Shadow of the Swords by Kamran Pasha
As I was reading Shadow of the Swords, I was getting a strange feeling. It didn’t feel like any book I’d read before, but still familiar. When I read the Author’s Notes, I discovered why–Shadow of the Swords was originally conceived as a screenplay, but turned into a novel after the success of Kingdom of Heaven, a film I quite enjoyed (but need to brush up on–I think it may have come on the very heels of my Orlando Bloom phase). This made everything suddenly make a lot more sense.
Shadow of the Swords concerns Richard the Lionheart’s Crusade in the Holy Land–from the Muslim and the Jewish perspective. Saladin, the Great Sultan, tries to protect Jerusalem while still adhering to the ideal of a Muslim man (just, fair, and generous). Complicating matters is the arrival of Miriam, the niece of Saladin’s personal physician. A Jewish woman with a mind of her own, Saladin and Miriam experience an instant attraction. But when Miriam is captured by Richard, the two greatest men of their time suddenly find that the political has become unbearably personal.
Miriam is a problematic character for me. While I have nothing against fictional characters in historical fiction, I’m not sure I’m too uncomfortable with the idea of a fictional character being so very central in history and in the affections and motivations of a great man. Pasha does have some wiggle room here–one of Miriam’s final acts in the novel was historically committed by an anonymous figure, and we know very little about the wives of Saladin. She’s also a bit inconsistent, I feel, and a touch too modern, speaking out in court and donning a head scarf instead of anything more obscuring in a very conservative city. She’s an intellectual and occasionally serves as a spy, but a lot of her skills come out of left field–while we know she knows French, her knowledge of Italian comes out of nowhere. Pasha characterizes her as “heroic” at one point, which made me almost roll my eyes. It’s not that she’s a bad character, it’s that she’s inconsistent and plays much too large a role in documented history. Once the action really gets going, she no longer looms over a story that’s rightfully Richard’s and Saladin’s, and the conclusion to her story is very well-done. I just wish Pasha hadn’t been so enamored of her as a character, since her historically accurate uncle, Maimonides, serves the function he created her for (presenting a Jewish side to the story), and given her so large a part as to almost be the protagonist.
The novel is best when it focuses on Richard and Saladin. Pasha goes out of his way to depict Richard as a cruel man, following the historical record but also making him ruthless and a little bloodthirsty. When he casually ordered a soldier to rape and then murder a maidservant as a warning to a king about his daughter, I was physically repulsed. Saladin is a righteous and good ruler who tries his best to be generous and be a good Muslim, even in combat, but does have his failings and a weakness for Miriam. Over the course of the novel, Richard grows into, if not a less cruel man, a more accepting man, and poor Saladin is saddled with the moral of a love story–love is all you need. (This is part of the reason I’m not wild about Miriam–her story dictates some things for Saladin that I didn’t care for.) William, a fictional character executed like Miriam should have been, provides the voice of reason for the Crusaders, and is usually run over roughshod by the villainous Crusaders.
The action is absolutely top-notch, I have to say–when someone is presented as the Big Bad as a sort of red herring early on, Saladin dispatches him properly. War scenes are brutal and cinematic, including a scene where a near-suicidal Richard charges into enemy camp and calls the very confused Saracen army cowards for not killing him. Pasha also succeeds at the nuances of religion, especially the connections between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. While the Jews are better off under the reign of a Muslim king than a Christian one, Maimonides still suffers discrimination in the court, and often reflects on the changing fortunes of the Jewish people. I especially loved Miriam and Maimonides’ view of God as a Supreme Being with a wicked sense of humor, which I thought was very well utilized. In an Author’s Note, Pasha writes that he was inspired to write the story that became Shadow of the Swords after 9/11, wanting to write about religious fanaticism and holy wars. When he focuses on that, Pasha succeeds admirably. When he focuses on the love story, he doesn’t succeed quite as well, especially when the Sultana carries on plotting and cackling against Miriam while the Crusaders are approaching at top speed. I just wish he’d stuck to what he’s very good at.
There’s a very unfortunate implication to be found in the fact that three of the major villains aren’t straight. Richard’s supposed fling with King Philip is mentioned in passing, but dismissed, and the evil, scheming Sultana who has no redeeming features is having an affair with her female slave. Since Richard’s relationship with Philip is obscure and Yasmeen is a totally fictional character, it just feels odd. To be fair, Miriam also contemplates a Sapphic life after being particularly disgusted with men. There’s also the fact that the “good” female characters–Miriam, Joanna, and Eleanor–are all women who seem to hate women. When Miriam encounters Joanna, we supposedly see a moment of connection, only for Miriam to later be surprised that she’s not feeling sorry for the “proud bitch”. As an ace woman, you probably imagine these things don’t sit too comfortably with me. I also found a few typos, which, of course, is no reflection on Pasha, but pulled me out of the story nonetheless.
Bottom line: An honestly interesting examination of religious fanaticism and holy wars from the Semitic perspective, Shadow of the Swords is unfortunately crippled by a generic love story that makes an inconsistent fictional character much too prominent in actual history. Behind the unnecessary love story, there’s some great action and a wonderfully nuanced look at religion.
Shadow of the Swords will be released next Tuesday, June 22.
I received this book from the publisher for review.