Narcos, Netflix, and Notoriety

Narcos has always had a difficult needle to thread. In dedicating so much screen time to Pablo Escobar and the likes, Netflix has been accused of glorifying some of the world’s most notorious terrorists. The writers of Narcos have always been sensitive to this slight and made a concerted effort to include the bad and the ugly when it came to Escobar. His bombing of Avianca Flight 203 and the DAS building are both given prominent attention in the series, and his penchant for violence completely undercuts his occasional acts of charity. 

If I had to give Narcos: Columbia a grade, I would probably give it a B+. Escobar was definitely an interesting aspect of the show, but he was never the sole reason to watch the show. I personally considered the conflict between the CIA and the DEA to be one of the most compelling aspects of the show and had that storyline been fleshed out a bit better, Narcos: Columbia could have earned a place in the pantheon of great TV shows.

While Narcos: Columbia almost makes the cut, Narcos: Mexico falls well short of the mark. The first season of Narcos: Mexico was decent, but the second season was a muddled mess. On paper, there is a lot to like about Narcos: Mexico. It has a great cast–Michael Pena and Diego Luna are the main draws for Season One–and the subject matter is undeniably interesting. Unfortunately, there just isn’t much to latch on to with the show. The voice-over narration is frustratingly dry, not to mention overdone, and the characters aren’t all that compelling. With the exception of Kiki, we aren’t given much reason to root for the characters. If anything, we are given reasons to not like them.

Walt Breslin is a good example of this. He comes into the show relatively late, and I think the show creators assumed viewers would find him sympathetic because he purports to be on the side of law and order. He does enter the story with some degree of goodwill because of his connection to Kiki, but it’s immediately squandered on a brutal torture sequence. For reasons I can’t understand, the show creators assumed we would find Breslin’s character more interesting once we watched him lop fingers off a restrained prisoner. In all fairness, the man is a member of Mexico’s DFS–the functional equivalent of the SAVAK if we are to believe the show–but that doesn’t make the sequence any easier to watch. The victim ends up succumbing to his injuries, but not before volunteering the information Breslin needs.

I always find it odd when law and order shows endorse torture as an interrogation technique, and Narcos: Mexico has enough torture to make Jack Bauer blush. Again and again, the bad guys spill the beans because of the miraculous effects of torture, though the good guys never admit anything under duress of course. Somebody who watches Narcos: Mexico could be forgiven for thinking the problem with the criminal justice system is there too much emphasis on getting warrants and too much emphasis on respecting due process.

Torture issues aside, Narcos: Mexico doesn’t seem much interested in the established facts. For the most part, the show is more interested in creating a story inspired by history more than it is based on history. This isn’t a deal breaker per se, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad includes plenty of storylines that are extremely out of place for the era and it’s still a good read, but it does create some interesting production issues for Narcos: Mexico. During a flashback sequence, Selinas accidentally kills a maid during a historical reenactment gone wrong. Rather than concerning himself with the well-being of his former playmate, the youthful Selinas frets his family will be upset about the bloodstains on their very expensive rug. The depiction is anything but flattering of Mexico’s future president, and I have my doubts Selinas was involved in any such incident. I have no doubts, however, that Salinas was involved in the efforts to rig the 1988 vote. PRI officials have already admitted as much, President Madrid for example, and it’s only logical to assume that Salinas was involved in the vote-rigging efforts that culminated in him being elected. Narcos: Mexico isn’t willing to suggest as much, however, and bleeps out his name in reference to the 1988 election. The attempt at censorship is as baffling as it is illogical. After all, it’s pretty easy to Google who won the 1988 election. Moreover, Narcos: Mexico suggests he was involved in all kinds of disreputable skullduggery so it seems odd for the show to pull its punches when it comes to the skullduggery we know he was involved in. 

Narcos: Mexico could have been a very interesting show. It could have explored Shakespear’s dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely or Machiavelli’s dictum that the ends justify the means. Instead, we ended up with a show that revels in violence and stints on interesting characters.

Book Review: The Dust and the Dark Places

*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*

Westerns have long enjoyed a hallowed place in historical fiction and they are enjoying a resurgence in literary circles in recent years. I picked up The Dust and the Dark Places knowing very little about the setting or the author, but I only needed to read a few pages to know the author had put a great deal of research and thought into the book.

