Monday, December 09, 2019

The Land Beyond the Sea, Sharon Kay Penman's forthcoming epic of 12th-century Jerusalem and the Crusader states

Penman is justifiably renowned for her medieval epics. Working on a large canvas, she illustrates the era’s political movements and the personalities of its movers and shakers with equal dexterity. In this standalone work, she focuses on the twelfth-century Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, ruled by relatives of England’s Plantagenets (her previous subjects).

Among many well-crafted characters, several quickly stand out, including Baldwin IV, the gifted boy monarch tragically stricken by leprosy; his stepmother, Maria Comnena, a courageous Greek princess scorned by her late husband’s first, discarded wife; and honorable nobleman Balian d’Ibelin.

As the Crusader states of Outremer (“the land beyond the sea”) defend their lands against Muslim military forces, which are led by the charismatic sultan Saladin, they struggle with internal strife. The royal succession is of pressing concern, since Baldwin can’t marry and expects to die young. The Muslims’ viewpoints are also relayed firsthand.

From fierce battle maneuvers to the emotional corridors of an unexpected love story, readers will feel intimately drawn into the characters’ dramatic lives in Penman’s splendid historical novel.

The Land Beyond the Sea will be published by Putnam in March 2020; I wrote this early review for Booklist's 12/1 issue. Reviewing this 688-page novel in 175 words or fewer was a particular challenge...

Penman's previous two historical novels, Lionheart (2011) and A King's Ransom (2014), which focused on Richard I of England, take place after The Land Beyond the Sea and feature some of the same characters once Richard heads to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade.  The cast of this latest book, and the historical events depicted within, will be less familiar to most readers.

Regarding the relationship of Baldwin IV to the Plantagenet kings of England, he was the cousin of Henry II, who ruled England at the time (and whose consort was Eleanor of Aquitaine). Baldwin's father, King Amalric of Jerusalem, and Henry's father, Geoffrey of Anjou, were half-brothers. Amalric appears in a few early scenes in this book. Going back even further in Jerusalem's medieval history, Amalric's mother, Melisende, was a reigning queen of Jerusalem and a fascinating historical figure. Her story was retold in fiction by Judith Tarr in Queen of Swords (2000). I'd first encountered Baldwin IV in fiction in two of Tarr's historical fantasy novels, Alamut and The Dagger and the Cross and later in Cecelia Holland's Jerusalem.  You may also remember Balian of Ibelin from the film Kingdom of Heaven. In all, for historical fiction readers in search of novels on the subject to whet your appetite for the period before Penman's novel makes its appearance, there are these to choose from, among others.