Shadow of the Swords
by Kamran Pasha
Saladin has just conquered Jerusalem, freeing it from Christian rule, but a bigger battle is brewing on the horizon. Led by Richard the Lionheart, the Christian nations of Europe will be returning to the Holy Land to fight the Third Crusade. Richard and Saladin fight not just for the walls of Jerusalem and love of their God, but for the love of a woman – the sexy, feisty Jewess Miriam.
I was interested in Shadow of the Swords because I had heard it was the story of the Crusades as told from the perspective of the Muslims and Jews living in the Holy Land. Rather than driving infidels out of Jerusalem, the challenge is keeping the invading infidels from Europe from coming in. With obvious parallels to today’s political climate, where the wars between the West and the Muslim war wear on, Pasha’s narrative promised to be a new twist on a familiar story. (For a more classically Western version, see my review of The Lute Player, written by Norah Loft in the 1950s.)
Saladin is shown to be charismatic, compassionate, and just. He embodies the best of Islam. Richard, by contrast, is nothing like the hero of Western lore. He’s ruthless and cruel, and often seems motivated solely by his inferiority complex to his father, the dead King Henry II. Neither of the great men seems truly balanced and human; Saladin’s just a little too good, Richard’s just a little too evil. Any goodness that could have been assigned to Richard – or to the Christian armies in general – was wrapped up in the fictional character of Sir William Chinon, the sole European capable of compromise and coexisting with the Muslims. Sir William was the embodiment of European chivalry, but I was rather disappointed that the author had to make up a ‘good guy’ for the Crusaders…if William and Richard had been combined into one man, I feel like the book would have been much more interesting as the dueling sides of Richard’s nature tried to find a balance. Or, failing that, surely there must have been some historical Crusader who wasn’t 100% black-hearted.
The other major fictional character is Miriam, the black-maned Jewish beauty with sea green eyes. Normally, I wouldn’t mention a character’s physical traits in a review, but since the author makes a point of mentioning her eyes and hair every time she appears in the story I thought I’d better follow suit. On the note, Miriam also possesses a very fine bust that men can’t stop looking at. She’s a defiant modern woman who speaks out of turn, has sex with multiple lovers and enjoys it (the horror!), exceedingly clever, well-educated and irresistible. Both Saladin and Richard fall for her, hard, allowing her access to the two most powerful men in the Holy Land. I kinda hated her. She’s created to be the reader’s guide in this medieval world, as she’s an outsider (a woman and a Jew) to the cultures of both armies, but I have a hard time believing someone with her personality could exist in this place and time. I think I also resent her because her appearance in the story often heralds a descent into purple prose and ridiculous sex scenes.
Shadow of the Swords succeeds in presenting a very different Crusade to an audience raised on the European version of history, but it definitely skews sympathetic toward the Muslim side rather than remaining impartial. At times the story’s a little slow and plodding, but thanks to Pasha’s writing the conflict between East and West is shown to be just as relevant today as it was back in the 12th century.
3 out of 5 stars