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'The Falcons of Montabard' is a historical novel by Elizabeth Chadwick. I've reviewed a couple of Elizabeth Chadwick's books on here before as I'm a fan of her historical novels. 'The Falcons of Montabard' particularly interested me because of its setting around the Middle East during Crusade times, and so I dove into the book with high expectations.
Sabin FitzSimon is a Frankish earl's son with a notorious womanizing and gambling reputation. After being involved in both sharing the bed with one of the king's mistresses and a drunken scuffle that results in a man's death, Sabin is given one last chance to redeem himself by joining Edmund Strongfist to the Holy Land to seek out lands and service to King Baldwin of Jerusalem.
Joining them is Strongfist's daughter Annais, whom Sabin is warned to keep away from due to his reputation. The two have a cordial relationship, but Annais is eventually wed to Gerbert de Montabard, the commander of a nearby fortress to Strongfist's own at Tel Namir. However, more difficulties await Sabin in the Holy Land, a land of constant fighting and skirmishes with the Saracens, and a series of events lead to Sabin becoming in command of Montabard, which includes marriage to the very woman he was first warned to keep away from...
'Falcons' is a well-told story, once again showing Chadwick's huge depth of research into the historical period under which the novel takes place. As I said earlier, what makes this particular novel stand out is the Middle Eastern setting, although it does begin in France. We learn about the colourful culture of the Saracens in contrast to the ways of the Franks that inhabit the area, as well as the slight culture shock it gives our protagonists, and perhaps the reader as well.
All the characters here have personality and traits that make them distinguishable from each other, even if it's only the main ones that have space to develop. Sabin isn't the most sympathetic lead at the beginning of the novel because he is a womanizing, reckless young man with little regard for his reputation among the royal court. However, early events soon sober him up and, recognising service under Strongfist as his last chance at salvaging himself, matures quickly over the rest of the novel. Annais is a brilliant female counterpart, especially in a time where women are expected to be seen more than heard. Despite her nunnery upbringing she is fairly wise beyond her years and willing to stand on her own against the opinions of her husband or father. Her relationship with Sabin, including before their marriage, is portrayed realistically as the two must develop feelings and cope with the strain of turmoil and Sabin's obligations to the King of Jerusalem, whom is captured halfway into the novel. The narrative becomes very tense towards the end as the family get personally caught up in ransom and hence there are moments of suspense where I wondered whether the couple and their family would actually survive until the end or not.
Supporting characters also help carry the story along and have very interesting backstories, and in fact I found the women of the novel the most well-written characters, from the commanding Queen Morphia of Jerusalem to Letice, Annais's housekeeper and closest female confidant at Montabard. The most intriguing character for me was Strongfist's second wife Marianne, a voluptuous and rather manipulative woman whom is distrusted by Annais but exerts quite a bit of influence over her new husband, and you do have a shred of sympathy given her position as lady of a stronghold as to why she acts as she does. The Saracens are inevitably the bad guys here, but a couple characters are included in Sabin's retinue and seem to be regarded as different but noble and, in some cases, actually not overtly hostile, as evidenced by the somewhat bittersweet ending.
If there was one drawback about 'Falcons' however it would be that the ending did seem to drag itself out more than was necessary. In the last five or so chapters a particular Saracren is made out to be rather cartoonish in his hostility, resulting in a last-minute chase/fight scene that was probably put in to have dramatic tension for the last few pages- yet no characters die and nothing more is established. I felt like it could have either been built up a lot earlier into the climax at least or left out completely.
Despite this, 'The Falcons of Montabard' is another great book by Elizabeth Chadwick, having as always the right balance of action, drama and romance. If you're a fan of historical fiction and especially are interested in the Holy Land during the time of the Crusades then you should definitely take a look at this novel. It has an RRP of £8.99 but can be found for as little as 1p (excluding delivery) on Amazon Marketplace.