While historical fiction is, as we all know, my favourite genre, one of the drawbacks, especially with historical fiction about kings, queens, and other famous folk, is that you always know how it’s going to turn out. I can read a good novel about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and be caught up in the drama and intrigue, but there’s no way I go into it thinking, “Maybe she’ll have a son and Henry will be happy and they’ll live happily ever after.” The ending, having already happened, is foreordained.
That’s why it’s so nice, sometimes, to read a historical novel about real, famous people, set in a time and place I know nothing about. This is the case with Sharon Kay Penman’s latest novel, The Land Beyond the Sea, set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 1100s. As my dad said (we were both reading it at about the same time), I knew about the Crusades, but you always kind of get the impression that the Crusaders went over to the Middle East, fought a bit, and went back home. You’d have to be a bit of a devotee of that period to know that several generations of European noblemen, mostly of French descent (the people of the region called them “Franks”) established fiefdoms and kingdoms, lived and ruled and fought against the “Saracens” (the Muslim rulers whose people actually inhabited these lands).
So we find ourselves at the beginning of this novel in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where the king’s son is an otherwise healthy, happy eleven-year-old boy who has just a few weird symptoms that might, just possibly, add up to the dreaded disease of leprosy. Is Baldwin actually a leper? If so, will he become and king and how (and how long) will he reign? If he dies young and there’s a power struggle, who will emerge victorious? How do his sisters and their husbands, his mother and stepmother and their husbands, play into this power struggle? Will the Kingdom of Jerusalem continue to exist under attack from the Saracen leader Saladin? All these and more were questions that I absolutely did not know the answers to and decided not to Google while reading, so that I could experience the genuine suspense that is so rare in fact-based historical novels.
Penman immerses herself deeply in the worldview of her characters, so the mainly Frankish characters in the novel (there are a few scenes from the perspective of Saracen characters as well) never question their belief that they have a God-given right to rule over this land so far from home, lived in by people of a different culture and religion from their own. They were, in fact, European colonizers before European colonialism was a thing, and that tension is definitely present throughout the novel, although (as would be historically accurate) even the “good guy” Franks never question their right to be in their Holy Land or rule it.
The culture clashes here are fascinating — not merely between Franks and Saracens, but between the Franks who have been settled in the land they call Outremer (the titular “land beyond the sea”) for generations, and the Crusader knights who have come fresh from Europe full of fighting zeal and are shocked by how the Franks have assimilated, in at least some ways, to the local culture. And although all the point-of-view characters in this novel are wealthy, powerful nobility, there are plenty of reminders — particularly as Jerusalem is under siege near the end of the book — that the weight of war falls most heavily not on kings, queens, knights and ladies, but on ordinary poor people simply trying to live their lives.
All in all this was a fascinating and well-written piece of historical fiction.