There is simply no other writer of medieval history that comes even close to the incomparable Sharon K. Penman. Her latest book The Land Beyond the Sea is the story of Outremer, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the struggles between Christian and Muslim rulers for the Holy Land.
Penman is known for her meticulous research covering both the history of the period and the rich array of characters that bring that history to life. In this case the story focuses on young King Baldwin IV’s courageous attempts to hold the Frankish kingdom together against both internal and external forces while also combating the debilitating effects of leprosy; Salah al-Din, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, known to history as the great Muslim military and political leader Saladin; Lord Balian d’Ibelin, one of the few Christians respected by both Baldwin and Saladin, influential in maintaining the peace until Baldwin’s illness finally takes its toll and Guy de Lusignan, by right of marriage to Baldwin’s sister Sybilla, ascends to the throne; Gerard de Ridefort, the Templar Grand Master whose influence over the new king leads Guy to order his forces to venture out into the arid desert wasteland without sufficient water, resulting in his defeat at the battle of Hattin in 1187 and the Islamic reconquest of Jerusalem.
Personal animosities, ambitions, ignorance, greed, and stupidity all factored into the struggle for the Holy Land, and Penman captures all these influences in The Land Beyond the Sea. The conflict described in her 654 page narrative isn’t limited to Christian against Muslim. She describes the struggles for power within both religions, and it’s these divisions that played out in a series of conflicts over control of Jerusalem and the holy sites sacred to each faith that became known as the Crusades.
Readers who appreciate history will devour this book just as they have all of Penman’s previous books. They will also delight in the true circumstances regarding Balian d’Ibelin’s actions after the battle of Hattin that saved thousands of lives when Jerusalem fell to Saladin. The story has been told before in the blockbuster film The Kingdom of Heaven. However, while it’s a great movie, the facts regarding d’Ibelin’s lineage, his relationship to King Baldwin IV and his sister Sybilla, and his role in convincing Saladin to accept the peaceful surrender of Jerusalem make for a much more satisfying and riveting tale.
I highly recommend this novel!