Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

REVIEW of Award-Winning "Envoy of Jerusalem"

Envoy of Jerusalem: Balian d'Ibelin and the Third Crusade
is the winner of seven literary accolades, starting with a B.R.A.G. Medallion.  In addition, it took Gold for Biographical Fiction from Pinnacle Awards 2016, Gold for Spiritual/Religious Fiction from Feathered Quill 2017, First in Category for Medieval Fiction from Chaucer Awards 2016, Honorable Mention for Wartime/Military Fiction from Foreword INDIES Awards 2017, Gold for Christian Historical Fiction from Readers' Favorites 2017, and Gold for Biography from Book Excellence Awards 2017.

The following review by Reuben Steenson for the Online Book Club is a good summary of why it found favor with so many literary juries.

Envoy of Jerusalem (subtitled Balian d'Ibelin and the Third Crusade) is the second novel by Helena P. Schrader that I have read, and it is a wonderful book. This novel follows Balian d'Ibelin and a host of other characters in the Holy Lands as they try to recapture cities and strongholds that have been taken by Salah ad-Din, Sultan of Egypt and Damascus. Richard I (known as the Lionheart) is an important presence in the novel, as well as a great number of diverse historical figures. Schrader sticks closely to historical fact - something which her PhD in history qualifies her to do - while weaving in fiction when necessary. For this masterful blend of fact and fiction, the thrilling plot, and Schrader's creation of brilliantly believable characters, I rate Envoy of Jerusalem a flawless 4 out of 4 stars.

The main plot follows Balian d'Ibelin, who features in all three of Schrader's novels in "The Jerusalem Trilogy". Though Envoy of Jerusalem is the third in the trilogy, it reads perfectly well as a standalone novel. I have not yet read the first two books, but had no difficulty understanding the plot. Schrader cunningly weaves in any essential background detail during the action of the novel. Balian is a brave and generous knight who is often faced with difficult choices and challenges. He is an attractive and balanced character, who always chooses the best thing for the people of the land rather than his own selfish gain. He is complemented by his powerful wife and erstwhile Queen of Jerusalem, Maria, who is a focal point for many of the different subplots. Her daughter, Isabella, also features strongly: she is a young princess who learns how to negotiate the world of intrigue and betrayal in upper-class medieval society to become Queen of Jerusalem herself.

I was extremely impressed by Schrader's unparalleled skill in capturing a very complex period in history in a manner that is utterly accessible and even addictive. Little-known characters are brought to the reader's attention, and well-known characters are presented in a new light (for instance Richard I is not portrayed as an unflawed hero, but as a brave, brash king who clashes at times with Balian). All facets of life in the Holy Lands are explored: we are given the stories of highborn nobles, lowly slaves, shop owners, priests, nuns, soldiers, troubadours, adults, children, Christians, Arabs, kings, knights and squires. There is really no corner of the kingdom untouched, or any social strata Schrader does not mention. The result is a satisfying sense of a complete society, and a narrative that lives and breathes with authenticity.

Schrader's style is also delightful - she writes with a simple authority that is perfectly suited to the events that unfold. Her engaging prose shies away from flashy effect, but for me this calm narration actually heightened the emotional impact of the distressing scenes of slavery and warfare, as well as making me trust everything that she said. I found the book extremely difficult to put down, and was glad that it stretched to 500 pages. To write a book of that length without ever losing the reader's interest is no mean feat. 
The editing of this book was stellar - I spotted three minor typos in total, and none were particularly jarring. The novel is very well put together, with an abundance of supplementary materials, including a glossary, an introduction, maps, and genealogies, which all further bolstered the reliability of Schrader's narrative. I even enjoyed the attractive font, as well as the little motifs of a horsed knight and a shield that headed new chapters or sections. Schrader is an author who is quickly becoming one of my favourites. Her ability in the field of historical fiction is undeniable, and I look forward to reading several of her other novels in the future. I simply cannot find fault with Envoy of Jerusalem and I warmly recommend it to any fans of historical fiction. It is an exemplary book of its kind.

