With Balian d’Ibelin: Knight of Jerusalem, Helena P. Schrader crafts an epic novel of the late 12th century Crusades. Originally released in 2014 and reissued in 2020 with revisions, the work begins an intended tetralogy covering the lifespan of its protagonist.
The third son of the Constable of Jaffa (who died soon after his birth), Balian was raised by his oldest brother Hugh, Baron of Ibelin. Hugh dies at the novel’s beginning, leaving Balian to fend for himself. Schrader captures Balian’s initial rise among the knights and aristocracy of Jerusalem to become constable of Ascalon (and eventually a lord), focusing upon his relationship with the leper king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, and love affair with the dowager queen Maria Comnena, the second wife of Baldwin’s late father.
Spanning 1171 to 1178, the plot includes Baldwin’s raid into Saracen territory, a siege by Salah al-Din, Sultan of Damascus, and the famed Battle of Montgisard, an enormous victory for Christianity against an overpowering Muslim army.
All three major characters stem from historical fact, and Schrader excels as both historian and novelist. Her rich descriptions (buttressed by a plethora of maps and other illustrations) power the narrative. For example, Schrader thrillingly demonstrates how victory at Montgisard was strategically achieved by trapping the sultan’s army in a swamp and flanking it on both sides with a pincer-like movement.
Schrader lends complexity to major and minor characters alike. At one point, for instance, the wickedly seductive Reynald de Châtillon claims, “I’d as soon piss on a holy relic as kiss one,” yet also joins Balian to protect the kingdom against invasion by Salah al-Din.
Lending trust in her accuracy, the author details where she “deviated from the historical record” and offers a glossary and “Selected Sources and Recommended Reading” at the conclusion.
Schrader has won multiple awards for her Crusader novels, and this book should fare no differently. Any historical fiction reader interested in the period will find this work a treasure.