Quick Review – Crusader by Ben Kane

Crusader Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2021)

Series: Lionheart – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive historical fiction author Ben Kane returns with the second entry in his Lionheart series, Crusader, which does an amazing job of continuing the epic story of King Richard the Lionheart.

Synopsis:

KING. POLITICIAN. WARRIOR. CONQUEROR.

1189. Richard the Lionheart’s long-awaited goal comes true as he is crowned King of England. Setting his own kingdom in order, he prepares to embark on a gruelling crusade to reclaim Jerusalem.

With him on every step of the journey is Ferdia, his loyal Irish follower. Together they travel from southern France to Italy, to the kingdom of Sicily and beyond.

Finally poised to sail to the Holy Land, Richard finds a bitter two-year-long siege awaiting him. And with it, the iconic Saracen leader responsible for the loss of Jerusalem, Saladin.

No one can agree who should fill the empty throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin’s huge army shadows Richard’s every move. Conditions are brutal, the temperatures boiling, and on the dusty field of Arsuf, the Lionheart and his soldiers face their ultimate test…

Kane has produced another amazing novel in the Lionheart trilogy.  While Kane is best known for his incredible Roman historical novels, I have been particularly enjoying his compelling foray into medieval fiction with this outstanding series that examines the life of King Richard the Lionheart.  Told through the eyes of fictional character Ferdia, better known as Rufus, the first novel in this series, Lionheart, did a remarkable job of covering some of the most influential younger years of Richard’s life, which cumulated in him seizing the throne.  Crusader continues this epic retelling of Richard’s life by recounting the events that occurred as Richard led his forces on a bloody journey to the Holy Land.

Crusader contains a historically rich narrative that explores one of the most iconic periods of Richard’s life, the crusades.  Kane produces a very detailed story that focuses on the journey to the east as well as the battles in the Holy Land.  This includes the army’s stops in Sicily and Cyprus, where Richard was forced into conflict with other Christian rulers, before eventually arriving in the Holy Land and engaging in his legendary conflict with Saladin.  Kane attempts to cover every major battle of this Crusade, with several sieges, large-scale attacks, skirmishes and the infamous massacre at Acre.  At the same time, Rufus continues his deadly rivalry with the dishonourable knight Robert FitzAldelm, while also secretly engaging in a very risky romance.

This proves to be a very compelling story, and I very much enjoyed seeing this detailed portrayal of this legendary crusade.  Kane does a wonderful job of bringing all the dry historical facts to life throughout Crusader, and I found it fascinating to see his take on the entire journey and eventual battles with Saladin’s forces.  While the story does occasionally get a bit bogged down in medieval politics, royal disputes and petty squabbles, Kane keeps the novel going at decent pace, and the reader is treated to several epic and dangerous fight scenes.  The author can write a deeply impressive and thrilling battle sequence, and the reader is left on the edge of their seats multiple times, especially as the various characters you come to care about find themselves in utter peril.  I also enjoyed the bitter conflict that occurred between the non-fictional Rufus and his rival, FitzAldelm.  While not as prominent as in the first book, this rivalry is still a fantastic part of the book, especially as it adds an intrigue-laden edge to the main story.  While I really enjoyed this great novel, I do think that it suffered a little being the middle novel in the series, primarily because certain overarching conspiracies and plots are put on hold because of the crusade.  I also felt the first half of the novel was a little slow in places, especially when compared to the intense second part of Crusader.  Still, this was a pretty amazing story, and I loved how the author managed to ensure that his tale contained both excitement and fascinating historical fact.

Just like in the first novel in this series, Kane spends considerable time examining the complex historical figure of Richard the Lionheart.  In this book, Richard is portrayed as a multifaceted and intense being with a wide range of emotions and moods.  Most of the story focuses on the classic King Richard, the inspirational and personable figure that the protagonist Rufus eagerly vows to follow.  This includes multiple portrayals of Richard’s prowess in combat, especially in the Holy Land where he leads his troops to many great victories.  The author features several intense battles throughout the book where Richard either lead the charge or proved to be something more than human, such as fighting through a superior forces or chasing off an entire army by himself.  I initially assumed that Kane was taking a bit of artistic licence with some of these outrageous scenes, but it turns out that most were based on real historical accounts.  While I found these epic depictions of Richard to be cool, I also appreciated the way in which Kane tries to show the king’s darker side.  There are multiple scenes that portray Richard in a despondent mood, especially when faced with setbacks or betrayals, and this low mood could often transform into a dangerous anger at a drop of a hat.  This makes for a very complex and contrary portrayal, and I really appreciated the way in which Kane attempted to examine the true mind and thoughts of Richard, as seen by his closest friend.