Set in the late 1800s, the story takes place in a time when lawlessness still pervaded the Mountain West and makes use of generous flashbacks to provide the backstory for the protagonist, Benjamin of Hope Springs. He spends most of his early childhood fantasizing about life outside his small town and spends his down-time reading dime novels, when he isn’t getting into trouble with his friends of course. His step-mother and his father are both alcoholic and abusive so Benjamin’s desire to escape is both understandable and natural.

As it turns out, his father is bitten with the same bug and stirs up a great deal of trouble in the next town over when he goes on a shameful bender. Unfortunately for Benjamin, trouble follows his father back home and a group of outlaws decide to make an example out of him. Benjamin and his brother are soon dragged into the mix, and the ensuing violence alters the course of Benjamin’s life. In a matter of minutes, he loses the one person he always looked up to, and he is forced to abandon almost everything he knows.

Owing to his age, the outlaws decide to spare him, but the small mercy counts for little with Benjamin. He dedicates himself to seeking revenge and spends years hunting down the outlaws who destroyed his childhood. In the interests of not giving away too much of the story, I won’t get into much more of the plot but I think what I like most about the story isn’t the plot so much as the author’s dedication to craft. The prose is both fluid and engaging, and the research is top-notch.

Whether Gracey is describing the specific mechanisms of a rifle or the arid setting, it’s abundantly clear The Dust and the Dark Places is the product of impressive scholarship. When I read up on the author, I wasn’t surprised to learn he had a background in law enforcement but I was very surprised to learn he lives in the UK. If anything, it makes me respect his research all the more. Both the language and the details feel authentic to the time and place, and I think congratulations are very much in order. The Dust and the Dark Places is not for everyone–a scene involving a whipped horse and a restrained prisoner is particularly graphic–but readers who enjoy Westerns will find much to enjoy in this story. It is not a stand-alone novel by any stretch of the imagination but considering the quality of the writing, I imagine most readers will be quite willing to pick up the next installment. 

Tatham Mound: A Book Review

I received Tatham Mound as a Christmas gift I don’t know how long ago, but I did not pick it up until recently. To be honest, I feared it would be a tedious read as I had already read about De Soto’s expedition in the Gears’ excellent Contact Trilogy. I decided to give it a try not so long ago and I think historical fiction fans will find much to enjoy in the book. 

Owing to the book jacket, I figured De Soto’s expedition would be the focus of the novel. To my surprise, it played a rather minor role. The book is a little over five hundred pages long, but Hernando De Soto’s expedition takes up no more than a hundred pages. The big clashes that are covered in the Contact Trilogy–the Napituca battle and the Mabila battle for example–are also covered in Tatham Mound, but the protagonist does not play an active role in either so the narration is a bit detached. I personally didn’t mind this but readers looking for a blow by blow account of de Soto’s major battles in the Southeast may be disappointed. 

De Soto’s expedition was, in certain respects, one of the less interesting aspects of the book. What really made the book special, in my mind at least, was the author’s narration style. The story is told from first-person but switches perspectives often since the narrator is often relating the accounts of others. As a result, Anthony gives the reader a great deal of ability to toggle between different places (the bulk of the story takes place in pre-Columbian Florida but readers also get to spend some time in Tenochtitlan and Cahokia) and times. Not only does this give us a very expansive portrayal of pre-Columbian life, it gives us the ability to explore the backstory of numerous characters in a way that’s reminiscent, in a good way, of Lost. 

However, if I had to pick one thing I liked the most about the book, it would probably be the ending. It can be difficult to tie all the loose ends together in a novel, especially a historical novel that tries to stick close to the known facts, but Anthony does an exceptional job with the final scene of the book. It is truly a standout scene and I suspect readers will reflect on Tale Teller’s last conversation with the spirits long after they finish reading the book. 

Truth be told, Tatham Mound is probably not for everyone. Readers squeamish about intimacy should probably stay away from the book. It is definitely not erotica, but sex does play a pretty large role in the narrative. 

