In the late twelfth century, Jerusalem falls to the Muslim world once again, to the shock of a Christian community used to claiming much of the holy land. Richard the Lionheart decides that the throne of England just isn’t enough for him and heads off with a large party of men to save the Christian kingdom and, perhaps, to crown himself King of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, in the holy city itself, sultan and chivalrous warrior Saladin worries about the oncoming Christian threat, especially when Richard starts to win. In the mix is thrown Miriam, a Jewish girl who lost nearly everything to the savagery of the Christians, and whose uncle is one of Saladin’s most trusted advisors. Will she bridge the gap between cultures?
Here is yet another book that has me torn in two. My first problem with it is historical inaccuracy, and I mean historical inaccuracy in a ridiculously large way. First of all, Pasha has the king’s children Richard, John, and Joanna at Henry II’s deathbed, with nary a mention of the man who was actually there, which was Henry’s bastard son Geoffrey. He conveniently neglects to mention that Henry was in fact at war with Richard at the time. Then, Richard claims that he wants the kingdom of England above all, which is clearly not true – it’s widely accepted that Richard was groomed to take Eleanor’s place as Duke of Aquitaine, a land with which he was better acquainted and mostly fought for. England was not a very important kingdom in comparison with France, and it’s only the dominance of England from Elizabeth’s reign onwards that made it of any real importance to the rest of the world. Secondly, the crusade Richard goes on is almost ridiculously simplified, with many of the major characters sidelined because they didn’t suit the story. For example, there is no Berengaria, Richard’s wife, and Guy of Lusignan is conveniently forgotten as soon as Jerusalem is captured. The story was originally a film script and the historical inaccuracy makes that pretty obvious, as it’s simplified to suit a movie time span and a novel could have been much more complex and accurate. The crusade is pretty exciting by itself; it doesn’t need all this editing. It also bothered me that Richard was constantly referred to as a boy and inexperienced when in reality, he was 32 and had been leading armies since he was 16 years old. 32 year olds aren’t even boys in the modern world; in the medieval world, this struck me as very out of place.
You can argue that this book is fiction, but I honestly just don’t see a reason to change so much of history in a historical novel.
On the other hand, this is one of the few books about the crusades that I can remember reading by a Muslim, and Pasha highlights many of the important aspects of Muslim culture which are so conveniently forgotten in the modern world. First and foremost, this is the fact that Muslims are peaceful people. They co-existed happily with all other religions, including Christians, until the Christians themselves decided to kill them to gain back Jerusalem – and even then, after the treaty was signed, the existing Christians were generally allowed to live in peace. The same is true of Jews, by the way, who were systematically persecuted by Christians everywhere but were mainly left alone by Muslims. This was also true in Muslim Spain. Saladin himself, as Pasha writes in his author’s note, was in fact an incredibly honorable man, and many of these bits that Pasha included were in fact accurate. He really emphasizes the fact that the crusades are the background of the conflicts we’re still experiencing today; the fact that Jews and Muslims used to live together peacefully seems almost remarkable to us today given current conflicts in the Middle East. He also provides an excellent list of follow-up reading for those who are interested in the crusades and this crusade in particular.
As a result, for all my complaints about its inaccuracy, Shadow of the Swords is a book that has something to say for those who’d like to look more closely at it. Unfortunately, I think its over-simplifying and changing of history will cause those who read it to also question the reality of the situation between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. As a result, I recommend it with reservations, and highly suggest that readers of this book also seek out an excellent non-fiction book written from a Muslim perspective, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.