It was also really interesting to see the continued growth of Rufus throughout Crusader, as he keeps moving away from the helpless Irish hostage he was at the start of the series, and is now a knight and close companion to the King.  Rufus goes through a lot in this novel, and it was fascinating to see how he deals with the horrors and dangers of the war around him.  I found his description and concern about the massacre of Acre to be particularly intense, and it was interesting to see him witness such an event while remaining loyal and dedicated to Richard.  Rufus’s rivalries and loves were a major focus of this novel, and it is clear that Kane is setting up something major with them for the final novel.  It was also intriguing to see the changes occurring with additional fictional character Rhys, Rufus’s squire and close confidant, who has accompanied the protagonist on all his adventures.  Rhys, after killing a vicious knight in the first book, has become a little bloodthirsty, and is constantly seeking to prove himself in combat, much to Rufus’s concern.  I really enjoyed the inclusion of these fictional characters amongst the more historically accurate tale of Richard’s campaigns, and it serves as a great narrative device, while also adding in some additional drama and conflict.  I am very curious about how Rufus and Rhys’s stories will end in the final book, although I am not expecting a happy ending.

Overall, Crusader was a pretty amazing historical novel that presented a detailed and captivating picture of King Richard’s crusades.  Loaded up with some excellent portrayals of historical events and a series of epic battles, Crusader will appeal to a wide range of historical fiction fans, and readers will have an outstanding time digging through Kane’s captivating text.  A clever and intriguing novel, I am very keen to read the final entry in this series next year, especially as we all know how dark the final chapters of King Richard’s story are.

Waiting on Wednesday – 2021 Historical Fiction Reads

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For my latest Waiting on Wednesday article, I have a look at some epic upcoming historical fiction novels that I think could be amongst some of the best releases of 2021.

I have long been a lover of the fun, intriguing and often action-packed genre that is historical fiction, especially as I cut my reviewing teeth primarily on historical fiction novels for several years.  Even now that I review a wider range of novels, this still remains one of my favourite and preferred genres, and I always have an amazing time getting through a compelling historical read.  Last year proved to be an exceptional year for historical fiction, including The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett, The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow and Execution by S. J. Parris, and several historical fiction novels were easily amongst the best books I read in 2020.  Now that we are into 2021, I thought I would take this opportunity to look at three historical fiction releases from some of the leading voices in the genre that are coming out soon.  All three of these upcoming novels have an immense amount of potential and will probably be some of my favourite books of 2021.

A Comedy of Terrors Cover

The first of these books is A Comedy of Terrors, the latest entry in the incredible Flavia Alba series by one of my all-time favourite authors, Lindsey Davis.  Davis is an impressive and exceptional author who has been writing historical murder mysteries for years, first with her long-running Marcus Didius Falco series and then with the sequel Flavia Albia series.  Set in ancient Rome, the Flavia Albia books follows the titular protagonist as she investigates several grisly murders which are often tied to a unique element of the city or Roman history.  I have had an amazing time reading all the Flavia Albia novels over the last several years and I deeply enjoy the cool mix of fantastic mysteries, intriguing historical detail, and some outrageous humour.  All the previous entries in this series (including The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death and The Grove of the Caesars) have been exceptional reads, and every new Flavia Albia novel is an amazing treat in my reading calendar.

Luckily for me, a brand-new Lindsey Davis Flavia Albia is just around the corner with the ninth entry in the series, A Comedy of Terrors, currently set for release on 1 April 2021.  A Comedy of Terrors looks set to be another entertaining historical crime novel with a series of crimes taking place during a rowdy Roman festival.  There is a great synopsis out for this book already, as well as two fantastic looking covers.

Synopsis:

Saturnalia, the Romans’ mid-December feast, nominally to celebrate the sun’s rebirth but invariably a drunken riot. Flavia Albia needs a case to investigate, but all work is paused.

The Aventine is full of fracturing families. Wives plot to leave their husbands, husbands plot to spend more time with their mistresses. Masters must endure slaves taking obscene liberties, while aggressive slaves are learning to ape dangerous masters. But no one wants to hire an investigator during the holiday.

Albia is lumped with her own domestic stress: overexcited children and bilious guests, too many practical jokes, and her magistrate husband Tiberius preoccupied with local strife. He fears a Nut War. Nuts are both the snack and missile of choice of tipsy celebrants, so there is a fortune to be made. This year a hustling gang from the past is horning in on the action.

As the deadly menace strikes even close to home, and with law and order paused for partying, Albia and Tiberius must go it alone. The Emperor has promised the people a spectacular entertainment – but Domitian himself is a target for the old criminals’ new schemes. Can the Undying Sun survive the winter solstice, or will criminal darkness descend upon Rome?