Anthony takes a little bit of time to explain why in the afterward of the book and also shares with readers his personal connection to Tatham Mound. As it turns out, he has a fairly strong connection with the historical site of Tatham Mound. Besides personally visiting it on numerous occasions, he also paid tens of thousands of dollars to have the site excavated. Learning about his personal investment in Tatham Mound didn’t make me like the book better per se, but it did give me a deeper respect for Anthony’s creative decisions as well as his research bona fides. All in all, I think there’s much to enjoy in Anthony’s Tatham Mound and I recommend the book to anyone in pre-Columbian history or literary fiction. 

The Queen’s Vow: Book Review

In researching the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, I have had to learn a great deal about cultural norms and the historical traditions of Renaissance Spain. I picked up The Queen’s Vow because I wanted to brush up on my knowledge of the Reconquista and figured it would be interesting to read a novel on Queen Isabella’s life.

As far as I know, Isabella has not received much attention in historical fiction. To be fair, I read primarily in English, but I also would not be all that surprised if she does not receive much attention in non-English historical fiction. After all, she and her husband are both very polarizing figures on account of the Spanish Inquisition and the Expulsion Edict. Nonetheless, there is no rule that historical novels ust be told from the perspective of individuals who made decisions that would be considered just in a modern day context and Gorton does a great job of recreating the historical milieu that produced Isabella of Castille.

At the start of the story, she is a young impressionable girl who has only a vague sense of her status. Her heritage accords her a great deal of rank, but it also places her in great danger. With the threat of abduction and assassination hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles she is forced to seek protection from any who are willing to aid her cause. In some cases, this means accepting condescending manipulative counselors into her inner circle and even informs her marital decisions.

Determined to decide her own fate, Isabella takes the bold step of marrying Ferdinand of Aragon. In doing so, she gives herself the chance to rule in her own right but the decision puts her in direct conflict with the sovereign of a powerful realm. The conflict soon escalates into open warfare and Isabella and Ferdinand raise an army to defend their interests. 

Ferdinand and Isabella eventually secure victory over their political foes, but at great personal cost. Both, however, are possessed by a powerful religious zeal and wish to have a country united under one crown and One God. To achieve this goal, they will launch military attacks against former allies, approve a brutal inquisition against converts, and eventually expel all practicing Jews from the country.

These events unfold over the course of numerous decades and Gorton succeeds masterfully in placing the reader in Isabella’s head. To the extent that I have any issue with his narrative decisions, it’s Gorton’s decision to saddle Isablella with a great deal of remorse and guilt. Of course, we can only speculate as to Isabella’s inner thoughts and it’s very possible she did struggle with guilt regarding her role in the Expulsion Edict and the Spanish Inquisition. Then again, she might not have and her actions don’t give much indication that she suffered from pangs of conscience. I personally think it would have been more interesting had Gorton given us a character who was a zealot in her thoughts, rather than just her actions, but one can’t prove a negative and I found the novel very engaging regardless.  

There’s a great deal to like about the story in terms of plotting and turns of phrase but if I had to pick one thing I like about the story most, it would be Gorton’s restraint as an author. He strongly implies, for example, that an important character is wasting away from an STI, but never explicitly states anything to that effect and trusts that readers will be able to put the clues together. Not every author places such faith in readers, and these “bread crumbs” help enhance the narrative in numerous respects.

I have not read that much of Gorton’s work, but I enjoyed Queen’s Vow immensely and highly recommend it to readers interested in the Reconquista, women’s history, or the unification of Renaissance Spain. 

The Yellow Wife

**I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review**

The happy house slave is a trope as enduring as segregation. It is featured most prominently in novels dating back to Reconstruction but can push its way into modern art also. One need look no further than Django Unchained for evidence of this sad truth. Even celebrated civil rights activists like Malcolm X trafficked in the trope which makes it all the more notable that author Sadeqa Johnson chose a different tack with The Yellow Wife.

Like Gone With the Wind, The Yellow Wife is told through the perspective of a young woman living in the South of the 1800s. But whereas Gone With the Wind sanitized and glamourized the racial caste of 19th century America, The Yellow Wife confronts the horrors of slavery head-on. Sexual violence, infanticide, and family separation all play an important role in the book. No person who reads the Yellow Wife will come away with the impression that any enslaved person had it easy in the Antebellum South, whether they worked in the field or the big house.