Buy Now!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

"Adventures in Disguise" - An Excerpt from "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

John d'Ibelin is a healthy 14-year-old in a new place. He is curious about his environment and anxious to exploit his growing independence. He also has a secret weapon: Greek.
"Adventures in Disguise"
An Excerpt

When John realized that just by changing into a different set of clothes he could also blend in with the native population, he started exploring Nicosia from the ground up―enjoying the utter freedom of anonymity. When John slipped out of the khan in his Greek clothes, he left John d’Ibelin behind, and with him the burden of being the son of the savior of Jerusalem and a paragon of chivalry.

Not that John transformed himself into something despicable or dishonorable. John had not grown into a taste for loose women and had no natural proclivity to alcoholism. Because he was alone on his adventures, he was also not in a position to be led astray. His only companion was [his dog] Barry, who clung to him as loyally as a shadow, ever ready to share a meal―or an adventure.

Today John was looking for firewood. The nights were chilly, and as the frequency of the rain showers increased, the air turned damp as well. The khan provided each resident with an allotment of wood, but it was far too little (in Lord Aimery’s opinion). John wanted to surprise him with a big stack of wood to get them through the next few days. Having no illusions about how much wood he could personally carry, he borrowed a donkey and panniers from the khan and headed toward the outskirts of town where the potters had their kilns. Kilns consume an enormous amount of firewood, and John reckoned he would either encounter one of the suppliers or be able to purchase directly from the kiln enough wood for their modest needs.

Unfortunately, the potters occupied land northeast of Nicosia, so it was a bit of a hike, and John opted to cut through the cattle market and past the slaughterhouse beyond. It was a good place to find a bone or two for Barry, although he disliked the number of beggars that prowled around on the lookout for edible refuse. As always, the beggars clustered near the stinking bins behind the abattoir, and stray dogs licked the blood seeping out of them. Barry lifted his ears and wagged his tail in anticipation, but John braced himself for the smell and tried to hold his breath as he scanned the fresh heaps of bones for the best pieces. He rapidly chose one, handed it off to Barry, and then took a second for later, stashing it into a sack he had over his shoulder. Then he turned away and put a dozen steps’ distance between himself and the bins before letting out his breath.

He found his path was blocked by a young beggar with a bad bruise on the side of his face. John had seen him here several times over the last couple of months, but without the bruise. Evidently he’d run into some kind of trouble. Although he was smaller than John, John guessed they were about the same age. Unlike the younger children, who worked as a pack and had to surrender all their earnings to the adults, this youth usually worked alone.

“I’ve made a collar for the dog,” the beggar announced, holding out a collar made of woven straw with a crude buckle carved from bone. “You can have it for just five obols,” he told John.

John looked down at Barry. The faithful dog did not need a collar; he followed John everywhere without it. On the other hand, John’s mother had taught him that it was better to reward industry than sloth. She always made a point of offering alms to the working poor, or institutions that cared for those not yet or no longer able to work, rather than beggars. She had warned him never to give to children who begged because, she claimed, they only grew up thinking everyone else owed them their livelihood and became thieves and pickpockets. This boy, however, was clearly trying to earn his keep.

Seeing his hesitation, the boy pulled another object out of his pocket. “Or what about a comb?” he asked, offering a comb likewise carved from cattle bone. “It will cost you ten obols.”

“That’s too much,” John protested. The money his father had given him was long since used up (except for the cost of the passage home, still sewn in his boot), and he had to make do with the allowance that Lord Aimery gave him. “Besides,” he added, “I have to get firewood, and I don’t know how much it will cost. Maybe another day.”

“I’ll help you with the firewood,” the boy offered. “I know a place you can get it cheap.”

“I was going to the potters,” John explained.

“They’ll charge you double,” the beggar dismissed the idea. “I know a man who resells wood from damaged structures. There is always some waste he doesn’t care about.”

John weighed whether or not to trust the youth, and decided to go ahead. After all, he had Barry with him and his dagger. “OK.”

The beggar smiled, stuffed the collar and comb back in his pockets, and indicated the way. John fell in beside him with the donkey and Barry trailing. “What’s your name?” he asked the beggar.

