Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A siege during the crusades seen through the eyes of the opposing parties - review of "pillars of light"

When a friend of mine told writer Jane Johnson I used her book "The Tenth gift" in class she surprised me by sending me this book with a nice note. Unbeknownst to her I am quite familiar with the area the story is set as I travelled Israel, Jordan and Syria when I was young. And I am very interested in the crusades.So I looked forward reading this book. But now let me review it.

The novel reads as a history book with the main characters as witnesses of the unfolding events. It focusses on the siege of Akka (or Acra, now Akko in Israel) when it was under Muslim rule. Jerusalem has just fallen (see movie "Kingdom of Heaven") and King Richard Lionheart sails for the Holy Land planning to conquer Jerusalem again. But first there is the strategic port city Akka.

We see the events unfold from mostly three main characters. There is Muslim Zohra who lives in Akka and is secretly in love with Jewish doctor Nathaniel, her brother Malek who is an elite soldier of Saladin the sultan and leader of the Muslims and the English young man John who discovers he is gay.

My town was also besieged but centuries later - 16th century - and still stories are told about the famine. Accordingly to folk legends the mayor offered his arm to the hungry mob. But also in the Second World War people were dying on the streets from hunger here. That makes it easy to picture what the book is describing. The slowly starving of a town where people more and more get to the end of their options and on the other hand the harsh lives of the besiegers who endure a kind of WW1 trenches existence.

Woven into that are elements as the relics scams of those days, architectural developments, being gay (interesting to see one of the main characters gay and also some others while the book is not about being gay - just like in real life), the questions about faith, the position of women, mental illness, discrimination, hating Jews, medicine, the assasin sect and a lot more.

It is not overly sentimental while the events are very cruel, it is never sexual explicit even with several lovestories developing. Apart from what John is thinking it reads as if we are looking at the scenes like watching a movie.

There is one scene that immediately made me think of old material of WWII Jewish people going in their best cloths to their doom. Maybe because I have seen that on film made that part of the story so real.

The beginning is a bit slow. All the fundraising in England was not overly interesting but I can see that is was a good method to give all the main characters a true to live full persona.

It left me with the feeling that Richard Lionheart was a cruel man and not the hero of chivalry as he is often depicted. Looking at his brother and parents that could be explained by genes. It made me think it must have been divine punishment that he never did take Jerusalem or father an heir.

Saladin is as generous as depicted in Kingdom of Heaven but it is a known fact that even his contemporary enemies admired him as a "true knight". The writer manages to draw him as a man suffering from maladies and sometimes frustrated and not make him into some superhero what he more or less is and was for the Muslims. I stood paying homage at his grave in 1999.

There was one thing I could not understand. After all the famine there is suddenly tea and bread again but later on food shortage is mentioned again. Where did the victors get that food that fast?

It also left me with the question who the Moor is supposed to be. At the end there is a hint but that might need rereading the book for other hints.

I really recommend the book. A 5 out of 5 stars. Also a great way to learn more about history.

You can buy it by clicking on the picture link. I have the paperbackversion what is real nice quality.

When I looked Akka now Akko up on Google Maps I was surprised to see a flat town while reading the book I had pictures a hill-town like Jerusalem. See picture below.





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