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, November 18, 2017

CHANTICLEER REVIEW of "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

The Last Crusader Kingdom: Dawn of a Dynasty in Twelfth-Century Cyprus
Chanticleer Review 

In the Introduction and Acknowledgements section of her fascinating novel, The Last Crusader Kingdom: Dawn of a Dynasty in Twelfth-Century Cyprus, Helena P. Schrader notes that ". . . the historical basis for this novel is very thin," and that the book serves as "a fictional depiction of events as I believe they could have happened." Upon finishing the book, one concludes that only the rare reader would disagree with Schrader's version of the historical events that comprise her narrative. Her comprehensive research and impressive scholarship are evident on every single page. This is a work of historical fiction, admittedly, but Schrader clearly was tireless in exhuming every possible detail to piece together as authentic a history of medieval Cyprus, 1193-1198, as possible.  

The establishment of a Latin Kingdom on the formerly Byzantine island of Cyprus in the late twelfth-century is as engrossing and intricate a chapter in history as possible, one that involved a plethora of cultures, religions, family dynasties, battles, treaties, and, inevitably, human greed and vanity. Schrader addresses both public and private lives and demonstrates how their intertwining shaped history. She considers all classes of society, from barons to beggars. It would be easy to get lost amongst the riveting and numerous details, but the author takes the reader by the hand and offers a guided tour to people, places, and events. The novel includes a Cast of Characters, Genealogical Charts for the Houses of Jerusalem, Lusignan, and Ibelin, as well as historical maps of Cyprus and the Outremer. Her Historical Notes underscore the depth of her research, and she also provides a glossary to orient the reader with historical and regional terms.   

Schrader matches her exhaustive research with a thoroughly captivating narrative. Her prose shimmers with elegant confidence and wit. The story traces how this strategically positioned island, formerly fraught with the greatest animosity between the inept and despised Frankish ruler, Guy de Lusignan, and the Greek Orthodox natives is pacified even after the influx of Latin immigrants.  How all this came about is as exciting and adventurous tale as anyone could imagine. Schrader pays keen attention to how power is grasped, nourished, and maintained, and her tale demonstrates the essential and timeless balance of politics, religion, economy, and public relations. Although the novel takes place in medieval times, much of it could serve as a primer for twenty-first-century global politics and diplomacy.

One might expect the medieval world to be dominated by men, yet the author fully addresses the lives of women. Obviously siring male heirs was of importance in the twelfth century, but Schrader does not limit episodes involving female characters to pregnancy and birth. She emphasizes their role as astute advisers to their husbands and other male relations. The women understood that marriages were opportunities for strategic alliances and personal power. Queens and wives of public figures were keenly aware of the critical public relations roles they played in binding their subjects to the ruling families.     

The reader also learns a wealth of information on shipbuilding, irrigation, aqueducts, woodcarving, piracy, on and on.  The Last Crusader Kingdom is not just the story of key families ascending to power; it's also an enlightening overview on the state of technology, the arts, and crime at the close of the twelfth century. The reader trusts Schrader's depiction of events as accurate in large part because her meticulous research makes every scene vivid and memorable.  Schrader matches her exhaustive historical research with a thoroughly captivating narrative.  

Helena P. Schrader is an author who doesn't just bring history to life but one who reminds us that each passing moment is also history. To understand the events reported on the front pages of today's newspapers, there's no greater teacher than the past. The Last Crusader Kingdom is filled with lessons we'd be foolish to neglect.  -- CHANTICLEER REVIEWS



Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Negotiations with the Devil" - An Excerpt from "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

The German philosopher Carl von Clausewitz rightly noted that war is the continuation of politics by "other" means. Likewise, when the political objectives of a conflict remain illusive -- or the price of conflict becomes too high -- most parties seek to resolve differences by non-violent means. At that point negotiations with "the enemy" -- whoever that may be -- become necessary, and compromise essential.

From the top of the escarpment, Sir Galvin and Ibelin’s other men watched anxiously. They shared Ibelin’s assessment of the sailors, and while they could not see Brother Zotikos’ eyes, they hardly needed to. His every gesture exuded hostility and aggression, so much so that [the dog] Barry lowered his head and curled his lips in a threatening stance. 
Sir Galvin glanced over his shoulder to Sir Sergios. The Maronite Syrian had served the Count of Tripoli at Hattin, but had been fighting under Ibelin’s banner ever since the great armed pilgrimage from the West that had wrested control of the coast back from Saladin. He was a superb archer, and he already had his bow out of its case. His quiver hung from the pommel of his saddle.

Sir Galvin nodded to him, and he fitted an arrow onto the string, lifted the bow, pulled the string back to his ear, and looked down the arrow with narrowed eyes at his target: the Greek monk’s broad chest. He nodded, then gently eased the string back to the uncocked position, yet kept the arrow notched. At this range, he was confident he could kill the Greek monk before he could do any harm to their lord.

None of Ibelin’s men could hear what was being said, but they could see the monk gesturing wildly with his arms. He threw them out wide, then rotated his right arm like a windmill. Then his hands formed fists that he held under Ibelin’s nose. A moment later he thrust out an index finger and jabbed the air in front of Ibelin’s face―eliciting an angry warning bark from Barry, whom John was visibly restraining from attacking.

