Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

St. Hilarion - Settings for "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

In writing about Medieval Cyprus it is impossible to overlook the most powerful and dramatic of all the medieval fortresses: St. Hilarion. It is the setting of several key historical episodes that inherently fall within the framework of my novels -- and I couldn't resist using it for fictional episodes as well. Below is a brief history.



The castle stands 700 meters (2275 feet) above see level on the narrow ridge of the Kyrenia range just slightly southwest of the port of Kyrenia.  It was built by the Byzantine governor of the island after the Comnenus emperors re-established full control over Cyprus in the late 10th. Constructed between 1102 and 1110, it was called Didymos by the Byzantines for the twin mountain peaks between which the upper castle sits.  The crusaders, however, preferred to call it the castle of "Dieu d'Amour" (the God of Love) and the locals continued to refer to it as St. Hilarion because the saint of that name had built a monastery, been buried and venerated here long before the castle was built. 

  Remnants of the Castle Church

The castle boasts three lines of defense, and was never taken by assault. It was, however, frequently besieged. 

 View from the upper to the lower ward.

In July/August 1228, after Emperor Friedrich II accused John d'Ibelin of malfeasance and attempted to seize his fief without trial, Ibelin secured control of St. Hilarion, had it well provisioned and moved his and his supporters' dependents there in preparation for a confrontation.  Ibelin was persuaded to turn the castle over to the King of Cyprus in exchange for the release of his two hostage sons -- or vice versa, depending on how one interprets the negotiations.


When Friedrich II left the Holy Land for the West, he turned St. Hilarion over to his appointed baillies with orders for them to prevent the Ibelins from setting foot on the island. Within two months, however, the Ibelins had pulled together a sufficient army to challenge this (illegal) order head on. They landed on the south coast and routed the imperial forces at the Battle of Nicosia on July 14, 1229.  The surviving leaders of the imperial supporters fled to the three mountain castles, Kantara, Buffavento and St. Hilarion. A siege began almost at once that lasted nearly a year. Shortly after Easter in 1230 the Imperial forces surrendered to the Ibelins.


Just two years later, in May 1232, fortunes were reversed. The Imperial forces were on the offensive. With the Lord of Beirut, all his sons and the bulk of his knights struggling to relieve a besieged Beirut, the Imperial forces seized control of Cyprus.  The supporters of the Ibelins were forced to seek refuge in St. Hilarion and Buffavento, where they were soon subjected to siege. Six weeks later, after defeating the Imperial forces at the Battle of Argidi on June 15, 1232, the Ibelins were able to lift the siege of St. Hilarion and rescue their women and children. 



A long period of peace followed this episode, and St. Hilarion was strengthened and embellished by the Lusignan kings to turn it into an idyllic summer residence high above the heat of the coast. In 1348, King Hugh IV retreated to the castle to escape not an enemy but the plague. During the later Genoese invasion, St. Hilarion was an important royal base of operations, key to disrupting Genoese internal lines of communication.


After that, like Kantara, it lost relevance and fell into disrepair and finally ruin from the 16th century onwards.

St. Hilarion is the setting of important historical events that will be described in future novels, and a setting of minor importance in "The Last Crusader Kingdom."




Saturday, October 14, 2017

REVIEW of Award-Winning "Envoy of Jerusalem"

Envoy of Jerusalem: Balian d'Ibelin and the Third Crusade
is the winner of seven literary accolades, starting with a B.R.A.G. Medallion.  In addition, it took Gold for Biographical Fiction from Pinnacle Awards 2016, Gold for Spiritual/Religious Fiction from Feathered Quill 2017, First in Category for Medieval Fiction from Chaucer Awards 2016, Honorable Mention for Wartime/Military Fiction from Foreword INDIES Awards 2017, Gold for Christian Historical Fiction from Readers' Favorites 2017, and Gold for Biography from Book Excellence Awards 2017.


The following review by Reuben Steenson for the Online Book Club is a good summary of why it found favor with so many literary juries.

Envoy of Jerusalem (subtitled Balian d'Ibelin and the Third Crusade) is the second novel by Helena P. Schrader that I have read, and it is a wonderful book. This novel follows Balian d'Ibelin and a host of other characters in the Holy Lands as they try to recapture cities and strongholds that have been taken by Salah ad-Din, Sultan of Egypt and Damascus. Richard I (known as the Lionheart) is an important presence in the novel, as well as a great number of diverse historical figures. Schrader sticks closely to historical fact - something which her PhD in history qualifies her to do - while weaving in fiction when necessary. For this masterful blend of fact and fiction, the thrilling plot, and Schrader's creation of brilliantly believable characters, I rate Envoy of Jerusalem a flawless 4 out of 4 stars.

