In Envoy of Jerusalem, the third volume of her biographical novel about Balian d’Ibelin, Helena P. Schrader sheds light on the later years of the Crusades.
The story begins in Tyre, October 1187. Balian and his wife, Maria, Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, despair over Jerusalem’s capitulation to Muslim ruler Salah ad-Din. It seems the Holy Land is lost. Balian takes it upon himself to negotiate the freedom of the city’s Christians.
The plot covers five tumultuous years of late 12th-century history in the Middle East, including the sieges on Tyre and Acre and the arrival of Richard the Lionheart, who, with Philip II of France, leads the fight to reclaim the Holy Land. Throughout these vividly described conflicts, Balian serves as a mediator, supplying siege camps and petitioning the sultan for prisoner exchanges.
Another major plot element concerns the contested leadership of Jerusalem. Maria’s daughter Isabella becomes queen in 1190, but her marriage to Humphrey is soon annulled because she was under the age of consent at the time of their wedding; she remarries Conrad de Montferrat. The novel sensitively explores Isabella’s role as a pawn in men’s power plays; both she and Maria are multi-faceted, appealing female characters. Moreover, the story presents both Christian and Muslim points-of-view, so there is no facile stereotyping of villains.
Schrader, a career diplomat with a PhD in history, delivers a meticulous historical drama full of telling details and dialogue that’s contemporary-feeling without compromising its historical authenticity. The author gives a real sense of the dangers of daily life at that time: “A glass of dirty water could kill as easily as a crossbow bolt, a lance, or a sword”; Maria’s first husband died of dysentery.
Even with a cast list, it can be hard to keep the novel’s numerous characters straight. However, the maps, notes, and glossary are invaluable, and readers are sure to find the author’s enthusiasm for Crusade-era history infectious.
Also available as an ebook.