Throughout it all, Ibelin appeared impassive. His stance was relaxed, his arms akimbo, his weight on his right leg with his left bent and slightly forward. His men recognized he was actually poised to swing his weight forward with his right fist if he needed to. Compared to the apparent flood of words that accompanied the dramatic gestures of the monk, Ibelin appeared to say very little. Once or twice he lifted his head as if to make a short remark. Each time his words provoked a new round of angry gestures from the monk, followed by increasingly violent gestures from Barry.

Once Father Andronikos tried to intervene, only to harvest a series of stabs with an index finger in his direction from the younger monk. John, meanwhile, was having trouble holding his dog, and was clearly distressed, confused, and a little frightened. He looked at his father for guidance, but the elder Ibelin remained calm, signaling for him to restrain the dog.

“I don’t think things are going well,” Sir Galvin observed generally, and Georgios shook his head sadly.

Abruptly, Ibelin turned his back on the monk and started back up the escarpment. The monk shouted furiously after him, making Georgios wince at the crude threat. Sir Galvin looked over, on the brink of asking for a translation, but then thought better of it. On the beach Father Andronikos was evidently trying to reason with the angry young monk, his hand on the latter’s arm. The younger man shook him off, and with a violent, dismissive gesture started striding toward his boat. The sailors were already shoving it back into the water; the stern floated while the bow remained on the sand, ready for Zotikos to re-board.

Ibelin reached the top of the escarpment slightly breathless from the climb, and held out his hand for his sword belt. “Hopeless!” he announced to his men, snatching the belt and wrapping it around his waist to buckle it snugly. “He insists that they will keep fighting until we are either driven from the island like the Templars, or all dead.” He grabbed the reins of his stallion, threw them back over the horse’s head, and gathered them up as he pointed his toe in the stirrup to haul himself into the saddle.

He was so agitated that he swung his horse around and started to ride off before John had had a chance to mount. Then he caught himself and waited, his expression grim.

“So they wouldn’t consider exchanging the abbot for Toron?” Sir Galvin asked, puzzled and disbelieving.

“No. That monk is a fanatic. He is incapable of compromise or negotiation. Saladin was pure reason compared to him!”

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Characters in The Last Crusader Kingdom: Brother Zotikos & Father Andronikos

Continuing with my series on the fictional characters in the Last Crusader Kingdom, I want to turn to the two Greek clerics, who play a significant role in this novel: 


Brother Zotikos and Father Andronikos.

Brother Zotikos is the very first character the reader encounters. He is a peaceful monk in an impoverished mountain monastery worried about a pregnant cow when the brutality of foreign occupation breaks in upon his peaceful world. The “Franks” are burning the village at the foot of the mountain and refugees flood into the monastery. It is a life-changing moment for Brother Zotikos; he cannot come to terms with the unjustified violence and he turns to rebellion.

I created this rebellious monk because we know that the greatest (not to say only) opposition to Frankish rule on Cyprus came from the Orthodox church. The Byzantine nobility, like the Frankish nobility in the centuries to come, had estates on the mainland. Many had already abandoned Cyprus during the reign of the despot Isaac Comnenus because of his rapacious policies. Others cut their losses when confronted with the Templar’s equally oppressive rule. The church was not so quick to abandon the island or its flock.

Of the nobles that did remain on the island, we are told that many did homage to Richard the Lionheart, and that others were rewarded with fiefs by the Lusignans for their loyalty. There is no recorded instance of a Greek knight or noble taking up arms against Frankish rule.

But there was resistance, armed resistance, resistance strong enough to drive the Templars from the island. The only specific rebel the chronicles tell us about is a monk, a relative of the despot Isaac Comnenus. It therefore seemed most appropriate to make the representative of Cypriot opposition to Frankish rule a monk.

Having made that decision, Zotikos took over. He was young, vigorous and he has been turned into a fanatic by an encounter with violent injustice. I thought it believable that he would be like any young fanatic fighting for a cause he believes is completely sacred ―whether it is Communism, liberation theology, or ISIS. This means that while at first he is justified, his own fanaticism eventually becomes his enemy and drags him down a course that no longer serves his own goals.

Father Andronikos is, if you like, the natural antidote to Brother Zotikos. He represents the church at its most positive: a source of inner strength and an advocate of peace. Father Andronikos as a mature man with a family cares more about resolution than revenge.

Father Andronikos also serves the important role of spokesman for the native population of Cyprus. Since all my principal characters are new-comers to the island, even Maria Comnena, it was important to have someone who could speak for the Cypriots. It would have been difficult to work in more about the history of Cyprus, what had happened before the arrival of Aimery and John, without a character of this nature.

Because Orthodox priests can and do marry and have families, Father Andronikos was also a means of introducing John to a decent Greek girl. As a young Frankish noble it would otherwise have been very difficult to develop a circumstance in which he might meet and interact with a Greek maiden.

Last but not least, he is a tribute to the Greek Orthodox priests I have encountered in my life.