The Yellow Wife is in many respects too short, the story covers numerous decades once you include the epilogue and some of the key narrative events receive only passing mention, but it is a compelling read all the same. Johnson put an admirable amount of research into the book and her passion for the subject shines through in her writing. The Yellow Wife is not an easy read but it is an important work of literature and deserves a wide readership.

Ghosts of 1876

The 1876 Presidential election is one little remembered today. Such is only natural—the election took place more than a hundred years past and turned on some rather quaint issues. History may repeat itself from time to time but lands grants for railroads and treaty protections for naturalized Americans who traveled abroad are hardly hot button issues today. But if there was one issue that transcended all the others in importance in 1876, it was the issue of the federal occupation of the South. 

The Civil War had ended eleven years before, but slavery had been re-established in many parts of the South via the Black Codes. The Klan Act had brought the worst paramilitary groups to heel in the South, but the Grant administration had yet to withdraw troops. Many urged him to reverse course, but Grant would not budge. Black Americans were still being persecuted and could not count on much assistance from state and local authorities; federal troops had to stay. 

Despite an economic slump and some embarrassing political scandals, liberals had good reason to feel confident about the outcome of the 1876 election. The conservatives were closely allied with violent white supremacists, and liberals assumed that would prove toxic with general election voters. After all, black Americans finally had the right to vote and they knew the danger of letting the Confederate sympathizers back into the Presidency better than any group.

Liberals, however, severely overestimated the electoral strength of their candidate and minority voters showed up at the polls in smaller than expected numbers. As a result, the conservative candidate, a colorful New Yorker with heterodox views, won a plurality of the votes in the Electoral College.     

The outcome shocked many, but neither candidate had enough votes in the Electoral College to claim outright victory. For the sake of peace, conservatives and liberals meted out the Compromise of 1877. Conservatives would agree to recognize Hayes as President, and Hayes would, in exchange, withdraw federal soldiers from the former Confederate states. Both sides kept their end of the deal, and Hayes gave the order to recall troops from the South shortly after taking office.

Following the withdrawal of troops, conservatives quickly established political dominion over the South. For generations to come, it persisted. Time and again, progressives impulses would be beaten back by conservatives from the South, dashing the hopes of activists and reformers. 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Compromise of 1877 when it comes to the political trajectory of the South. This naturally begs the question: why did so many black voters avoid the polls in 1876?

There are a myriad of reasons of course but none can match the primacy of voter suppression. Liberals seriously underestimated the extremes conservatives would go to in order to prevent marginalized people from getting access to the ballot box, and paid a price for it at the polls. Black voters had good reason to like Hayes, he was an outspoken abolitionist and a Civil War hero, but paramilitary groups prevented many of them from being able to cast their votes in states like Louisiana and South Carolina. As a result, Hayes underperformed in the Electoral College and had to make a hideous deal to assume power. 

Thankfully, political violence is far less acceptable in American politics than it was in the era of Reconstruction. Black voters will be able to go to the polls without fear of lynching or torture, but it would be a mistake to think that voter suppression is no longer a fixture of American politics. CV19 has given the GOP a superb vehicle to suppress the vote, and the Trump administration seems intent upon taking full advantage of it. Democrats missed the chance to tie economic stimulus to voter protection measures, but Trump is desperate to keep unemployment from rising higher so they may get another chance. Let’s hope they remember the lessons of 1876. Otherwise, it may not be just black voters who end up being undercounted this November.  

Excerpt from The Bend of the River

Malintze hugged her legs close as a cold blast of wind tore through the mountain pass, prompting a bout of howling and cursing from the teteo. Their loud protests warmed her about as much as her thin woolen hose, but it did provide some validation. During the first few hours of the march, the teteo had been merry as children and spent practically every minute extolling the beauty of the land. They marveled over giant felines that could tread water like a dog, dragonflies that zipped by with the speed of arrows, four-legged river animals with plated skin, trees that reached thrice as high as any mast… but that was in the lowlands. 

Thereafter, the route gave way to highlands dominated by an enormous rocky mountain range stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond. During the first day of the ascent, the teteo refused to give voice to their pain and, had it not been for their continuous grunting and panting, Malintze might have forgotten their presence altogether.

