian occupation of Jerusalem. This is a complex, professional and intellectually challenging work that is well worth the effort a reader will put into it. The author’s introductory materials and digest of the first book in the series were infinitely valuable for me as reference tools as I began reading. I had not read the first book, and while I was able to enjoy and appreciate Defender of Jerusalem, I found myself wishing I had begun with the first book in the series -- the story is that good. Schrader makes this time in history come alive. The reader gets a real feel for the culture in Jerusalem and the Middle East at the time both for the Christians and, to a lesser extent, the Muslims. She eloquently conveys the impact of the Crusades on the area and the challenges faced by the Christians who settled and had made the kingdom their home. I was fascinated by the political machinations that take place in Defender of Jerusalem and found myself often reminded of Robert Graves’ biographical novel, I, Claudius, as I watched children being wrested from their families and royal babies dying untimely deaths. While there is no villain in Defender of Jerusalem quite as ambitious and evil as Livia, Claudius’ grandmother, some characters in this tale come relatively close.
Schrader’s battle scenes, and there are lots of them, are brilliant. She gets the confusion and chaos of hand-to-hand combat and graphically conveys the sounds of battle, the shouting and the screams of horses, and the sight of the almost mesmerized combatants fighting desperately and at times nearly insensibly. Her Leper King is valiant, unforgettable and larger than life as he grips on his charger with his legs, having lost the use of his hands and leads his troops into battle. Balian is seen at home, on the battleground, and in the midst of diplomatic discussions where thousands of lives are at stake, and it’s a joy to see how he rises to each occasion and becomes a true statesman.
The author concludes her tale with an Historical Note which details the factual basis for her plot, and then she discusses those areas where she blended fiction in with those facts. There’s also a fascinating historical note on leprosy, a glossary, and an extensive list of recommended readings. I was so impressed by the depth of Schrader’s research and the job she did in recreating what was for me, at least, a little known historical time and place. Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin is a grand read. It’s not light reading, but it’s so worth any initial effort getting involved with the characters and the history behind it. This historical novel is most highly recommended.