14 January 2017

Historical Fiction Guest Post: Envoy of Jerusalem, by Helena P. Schrader


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Balian has survived the devastating defeat on the Horns of Hattin, and walked away a free man after the surrender of Jerusalem, but he is baron of nothing in a kingdom that no longer exists. Haunted by the tens of thousands of Christians now enslaved by Saladin, he is determined to regain what has been lost. The arrival of a vast crusading army under the soon-to-be-legendary Richard the Lionheart offers hope -- but also conflict, as natives and crusaders clash and French and English quarrel.


It all started with Hollywood.

Ridley Scott’s film “The Kingdom of Heaven” which describes the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 in techno color captured my imagination. Being a historian by training (I have a PhD in it), however, and being equally familiar with Hollywood’s tendency to – shall we say – take liberties with the historical record, I wondered just how much, if anything, in the film was true. To my astonishment, I discovered that Balian d'Ibelin, the hero of Ridley Scott's film. was a historical figure, and that he really had saved tens of thousands of civilians from slaughter and slavery in 1187!

What was more, just a cursory look at the facts revealed that his biography was not only significantly different from that of the Hollywood character, it was also significantly (at least in my eyes) more fascinating. Hollywood made him a blacksmith, but contemporary Arab chronicles described his as “like a king.” In the film, he dallies with a princess, in history he married a Dowager Queen and founded a dynasty. 

In the film, he is born in France and only arrives in the Holy Land shortly before it is overrun by the Saracens; historically Balian d’Ibelin played a leading role at the Frankish victory over Saladin at Montgistard in 1177, played a critical role in opposing the usurpation of the throne by Guy de Lusignan, and also succeeded in reconciling warring factions within the kingdom. 

In the film, Balian doesn’t take part in the fateful Battle of Hattin; in fact, Balian commanded the rear-guard and was one of the few noblemen to successfully fight his way off the field, while the majority became capives. Most intriguing of all, however, rather than returning to France to become a blacksmith again as in the Hollywood film, the historical Balian fought in the Third Crusade and was Richard the Lionheart’s principle ambassador to Saladin in 1192.

In short, I felt Balian deserved a biography that reflected his historical accomplishments better than “The Kingdom of Heaven” did. I sat down to write a biographical novel – and it turned into a trilogy.

For readers tired of cliches, cartoons and fantasy, my three-part biography of Balian based on the above facts not only brings this important and attractive historical character back to life, it provides refreshing insights into everyday life in the late 12th century crusader states. Populated with complex characters, "Envoy of Jerusalem," provides psychologically sound explanations for the decisions and actions of the men and women who made history in this fateful place and period. It offers humans in place of villains and supermen. 

"Envoy of Jerusalem" covers the critical five years between the fall of Jerusalem to the end of the Third Crusade. When the novel opens, Balian has survived the devastating defeat of the Christian army on the Horns of Hattin, and walked away a free man after the surrender of Jerusalem, but he is baron of nothing in a kingdom that no longer exists. Haunted by the tens of thousands of Christians captives now in Saracen slavery, Balian is determined to regain what has been lost. The arrival of a vast crusading army under the soon-to-be-legendary Richard the Lionheart offers hope - but also conflict as natives and crusaders clash and French and English quarrel.

This novel follows the fate not just of kings and barons, but also knights, squires, sailors and tradesmen. It particularly focuses on the horrific impact of a lost war on women - many of whom were condemned to slavery and prostitution in the wake of defeat.  It also portrays the clash of cultures between the natives of the Holy Land and the crusaders. It, unlike most novels set in this period, describes the Third Crusade through the eyes of the men and women who called the Holy Land "home," rather than those that came out from the West. Likewise, Richard the Lionheart is shown as a man of many parts, rather than a brute, buffoon or paragon of virtue.

Last but not least, "Envoy of Jerusalem" explores the crisis in faith that the fall of Jerusalem produced among Christians of the period. The characters struggle with understanding the will of God and their individual role and place in the presumed divine plan. 
Hope I've whet your appetite! 

Helena P. Schrader
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About the Author


Award–winning novelist Helena P. Schrader has a PhD in History.  She has published non-fiction books on WWII and the Berlin Airlift.  Her novels are set in Ancient Sparta, the crusades and WWII. The second book in her three-part biography of Balian d’Ibelin, Defender of Jerusalem, earned five literary accolades. The third book in the series, Envoy of Jerusalem, has won a Pinnacle Award for Biographical Fiction and been awarded a B.R.A.G. medallion.  Helena is a U.S. diplomat currently serving in Africa. Find out more at Helena's website and blog. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter @HelenaPSchrader.

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