Come evening, the army encamped on a large plateau, but none of her traveling companions made mention of the stunning view. The lowlands were visible in every direction for countless long-runs, as well as the beach where Fort Veracruz had been erected and the bay where Cortés scuttled the fleet. Nevertheless, the weary marchers appeared to only be concerned with the monstrously steep trail that seemed to ascend all the way to that place the teteo called Heaven.

Come morning, the marching began anew, and she joined the long procession of teteo, Totonacs, soldiers, and slaves moving up the trail. A suffocating silence hung over the group, and there were few sounds other than labored breathing and muttered curses. She had grown used to the teteo blurting out every little thing that came to mind—Malintze now knew exactly how much a feline pelt would fetch back in Spain and how long it would take to convert a copse of pine trees to lumber—so their failure to remark on the rigors of the march was jarring. Surely they also noticed the sharp rocks that stabbed through leather soles, the miserable chill brought on by the thin air that gave her such terrible headaches. 

The temperature had to be the worst aspect of the climb. Never in all her life had she been so cold. She wrapped herself in every layer she could find but that was not enough to keep the shivers away. Judging by the dreary expressions of the porters and the slaves, they were just as ill-prepared for the drop in temperature. Even the teteo were struggling with the cold, despite their thick cotton armor and their familiarity with that strange season called winter, a time when lakes froze over and the skies rained ice. Not so long ago, those stories about winter seemed ridiculous. Now she wondered if she might see some of those wonders for herself.

Malintze buried her chin in her chest and rubbed her frozen arms. Tired as she was, she hoped the march would soon resume. Stillness brought on a cold that no amount of layering could protect her from. As much as her back ached from marching, she knew she could not stay seated more than a few minutes.

I would give anything for some hot pepper soup. A soup so hot it could warm not only her mouth, not only her face, but her entire body. She looked for ingredients but saw only rocks, shrubs, and trees. She shook her head and bit her lip in frustration. 

A teotl sat down next to her and offered his canteen. Armor covered so much of his body that it took her a moment to recognize the figure as Cortés. Malintze wrapped her layers tighter rather than reaching for the canteen. “Too cold… to take out arms,” she said in Spanish.

Cortés nodded. “Tilt your head back so I can pour.” She did as commanded but watched with some trepidation as he clicked open the container. “You don’t have to drink it, but it will warm you.”

She nodded. Cortés brought the canteen to her lips, slowly tipping it upwards so she could drink at her own leisure. The taste—first sweet, then sour—was so startling she almost spat it out. A combination of exhaustion and thirst was all that stopped her.

When Cortés pulled the canteen away, she was tempted to ask for more. Then the effects became more pronounced, and she decided against it. She suppressed a burp, and her eyes widened in a mixture of surprise and embarrassment.

“What was that?” she asked in an awed voice.

“We call it wine.” Cortés leaned back, looking very pleased. He propped himself up on an elbow and stroked his chin. His stubby fingernails disappeared into the dark curls of his beard. What would happen if he stopped shaving altogether? His sharp chin and his pale cheeks would probably disappear from view completely, followed afterward by his creased, vellum-thin lips.

Malintze cleared her throat. “Your wine does the same as our octli—but the taste. It’s as if it…”

“Came from a different world?”

She nodded half-heartedly and wiped her mouth on the blanket, surprised but grateful the droplets had not frozen to her lips. 

“Still adjusting to the cold?”

She nodded again and flashed him a small smile.

“Such a pretty smile,” Cortés said. “But hidden behind so much pain.”

Malintze gazed at the ground. A strand of hair dangled in front of her face, still damp from the morning fog, and she blew it aside with a small gust of air.

“The Totonacs say our march will take us to places even colder,” Cortés continued. “I know not to trust all the Totonacs, the Fat Chief promised me an army of thousands and delivered me a sorry lot of half a thousand instead, but I think they are telling the truth this time.” 

Malintze tried wiggling her toes. It felt as if she were trying to shift stone. “This cold causes me unpleasantness. I hope we start marching soon.”

Cortés chuckled under his breath. “What’s the name of that mountain?” He pointed southwest to a massive protrusion of rock that stabbed into the sky like a white-tipped spearhead.

“Citlaltepetl,” Malintze answered.

Cortés looked at her expectantly.

“It means Star-Mountain.”

Cortés arched his brow.

