The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Penman

‘Courage is not a lack of fear, lad.  It is overcoming fear.’

The Kingdom of Jerusalem, ‘Outremer’, the land beyond the sea.  Many of us know some of the history of the Crusades, especially stories of the Third Crusade with Richard the Lionheart and Saladin.  This novel set earlier than the Third Crusade, opens in 1172, just 73 years after the First Crusade captured Jerusalem from the Saracens.

Two men are central to this novel: King Baldwin IV (‘The Leper King’) and Balian d’Ibelin, one of the Poulain (born in the Levant, descended from the first crusaders).  The crusaders have a tenuous hold over the Kingdom: Saladin is intent on retaking it.

Ms Penman brings the characters to life, taking the reader through the complex politics and cultural clashes which were part of this world (and unfortunately remain so today).  Baldwin IV is courageous and intelligent, fighting both leprosy and Saracens.  Balian d’Ibelin is loyal to Baldwin IV and has long enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect with Saladin.  But Baldwin IV will die young, and short-sighted self-interest will bedevil the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Balian D’Ibelin will emerge as a hero: negotiating the peaceful surrender of Jerusalem, saving thousands of lives at the end of the siege in 1187.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; I think it is Ms Penman’s best for some years.  Yes, I knew how it would end (as far as Baldwin IV was concerned) but Ms Penman’s writing transported me into 12th century Outremer, into the uncertainty. 

Highly recommended if you enjoy historical fiction set in this period.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith