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Review: Shadow of the Swords, Kamran Pasha

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.

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11 comments to Review: Shadow of the Swords, Kamran Pasha

  • Well, I really did not any of this. And I would not have known about the historical inaccuracy as well. Thanks for pointing it out. I will keep a look out for the non-fiction book you mention here.
    Veens´s last post …Dead to the World Sookie Stackhouse 4 by Charlaine Harris

  • I have this book up for review in a few weeks, and I found your thoughts on it very interesting. since I don’t really know much about this time period or area, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on a lot of the inaccuracies. I am glad to know that you did, and were honest about sharing them with us. Thanks so much for your thoughtful and detailed review. I am going to be going into this book a little better prepared now.
    zibilee´s last post …Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel — 320 pgs

  • Kamran Pasha

    Dear Meghan,

    Thank you for your kind review of my novel. I am glad that you at least liked some parts of it and feel you can recommend it, even with qualifications. I will say that I made very intentional choices with regard to the balance of history and fiction and I do not apologize for that. My Author’s Note states my intentions quite clearly and references many scholarly books for readers to go to for a historian’s perspective, including Mr. Malouf’s work. The story is very much structured for a specific purpose — presenting how the Crusaders would have been seen by Muslims and Jews, with a fictionalized love story between Saladin and a Jewish woman that serves to explore the complex dynamics between these communities. Those who approach my novel as a fictional tale tend to appreciate it better than those who are looking for a transcription of historical textbooks.

    You may disagree with the story adjustments I made and would have written a novel on the Third Crusade differently, and that is fine. I would suggest that my novel is more accurate than many of the popular and beloved works of historical fiction such as “The Other Bolyen Girl” (which I enjoyed throughly as a novel, despite its historical problems). The challenge for an artist when creating a work that is set in a historical framework is that some people will seek out the deviations from history books while ignoring what the artist is actually trying to do. There are people who still criticize “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Nikos Kazantzakis because the first century Jews eat tomatoes (which did not exist in the Middle East at the time) or because he puts salt water fish in the sea of Galilee (which is fresh water). And yet that book remains one of the most powerful explorations of faith ever written.

    The greatest works of historical art, including medieval paintings and sculpture, are divergent from the historical events that they are portraying. Michelangelo’s David is uncircumcised. Medieval paintings of ancient Jerusalem make the city look like Florence. And Jesus is consistently drawn with European features (tall and blonde, rather than short and dark like 1st century Levantine Jews). And yet most people understand that the purpose of these works is to convey emotions and ideas rather than to catalog historical data.

    I do notice that the recommendation you give is to Mr. Malouf’s history book rather than any other work of historical fiction on the Crusades. Most novels on the Crusades are wildly inaccurate with regard to showing Muslim perspectives on these events and rarely receive any criticism for these errors. Misrepresenting Saladin’s life seems to be fair game for many authors, but choosing to leave Berengaria out of a story on the Crusades provokes immediate comment.

    I am at least glad that I opened the door for other authors to broaden their approach on the subject. Even though you may disagree with my choices as to where to draw the line between history and fiction, I hope you will agree that my book is well written and engaging.

    • Meghan

      Thank you for your wonderful and kind comment. I will most certainly agree that your novel is both well written and engaging and I’m thrilled that you’ve given Saladin the recognition he deserves; I would never recommend a novel that didn’t. In fact, I’d stop reading it. The simplest response I have is that I find history incredibly compelling on its own; it doesn’t need much changing to make great fiction, just filling out. If such changes didn’t bother me, I would have been happy to recommend your novel whole-heartedly, and do to those who are not particularly concerned about historical accuracy in their fiction.

  • I received a copy of this unsolicited and have been wavering on whether or not to read it. I’m still TOTALLY undecided after reading your review!
    Jen – Devourer of Books´s last post …Kraken by China Mieville – Audiobook Review

  • Janet W

    I don’t know if it’s “appropriate” to post this but I feel very strongly that authors do themselves no favours by posting to reviews of their books. “Maybe” authors can have that conversation in a blog that they right or guest on but this is Your Review. Seriously, it so often results in the author/reader relationship not being enhanced: http://www.readreactreview.com/2010/08/17/its-the-book-stupid-twitter-dos-and-donts/

  • The problem I see with “re-writing” history is that many people take what they read in historical fiction as fact. I personally enjoyed the author’s comment and liked reading his explanation.

  • Hmm, I can see why the historical changes would bother you as a medieval historian. God knows I’ve blown gaskets over historical inaccuracies in books before (especially books relating to art history). Sometimes knowing a lot about a subject isn’t a good thing. :P

  • I haven’t read too many books on the Crusades, but most of the books portrayed Saladin as a monster, and Richard as the lion-hearted warrior who saved the Christians. Interesting to get another presepective on this.
    Nishita´s last post …How Could I Have Missed this One

  • Thanks for this review. It’s nice to know that there’s a historical fiction book that has a more balanced view towards Saladin and the Muslims, but the historical inaccuraties you mention would bother me, too. I’m interested in looking up “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” now!
    Valerie´s last post …Banned- “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

  • […] How Much History Does Historical Fiction Need? This week, I posted a review of Shadow of the Swords, a book that I enjoyed but found too many historical accuracies in to be entirely comfortable with. […]