“Sometimes the mountain becomes angry and throws boulders all the way to the stars,” she explained.

He turned his gaze back toward Citlaltepetl. “We have star-mountains in the Old World also. We call them volcanoes there. But we don’t have anything half as big as that in my country.” 

Malintze nodded and rocked back and forth for warmth. She wondered if she would ever see his country, if she even wanted to see his country. She honestly did not know, just as she did not know how to feel about Cortés. She admired his tenacity and ambition, but they caused her no small amount of angst and alarm.

“That mountain is very pretty, like you,” he said. “I would refer to that mountain by your namesake, but certain men would take offense. A shame that beauty must always stir up strife.”

Malintze rubbed her arms and tried to stop her teeth from chattering. 

“God as my witness, that is the most magnificent mountain I have ever seen,” he added. “However, I would be none surprised if we came across greater beauties during our march. This land never ceases to amaze.”

“What do you mean namesake?” Malintze asked.

Cortés stared at her with a blank expression.

“You said you would refer to mountain by my namesake—”

“I would name the mountain after you,” he said.

Malintze blinked and took a moment to gather her thoughts. “It is not yours to name,” she said.

“Why not?”

“It already has a name.”

“And this means I cannot give it a new name? Caesar and Alexander would beg to differ. I suspect that some great man probably looked at this mountain and gave it the name you know. Long ago there may have been a different name in a different tongue for this very same mountain.”

Malintze furrowed her brow. “I do not know of Caesar and Alexander.”

“They are great men who conquered vast territories and won many vassals.”

Malintze nodded. She wondered if there were any places in the world where men were not idolized for wreaking destruction, a place where women did not have to form a bond with cutthroats to rise above bondage. “They are like Ahuitzotl and Motecuhzoma then,” she replied. “When Caesar and Alexander conquered, did they not leave territory the same?”

“Heavens no. They named nearly everything they saw after themselves. Or those dear to them.”

Malintze’s chest tightened. “The mountain already has name.” She drew her legs in to conserve warmth. “Remember, the Mexica are the conquerors of the One World.”

Cortés smiled. “For now.”

The Bend of the River will be released later this year. Be sure to check back in for more details.

High Praise for Zoe Saadia’s The Highlander

I first picked up The Highlander about a year ago and stopped after the first chapter. I am a big fan of Zoe Saadia but the book just didn’t click with me. I put it down and came back to it only a few weeks ago. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t stop reading the book once I picked it up again and finished it in one sitting.

In retrospect, the reason I didn’t like the first chapter is totally on me. I enjoyed Saadia’s Pre-Aztec series immensely and I assumed those characters would be the principal protagonists in the Rise of the Aztec series. Consequently, I was a bit confused when the first chapter introduced a bevy of characters who had never shown up in the Pre-Aztec trilogy. 

This is a silly reason to dislike a book opening, the Pre-Aztec series and Rise of the Aztec series are distinct book series so there was no real reason for me to significant narrative overlap, and I am glad I put aside my initial dismay to give the book another go. I have a strong interest in Mesoamerican history, I write about it and I read about it, so I am naturally drawn to Saadia’s work. However, what I like most about her novels is just how accessible they are. 

It helps, of course, if readers are familiar with historical figures like Tezozomoc and Nezahualcoyotl, but it is by no means mandatory. If anything, I think readers who are not familiar with these historical figures may enjoy Saadia’s work a little bit more since they will have less ability to predict the twists and turns of the plot. Whether or not readers are familiar with the individuals in the book, I think most readers will find their motivations understandable. This is the goal with every fiction author of course, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s more difficult with some stories than other stories. After all, it’s not like many modern-day readers can relate a world in which the Abrahamic religions do not exist and electricity does not exist but this was the reality for people living in pre-Columbian Mexico. Nonetheless, Saadia does a very good job at getting us to care about the characters in her story and I think many readers will find themselves rooting for Kuini despite his penchant for trouble. 

To be fair, there are other characters for readers to latch on, Coyotl and the Chief Warlord are both important characters in the book, but the romantic sup-plot of Kuini’s storyline makes his character arc especially compelling. Romance always plays a role in Saadia’s books–at least, each one I have read–but the Kuini/Iztacayotl sub-plot is strikingly tender because of the way it ends. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t get into the details but I think readers will be quick to pick up the second book in the series.

