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.