“Lakis. And yours?”

“Janis. How did you get that bruise?”

“That bastard Niki tried to take my earnings from me,” Lakis told him bitterly.

“Did he succeed?”

“Sort of. I had some coins hidden.”

“Why do you hang around the slaughterhouse? I’ll bet you could get work somewhere in the city,” John suggested, trying to implement his mother’s policy of encouraging work.

“Where?” Lakis asked back hopefully.

John was embarrassed to have to shrug and admit he didn’t know. “Didn’t you learn a trade?” he asked instead.

“My Dad was a miller,” Lakis declared, his lip a grim line, and he refused to meet John’s eye.

John understood the use of the past tense, and concluded that something terrible had happened to Lakis’ father. After a few minutes of trudging along in silence, John decided to reopen the conversation by asking, “May I see the collar again?”

Lakis brightened up at once, and pulled it out of his pocket. John examined it carefully. The straw collar was only crudely woven, uneven, and not very strong, but the buckle was cleverly made. “You’re good with carving,” John told Lakis. “Where did you learn?”

“After I went to live with my uncle (he’s a butcher in Karpasia), I met this man, a refugee from Jerusalem, who used to collect the bones from behind the butchery so he could carve them into things for sale. He taught me how to make things, but my aunt hated him. She always chased him away whenever she saw him and forbade me from visiting him. She said he was evil, a Musselman.”

“Had he been a slave?” John asked, suspecting this was one of the released captives trying to start his life over again but tainted by six years in Saracen slavery.

“Yes,” Lakis admitted. “He’d learned to carve from the Saracens, only they had ivory rather than bone, he said. He spoke Arabic, but he assured me he was a good Christian.” Lakis sounded uncertain.

“Of course he was,” John defended the unknown man. “Many of our―” John had just been about to say “vassals,” only to realize that would betray that he wasn’t the Greek servant boy he pretended to be.

“What?” Lakis asked.

“Nothing. What happened? I mean, did you disobey your aunt and see the man anyway?”

“Yes, until she caught me and had my uncle beat me. It was terrible, and I hated it there, anyway. I don’t want to be a butcher, and my cousins will inherit anyway, so what’s the point?”

“You should apprentice to a carver―someone who makes book covers or the like,” John decided enthusiastically, thinking of the magnificent carved ivory cover of one of his mother’s books.

“Book covers?” Lakis asked in a skeptical tone.

John suspected he’d given himself away again. “Or combs or whatever,” he added with a dismissive gesture.

“What’s your trade?” Lakis countered.

“Me?” John shrugged. “I’m just a servant. How far is it to this place with the firewood?”

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Characters in "The Last Crusader Kingdom:" Lakis

Turning from the historical to the fictional characters in the Last Crusader Kingdom, I want to start with Lakis the Orphan. Lakis is the second character introduced in the novel, making his first appearance in the Prologue.

Lakis' function in the novel is two-fold. He represents on one hand a youth of the working class and on the other the Greek victims of the insurgency.

When John first encounters Lakis, John has disguised himself as a servant. This enables him to mingle with people he would not otherwise meet. Because a servant is less intimidating to the beggared Lakis, John is able to win a decree of trust.  Through Lakis, John has a glimpse of the lives of working people.

More important, however, Lakis is a victim of the ongoing civil war on Cyprus. His parents, home and future-livelihood have been destroyed in a reprisal raid by Guy de Lusignan's men. Significantly, the raid was led by John's cousin Henri de Brie, which gives John a sense of guilt for what happened. This, in turn, makes him ask more questions and look for solutions as he might otherwise not have done. In short, Lakis gives the Greek Orthodox population a face. The abstract wrongs Aimery and others bemoan are suddenly more real for John -- and the reader.

Lakis also serves as the bridge between the two worlds as well. Through him, Balian is able to make contact with the leader of the rebels. Yet, Lakis continues to inhabit a different world from John. Once John's true identity is revealed, there can be no more friendship, only patronage. Thus John's relationship with Lakis is a measure of his level of responsibility and so his progress on the road to his destiny as a leading baron in two kingdoms.