The main plot follows Balian d'Ibelin, who features in all three of Schrader's novels in "The Jerusalem Trilogy". Though Envoy of Jerusalem is the third in the trilogy, it reads perfectly well as a standalone novel. I have not yet read the first two books, but had no difficulty understanding the plot. Schrader cunningly weaves in any essential background detail during the action of the novel. Balian is a brave and generous knight who is often faced with difficult choices and challenges. He is an attractive and balanced character, who always chooses the best thing for the people of the land rather than his own selfish gain. He is complemented by his powerful wife and erstwhile Queen of Jerusalem, Maria, who is a focal point for many of the different subplots. Her daughter, Isabella, also features strongly: she is a young princess who learns how to negotiate the world of intrigue and betrayal in upper-class medieval society to become Queen of Jerusalem herself.

I was extremely impressed by Schrader's unparalleled skill in capturing a very complex period in history in a manner that is utterly accessible and even addictive. Little-known characters are brought to the reader's attention, and well-known characters are presented in a new light (for instance Richard I is not portrayed as an unflawed hero, but as a brave, brash king who clashes at times with Balian). All facets of life in the Holy Lands are explored: we are given the stories of highborn nobles, lowly slaves, shop owners, priests, nuns, soldiers, troubadours, adults, children, Christians, Arabs, kings, knights and squires. There is really no corner of the kingdom untouched, or any social strata Schrader does not mention. The result is a satisfying sense of a complete society, and a narrative that lives and breathes with authenticity.

Schrader's style is also delightful - she writes with a simple authority that is perfectly suited to the events that unfold. Her engaging prose shies away from flashy effect, but for me this calm narration actually heightened the emotional impact of the distressing scenes of slavery and warfare, as well as making me trust everything that she said. I found the book extremely difficult to put down, and was glad that it stretched to 500 pages. To write a book of that length without ever losing the reader's interest is no mean feat. 
 
The editing of this book was stellar - I spotted three minor typos in total, and none were particularly jarring. The novel is very well put together, with an abundance of supplementary materials, including a glossary, an introduction, maps, and genealogies, which all further bolstered the reliability of Schrader's narrative. I even enjoyed the attractive font, as well as the little motifs of a horsed knight and a shield that headed new chapters or sections. Schrader is an author who is quickly becoming one of my favourites. Her ability in the field of historical fiction is undeniable, and I look forward to reading several of her other novels in the future. I simply cannot find fault with Envoy of Jerusalem and I warmly recommend it to any fans of historical fiction. It is an exemplary book of its kind.


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Saturday, October 7, 2017

"Adventures in Disguise" - An Excerpt from "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

John d'Ibelin is a healthy 14-year-old in a new place. He is curious about his environment and anxious to exploit his growing independence. He also has a secret weapon: Greek.
 
"Adventures in Disguise"
An Excerpt


When John realized that just by changing into a different set of clothes he could also blend in with the native population, he started exploring Nicosia from the ground up―enjoying the utter freedom of anonymity. When John slipped out of the khan in his Greek clothes, he left John d’Ibelin behind, and with him the burden of being the son of the savior of Jerusalem and a paragon of chivalry.

Not that John transformed himself into something despicable or dishonorable. John had not grown into a taste for loose women and had no natural proclivity to alcoholism. Because he was alone on his adventures, he was also not in a position to be led astray. His only companion was [his dog] Barry, who clung to him as loyally as a shadow, ever ready to share a meal―or an adventure.

Today John was looking for firewood. The nights were chilly, and as the frequency of the rain showers increased, the air turned damp as well. The khan provided each resident with an allotment of wood, but it was far too little (in Lord Aimery’s opinion). John wanted to surprise him with a big stack of wood to get them through the next few days. Having no illusions about how much wood he could personally carry, he borrowed a donkey and panniers from the khan and headed toward the outskirts of town where the potters had their kilns. Kilns consume an enormous amount of firewood, and John reckoned he would either encounter one of the suppliers or be able to purchase directly from the kiln enough wood for their modest needs.

Unfortunately, the potters occupied land northeast of Nicosia, so it was a bit of a hike, and John opted to cut through the cattle market and past the slaughterhouse beyond. It was a good place to find a bone or two for Barry, although he disliked the number of beggars that prowled around on the lookout for edible refuse. As always, the beggars clustered near the stinking bins behind the abattoir, and stray dogs licked the blood seeping out of them. Barry lifted his ears and wagged his tail in anticipation, but John braced himself for the smell and tried to hold his breath as he scanned the fresh heaps of bones for the best pieces. He rapidly chose one, handed it off to Barry, and then took a second for later, stashing it into a sack he had over his shoulder. Then he turned away and put a dozen steps’ distance between himself and the bins before letting out his breath.

