Defender of Jerusalem is the second novel in Helena P. Schrader’s historical series about Balian d’Ibelin, a twelfth century crusader who rose from his position as a landless second son to become one of the most powerful figures in the kingdom of Jerusalem. In Schrader’s previous novel about Balian d’Ibelin, readers watched his young adulthood and rise to power at the side of the young leper king, Baldwin.
Now the Baron of Ibelin, a nobleman in his own right, Balian is married to Maria Comnena, the dowager Queen of Jerusalem and King Baldwin’s stepmother. Balian proves to be a dichotic leader as he was a forged-in-battle warrior and a supremely capable diplomat.
Thus, Schrader’s story becomes one about Balian’s family life, focusing more on an ensemble cast of characters than just on Balian himself. As the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem struggles to maintain order and fend off the advances of Salah-ah-Din’s forces, the characters are scattered throughout the kingdom. This makes for a more fragmented plotline than in the previous installment, thereby reflecting the internal and external political conflicts of the time along with the clash of cultures. There are several time jumps and switches in perspective throughout the work that may make it feel less cohesive, but they add to the authenticity of the era’s fractured communications.
The story at the center of the novel is King Baldwin’s desire to find an appropriate heir before his inevitable demise due to leprosy. With no clear path of succession, there is much court intrigue around this decision. It often comes down to the women in his life to influence his decisions or make their own way, and it is here that Schrader’s work really shines.
The author presents her female characters, notably Maria, her daughter Isabella, and Balian’s niece, Eschiva, as powerful, independent women unwilling to let the constraints of the time keep them from helping the kingdom. Maria even commands troops and keeps her people safe during a siege. These vibrant women make what could be a strictly dry, historical narrative leap off the page.
Schrader clearly knows her history, so devotees of medieval history will enjoy her occasional indulgence in the details of her research, focusing on troop movements or treaties rather than the characters. Schrader effectively strikes a balance between the need for historical accuracy and readability in the dialogue. Nevertheless, her writing deftly portrays the gamut of emotions of this turbulent time.
Defender of Jerusalem is a well written biographical novel about a little known hero of the Crusades, Balian d’Ibelin, as he attempts to maintain power and order in the face of invading armies and the internal conflicts within Christendom.
Schrader brings interesting and vivid historical characters to life by adding emotion and valor to her storytelling. Overall, readers who enjoy learning about the intricacies of the Crusades and prefer serious and well-researched historical fiction will relish Schrader’s novels.