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.

Here be a great book! A review of Penman’s Here Be Dragons

I first discovered Sharon Kay Penman in the Silver Spring library and I’m glad I did as I consider her to be one of my favorite historical fiction authors. Often times historical novelists can be described in one of two ways: they are either very good at prose or they are very good at research. Gore Vidal has a great talent for sentence construction and pithy sayings but the research that informed The Golden Age is sub-par to say the least. Evaluating the prose of a historical novel is inherently subjective, some of my friends love Hilary Mantel and some can’t get past the first chapter of Wolf Hall, but I think anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction has come across at least one well-researched novel they just couldn’t get into.

Sharen Kay Penman, however, is different: she excels at prose and research. Her stories are filled with beautiful, heart-rending scenes–colored by Penman’s vivid imagination but always informed by pain-staking scholarship–and there may be no better example of this than Here Be Dragons.

The story begins in the late 12th century and within the first fifty pages, we are introduced to a litany of characters. Many of these characters have little importance to the plot, some never show up again, and some readers will probably find this off-putting. Historical fiction has many unwritten rules–stick to one POV per section, avoid omniscient narrating, stay away from confusing names–and Penman breaks pretty much all of them. Nonetheless, her writing and her research are so compelling that I think most readers can forgive her these sins.

At times the number of characters we are supposed to keep track of can get overwhelming but the first half of the book revolves largely around three characters: John, Joanna, and Llewelyn.

Each character is interesting in their own right but John’s POV was unexpectedly moving. By and large, we don’t have much reason to like John. He is a narcissistic philanderer with few redeeming qualities and he only becomes worse once he gains more power.

In his mind, he is ever the victim, even when is carrying out terrible atrocities, and he cannot comprehend why anyone would dare to disagree with such a simple truth. Unwilling to heed the advice of learned statesmen, he careens from crisis to crisis with alarming speed and Englanders soon grow weary of his ineptitude. By the end of his life, John has lost favor with just about everyone he holds dear: his wife, his relatives, his advisors, even his children. His final days are filled with unbearable pain, but he accepts it all with impressive equanimity. The imminent prospect of death inspires no small amount of introspection and John remarks, “I think I always knew I would die alone.” It is his most powerful line in all the book and I often find myself thinking on this line when I reflect on John’s storyline. John is an undeniably cruel man and while the line doesn’t justify his cruelty, I think it does help explain his vindictive tendencies and his bitter persona. 

John, however, is by no means the only interesting character in the book. His illegitimate daughter, Joanna, makes for a fascinating character and her decisions often drive the plot. Many readers will probably find her thought process frustrating, I often put down the book because I’d be so upset by Joanna’s actions but then I’d have to pick it up again to see how things would play out, but I suspect there are few readers who hate or even strongly dislike her character. If that’s not a testament to Penman’s skill as a writer, it’s hard to know what is.

As for a character that’s easy to like, few of Penman’s characters can hold a candle to Llewelyn. An accomplished diplomat and a skilled warrior, Llewelyn dedicates his life to winning independence for Wales. His ambition is as consuming as it is absolute, but as Penman notes in the epilogue, his dream did not long survive him. Considering the many sacrifices that Llewelyn made on behalf of his country, his inability to win meaningful independence for Wales is all the more galling. 

Whether readers are interested in British history or social drama, I highly recommend Here Be Dragons and look forward to reading more of Penman’s work.

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