He found his path was blocked by a young beggar with a bad bruise on the side of his face. John had seen him here several times over the last couple of months, but without the bruise. Evidently he’d run into some kind of trouble. Although he was smaller than John, John guessed they were about the same age. Unlike the younger children, who worked as a pack and had to surrender all their earnings to the adults, this youth usually worked alone.

“I’ve made a collar for the dog,” the beggar announced, holding out a collar made of woven straw with a crude buckle carved from bone. “You can have it for just five obols,” he told John.

John looked down at Barry. The faithful dog did not need a collar; he followed John everywhere without it. On the other hand, John’s mother had taught him that it was better to reward industry than sloth. She always made a point of offering alms to the working poor, or institutions that cared for those not yet or no longer able to work, rather than beggars. She had warned him never to give to children who begged because, she claimed, they only grew up thinking everyone else owed them their livelihood and became thieves and pickpockets. This boy, however, was clearly trying to earn his keep.

Seeing his hesitation, the boy pulled another object out of his pocket. “Or what about a comb?” he asked, offering a comb likewise carved from cattle bone. “It will cost you ten obols.”

“That’s too much,” John protested. The money his father had given him was long since used up (except for the cost of the passage home, still sewn in his boot), and he had to make do with the allowance that Lord Aimery gave him. “Besides,” he added, “I have to get firewood, and I don’t know how much it will cost. Maybe another day.”

“I’ll help you with the firewood,” the boy offered. “I know a place you can get it cheap.”

“I was going to the potters,” John explained.

“They’ll charge you double,” the beggar dismissed the idea. “I know a man who resells wood from damaged structures. There is always some waste he doesn’t care about.”

John weighed whether or not to trust the youth, and decided to go ahead. After all, he had Barry with him and his dagger. “OK.”

The beggar smiled, stuffed the collar and comb back in his pockets, and indicated the way. John fell in beside him with the donkey and Barry trailing. “What’s your name?” he asked the beggar.

“Lakis. And yours?”

“Janis. How did you get that bruise?”

“That bastard Niki tried to take my earnings from me,” Lakis told him bitterly.

“Did he succeed?”

“Sort of. I had some coins hidden.”

“Why do you hang around the slaughterhouse? I’ll bet you could get work somewhere in the city,” John suggested, trying to implement his mother’s policy of encouraging work.

“Where?” Lakis asked back hopefully.

John was embarrassed to have to shrug and admit he didn’t know. “Didn’t you learn a trade?” he asked instead.

“My Dad was a miller,” Lakis declared, his lip a grim line, and he refused to meet John’s eye.

John understood the use of the past tense, and concluded that something terrible had happened to Lakis’ father. After a few minutes of trudging along in silence, John decided to reopen the conversation by asking, “May I see the collar again?”

Lakis brightened up at once, and pulled it out of his pocket. John examined it carefully. The straw collar was only crudely woven, uneven, and not very strong, but the buckle was cleverly made. “You’re good with carving,” John told Lakis. “Where did you learn?”

“After I went to live with my uncle (he’s a butcher in Karpasia), I met this man, a refugee from Jerusalem, who used to collect the bones from behind the butchery so he could carve them into things for sale. He taught me how to make things, but my aunt hated him. She always chased him away whenever she saw him and forbade me from visiting him. She said he was evil, a Musselman.”

“Had he been a slave?” John asked, suspecting this was one of the released captives trying to start his life over again but tainted by six years in Saracen slavery.

“Yes,” Lakis admitted. “He’d learned to carve from the Saracens, only they had ivory rather than bone, he said. He spoke Arabic, but he assured me he was a good Christian.” Lakis sounded uncertain.

“Of course he was,” John defended the unknown man. “Many of our―” John had just been about to say “vassals,” only to realize that would betray that he wasn’t the Greek servant boy he pretended to be.

“What?” Lakis asked.

“Nothing. What happened? I mean, did you disobey your aunt and see the man anyway?”

“Yes, until she caught me and had my uncle beat me. It was terrible, and I hated it there, anyway. I don’t want to be a butcher, and my cousins will inherit anyway, so what’s the point?”

“You should apprentice to a carver―someone who makes book covers or the like,” John decided enthusiastically, thinking of the magnificent carved ivory cover of one of his mother’s books.

“Book covers?” Lakis asked in a skeptical tone.

John suspected he’d given himself away again. “Or combs or whatever,” he added with a dismissive gesture.

“What’s your trade?” Lakis countered.

“Me?” John shrugged. “I’m just a servant. How far is it to this place with the firewood?”