Having said that, people who don’t care much for romantic storylines will still find much to enjoy in The Highlander. The plot is fairly easy to follow and Saadia’s research is above reproach. Whether it’s knowledge of inciting incidents or cultural norms, readers can learn quite a bit by reading the Highlander. I recommend the book to anyone interested in Mesoamerican history or historical romance.

The Land Beyond The Sea: A Book Review

Historical fiction is a genre dominated by stories set in Europe. Whether you are looking for a  book about the rise and fall of fascism in Europe or a book about the military exploits of Roman soldiers, there’s no shortage of books to be had. Novels about Mansa Musa, history’s wealthiest man if we are to believe recent reporting, or the An Lushan revolt, history’s deadliest event if we are to believe Pinker and his ilk, are decidedly harder to find. Having said that, historical fiction is undergoing some profound changes as a genre and I am heartened to see new stories and voices coming to the fore. Readers interested in branching out, to learn about Middle Eastern history for example, would do well to check out Sharon Kay Penman’s The Land Beyond the Sea.

To be fair, Penman is not exactly a new voice. She has been writing since the 80s and has the large fan base to prove it. For the most part, her stories are set in Western Europe but the Land Beyond the Sea represents a marked departure in that is set entirely within the Levant. The story is told primarily from the perspective of the Poulains, a term that refers to Christian settlers during the time of the Crusades, and offers fascinating insight into many battles fought on behalf of the Holy Land. 

The Land Beyond the Sea covers a time period of roughly twenty years and, true to form, Penman makes use of multiple POVs in the book. Each character is interesting in their own right but three characters stand out as particularly interesting: Baldwin, Balian, and Sal-al-Din. All of them are real historical figures but Sal-al-Din is the one best known to contemporaries, though he is often referred to in Western literature as Saladin. He is known primarily for his military prowess, but Penman is careful not to depict him as infallible. I think what I like best about Penman’s depiction, however, is that Sal-al-Din is more than just a military general in her story. He is a man who is honorable to a fault, a commander so used to projecting stoic strength that he struggles to let his guard down even around intimates, and a man with sincere religious convictions who breaks bread with “enemies of the faith.” 

As Penman tells it, researching Sal-al-Din was not all that easy. Sure, there are plenty of sources but he is the devil incarnate in some sources and a flawless warrior-king in others. She opts for a more complex depiction, and I admire the research she put into Sal-al-Din’s backstory and those of his family members. Penman is so familiar with the key events in his life that she is able to quote directly from Sal-al-Din at times, and the story is all the more impressive for it. At one point in the book, Sal-al-Din takes the king of Jerusalem hostages and executes a captive right in front of him. Horrified, the king assumes he will also be executed and braces himself for the worst. Sal-al-Din is quick to put him at ease, however, and assures him that “kings do not kill kings.” It’s a great line and one that’s all the more interesting because it’s true to history.

Baldwin is Sal-al-Din’s chief antagonist for most of the story, but the two never get a chance to cross blades. Afflicted with leprosy early on in life, Baldwin is afforded few opportunities to prove himself on the battlefield. Keeping in mind that kings were often expected to lead their troops into battle in medieval times, his leprosy causes many to question whether he should be king. Despite many health complications, Baldwin rules over Jerusalem for almost twelve years. The longevity of his rule is a testament to Baldwin’s political acuity. He outmaneuvers his foes, those inside his kingdom and those alien, with impressive skill and leads his kingdom through numerous crises. 

Nonetheless, if there is any one character who stands out for bravery, it’s Balian. A soldier from an undistinguished background, Balian is tasked with defending Jerusalem after Sal-al-Din’s army succeeds in surrounding the city. He didn’t have to defend the city, he could have fled for safety with his family, and he took an enormous risk by agreeing to serve in this role, Sal-al-Din had promised to lay waste to the city once the people refused to surrender, which makes it all the more notable that he chose to stay and fight. In the interest of not giving away too much of the plot I won’t say more, but I can fully understand why Penman considers Balian to be one of the bravest individuals she has ever written about. 

Long story short, The Land Beyond the Sea is a great read and I recommend it to historical fiction fans interested in the Crusades, Middle Eastern history, or medieval warfare.