Stories that feature knights and crusades are variable in their accuracy and quality. A Knight's Tale, staring Heath Ledger was an anachronistic yet amusing look at jousting; City of God, staring Orlando Bloom was a more accurate, but fragmented and disappointing look at the crusades; the recent compelling computer game, Assassin, uses the crusades as its backdrop. Even Ivanhoe, mixes historical figures with legendary ones to create a swashbuckling yarn.
'Brethren' is the first novel in Robyn Young's trilogy of the same name, set 'in the ninth and last crusade' (Wikipedia). Given the current global situation, the story about a war between the Christian and Muslim worlds might seem to tap into the zeitgeist. Brethren is much more than that. Young presents both sides in a balanced and engaging way, each with their heroes and villains.
There are several different plots, merging and splintering throughout the story. The main ones focus on Will Campbell and Baybars Bundukdari. The former is a sergeant with the Knights Templar, the latter is a military commander who rises to become sultan of Egypt and Syria. Will is given responsibility to find the Book of the Grail, a document which confirms the existence of a secret group within the Temple, known as the Anima Templi. This group works against everything the Temple stands for, so Campbell is anxious to retrieve it, not least because it will help him achieve the respect of his father, also a knight of the Temple.
Others are also keen to retrieve this document, particularly Edward, the Black Prince. His father, king Henry III is seriously in debt, and Edward sees the Temple as a wealthy organisation to exploit. He just needs something, like the Book of the Grail, as leverage. By fair means and foul, Edward tries to track down the book and not even the staunchest disciples of the Temple are above his efforts to bribe and extort.
Will's story takes us from England to Paris and on to Outremer, the name given to the collection of countries making up much of modern Israel and Libya. Once there, he finds himself tantalizingly and tragically close to his father.
While Will embarks on his quest, there are stirrings at the far end of Mediterranean. Baybars Bundukdari, has risen from a slave to become the greatest of sultan Katuz' generals. Driven by a hatred of the crusaders, who he sees as exploiting the indigenous inhabitants to line their own pockets, he believes Katuz is an ineffectual leader and seeks to overthrow him. Doing so will enable him to direct the might of the sultan's army at Outremer.
At its simplest, Brethren is the story of two men on very different quests, destined to collide with all the force of tectonic plates. The collision is accelerated or disrupted by complications arising, such as love, betrayal, loss and confusion. Robyn Young gives us much more than that. Not only does she take a range of historical figures and mix them with invented ones 'for dramatic effect', she creates a multi-layered and meticulously accurate setting. Characters from all the different sides are both likeable and repugnant, their petty ambitions and jealousies streaming into the epic events of the Crusade.
There are moments of warmth and comedy, entwined with bitter tragedy and horrific violence - not gratuitous, just horrific. I relished the fact this was a thick book. Too many times have I got into a story, learnt to love and loathe its characters, only to find myself turning the last page. It's not a difficult book to read, it's a sumptuous and engaging odyssey that never loses its pace or its soul. Beautifully crafted, I can see why it took seven years to write. I devoured Brethren, along with its sequel Crusade (review to follow), and I can't wait to read the final instalment.
If ever there was a topic in danger of overkill its the story of the Holy Grail and all of the romantic association that goes with it. Having suffered at the hands of the movie version of Dan Browns The Da Vinci Code and faired better with Kate Mosses book Labyrinth, this wasnt a genre Id planned to revisit so soon. With Monty Pythons Holy Grail movie still my first thought when cornered by the notion of King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table and a rather rude, French guard at the top of a tower turret, it was with some reticence that I embarked on the book Brethren albeit the synopsis and Sunday Times recommendation did swing it for me in terms of attempting the read.
