One day in the year 1202, a British man breaks into the tent of a marquis, believing that he can both kill his enemy and be killed himself, achieving his ultimate goals in this life. Fortunately, the Briton is unwillingly rescued from suicide by a pious knight, Gregor of Mainz, something of a religious and martial icon at the start of the Fourth Crusade. Before they set sail, the Briton manages to rescue an Arab princess, who shares space on the journey with Gregor, his brother Otto, Otto’s concubine, and two dimwitted servants. Together, this peculiar crew embark on one of history’s most disastrous mistakes with thousands of other knights, clerics, and leaders.
It probably isn’t normal for most readers of this book to know all about the catastrophic Fourth Crusade. Catastrophic in hindsight, that is; this one was remarkably successful in terms of victories but horrid in terms of killing other Christians and not even coming close to achieving its goal of retaking Jerusalem. For the record, all the crusades were wrong and are actually appalling to think about, but this one is even so in medieval terms, which is quite impressive. So on approaching Crossed, I generally had down the politics, the outline of events, and the crazy people who were at the head of this insanity. If I hadn’t, I think the politics would have irritated me, but the history is great. No one can make this stuff up. It’s just too unreal for words, but it happened, and at a comfortable 800 year distance, we can even find it horrific in an amusing way.
Such is what Galland accomplishes with Crossed. She doesn’t really go for a medieval mindset with these characters. The closest is probably Gregor, who adheres to medieval standards very rigidly, but the rest of the characters are often used to play with the absurdities of medieval life rather than being approximations of the people who might have lived 800 years ago. I got used to this idea in Galland’s first book and it hasn’t really bothered me since now that I know what she’s doing. The Briton is mainly the character that she uses for this purpose, employing hindsight to fuel his clever retorts and lamentations on fate, such as in response to the glory of battle,
“Is Christ smiling down at you for this? Do you become more Christian if you smear yourself in Christian gore?” (302)
At all times, we’re fully aware that this crusade is horrible and what the knights are being told to do is completely wrong. It’s terrible, but it’s also showing us the absurdity of the entire idea by poking at its ridiculousness.
Not all of the book is great, though. Parts do drag. The history is fascinating, but the politics less so, and after a point the relationship between the Briton and Jamila has more or less been exhausted. The book is lengthy because it manages to cover almost the entire crusade, but it also covers a great deal more. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure how much of that was remembering my favorite old history professor teaching in my head as opposed to how much I was genuinely enjoying the book. I think this is certainly worth a try for historical fiction readers and history buffs, taken with a grain of salt. It’s perhaps not Galland’s best book but I’ll still be eagerly awaiting her fourth novel.
As a final note: has anyone read both this and The Fool’s Tale and think that the Briton is actually a certain character from that book, or am I crazy?