Set in the 1260s, Amir Baybars is a devout Muslim leading a Mamluk army against the Mongols. Determined to avenge past defeats, he sets out to reclaim the Holy Land and rid it of both the Mongol invaders and its Christian occupiers. Meanwhile in England, Will Campbell and Garin De Lyons are learning to be Templar knights. From very different backgrounds, they train to be virtuous knights, serving their Order, ambitious to go on Crusade and see action in the Middle East. When a mysterious, ancient book is stolen in Paris, a secret sect within the Order called the Anima Templi set out to recover it before their Grand Plan can be uncovered and the sect destroyed as a result. As the chase unfolds, the cataclysmic events in the East eventually collide with those of the West as a chain of political intrigue, brutal passion and religious fervour all combine to come together in a explosive finale that shapes the known world and reverberates in conflict for decades to follow.
Robyn Young is an author on debut and a very fine one it is too. With an endearing acknowledgement at the start, a sketch map of The Holy Land and a prologue from The Book of The Grail, Robyn Young sets out on an ambitious tale of love and intrigue, passion and despair, retracing the legend of the Holy Grail and marrying it with the events of those times. Born in Oxford in 1975, Young starting writing at school in Devon. Winning various prizes for articles written as a teenager, the author chose a career as a writer eventually taking a Masters Degree in creative writing at Sussex University. Having suffered thirteen rejections for Brethren, she finally found an agent with the publishers Hodder & Stoughton eventually buying the rights to the book as part of a trilogy.
I was surprised by Brethren. Given the slow pace of anything else Grail related, I expected a ponderous start with the story gathering momentum as the pieces came together like an elaborate jigsaw. So it is with all things Grail related but Robyn Young begins with pace and keeps things rattling along in a gripping tale rather like a cross between Harry Potter and a Beowulf poem. Written in the third person and from a number of different viewpoints, the author has an obvious creative flare that shines through in her descriptions. From the monastic settings of Paris to the austere cathedrals of London, from the beauty of the Arabian coastline to the terrible trappings of warfare, Young captures an authenticity that adds spades to the quality of the tale, engaging the reader with the numerous characters that interact throughout the story.
My only (small) criticism of the book is that at 641 pages its atypically long and seems to be the trend these days with blockbuster books mirroring the Titanic-like run times of their movie cousins. However, there is little else to detract from the Boys Own quality of the plot lines. With characters carefully sketched to build an image in the minds eye, its easy to relate to the intensity of Baybars even allowing for his brutality in dispensing judgment on his enemies. Here is man who has survived his upbringing as a slave to become the most powerful leader since Saladin and the smaller details of his trials and tribulations as a leader and a man are traced in compelling detail. Will Campbell and Garin De Lyons are the catalyst for the story set in Europe and the link for the intrigue surrounding the search for the Grail. To interweave King Henry III and his son Edward shows a great deal of historical skill. The sub plot involving Henrys pawning of the crown jewels to the Order is both fantastic and bizarre, bringing in the subterfuge of his son Edward and the repugnant Rook who gives the story most of its repellant and downright nasty moments.
Written in three parts, the book spans the globe, sweeping from England to the Holy Land via Europe. Written with a flourish, its easy to visualise the place settings, such is the colour with which the author adorns her work. The deserts and fig trees of Syria are contrasted by the fortresses and pageantry of the Christian settlers and the religious intensity of the conflict with the Muslim army unsettled only by the ultimate aim of the Anima Templi. The cantankerous Father Everard provides the fulcrum for the heart of the Brethrens purpose and its links with James Campbell and his ill-fated work in the Holy Land. Above all, I found myself wrapped up in the characters and caring about what happened to them adding to the intensity of the story.
I thoroughly enjoyed Brethren and rate it as my best experience of the Grail tales so far. This book will appeal to fans of historical fiction, those that like action and adventure and anyone interested in yet more convolutions of the Holy Grail trail. With explicit scenes of violence and execution, the book should only be read by older children or adults. With an extract from the second book Crusade at the end and an interesting glossary that confirms historical fact to ally with the fiction of the story, I for one will be buying the next in the series and look forward to further adventures in the name of the Crusades.
Thanks for reading
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
I bought this for £3.79 from Tesco (Paperback)
Available from Amazon from £3.99
More info at: http://www.robynyoung.com/
'Wonderful...loaded with atmosphere, action, and intrigue. The Crusades come alive.'