This sounds like it has all the ingredients for an incredible Flavia Albia novel, and I am extremely keen to check it out.  The whole concept of the protagonist attempting to solve crimes during a lawless and chaotic festival with no official law enforcement backup sounds really fun, and having a gang trying to corner the market on festival nuts should be very entertaining.  I am particularly hoping that the author includes another large-scale comical scene, such as has appeared in several of her prior novels, and the whole festival seems like an ideal set up for such an event.  A Comedy of Terrors may also have some intriguing connections to Flavia’s past as the criminal organisation mentioned above possibly relates to an antagonist who kidnapped Flavia as a child (during the Falco book, The Jupiter Myth) and who was hinted to have returned in Pandora’s Boy.  All of this should lead to an entertaining and intense novel for the protagonist, and I look forward to seeing what sort of impressive mystery Davis comes up with this time. 

A Comedy of Terrors Cover 2

The next cool upcoming historical fiction novel that I want to highlight in this article is Crusader by Ben Kane.  Kane is another well-established historical fiction author who is probably best known for his impressive Roman historical fiction books, such as The Forgotten Legion trilogy, the Hannibal series, and The Eagles of Rome series.  Last year, Kane turned his attention to a different period of history with his captivating and exceptional novel, Lionheart, which showcased Richard the Lionheart’s rise from rebellious prince to King of England as seen through the eyes of his loyal squire, Rufus.

Crusader Cover

Crusader will be the second entry in the Lionheart series, and it will follow the newly crowned King as he begins his iconic crusade to the Holy Lands to face off against Saladin.  This second novel, which is currently set for release on 27 April 2021, will have a wide and impressive focus on vast swathes of Richard’s unique history and I look forward to seeing how it all comes together.

Synopsis:

KING
1189. The long-awaited goal of Richard Plantagenet, the Lionheart, comes true as he is crowned King of England. Before he can set off on crusade and retake Jerusalem from the Saracens, he must set his own kingdom in order, and deal with his half-brother Geoffrey and younger brother John, both of whom pose threats to the throne.

POLITICIAN
These matters settled, Richard’s incredible journey to Outremer, the Holy Land, begins. With him at every step is Ferdia, also known as Rufus, his loyal Irish follower. From southern France to Italy they travel, and on to the kingdom of Sicily, ruled by the scheming Tancred. Delayed on the island for military and political reasons, Richard must deal not only with its ruler but also King Philippe of France, his erstwhile ally on the crusade and long-time bitter rival. There is occasion for some levity, however; in Sicily, the king marries Berengaria, daughter of a Spanish king.

WARRIOR
Voyage continuing, he comes into conflict with the ruler of Cyprus, the self-styled emperor Isaac. Richard’s tactical brilliance sees the island fall to the crusaders in a whirlwind campaign. At last he is poised to sail to the Holy Land. There a bitter two-year-long siege awaits his army, at Acre. Waiting for him too, is Saladin, the iconic Saracen leader responsible for the loss of Jerusalem.

CONQUEROR
Triumphant at Acre, Richard must again play politician before the crusade can continue. Philippe of France seeks to thwart him at every turn. No one can agree who should fill the empty throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. When at last the king is able to lead his army south, Saladin’s huge army shadows its every move. In the height of summer, the conditions are brutal, the temperatures boiling. On the dusty field of Arsuf, the Lionheart and his soldiers will face the ultimate test. Battle is inevitable, but victory is not.

This next Lionheart novel sounds pretty damn awesome and it looks like Kane is planning to explore a huge amount of Richard’s life during this book.  Based on what was featured in Lionheart, Crusader will contain all the politics, battles, family drama and betrayals that were in the background of these exciting events, and I am really looking forward to seeing the author’s fascinating take on what happened during this period.  From some pre-released chapters of Crusader, it looks like Kane will also continue the compelling story of Richard’s fictional companion Rufus, who serves as the series’ main point-of-view character.  Rufus was an outstanding protagonist to follow in Lionheart, and it will be interesting to see how his tale continues in Crusader, especially as he is engaged in a deadly rivalry with fellow knight Robert FitzAldelm.  This rivalry was an exciting addition to Lionheart’s plot, and I look forward to seeing it get ramped up in Crusader, especially now that FitzAldelm knows that Rufus murdered his brother.  So far this has been one of the most impressive series to focus on Richard the Lionheart that I have read, and I cannot wait to see where Kane’s outstanding new series goes next.

The final book to be featured is Protector by Conn Iggulden.  Without a doubt, Iggulden is one of the best authors of historical fiction in the world today, having written some spectacular novels across a range of different historical periods.  This includes his epic Emperor series, which explored the life and death of Caesar, his Conqueror series, which followed the creation of Genghis Khan’s empire, his War of the Roses series which catalogued all the insanity that occurred during the titular English civil war and the outstanding standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  All of his previous novels have been truly exceptional reads that showcase the author’s mastery of all things historical.

Protector Cover

His latest body of work is the Athenian series, which charts some of the most significant moments in the history of ancient Athens.  This series started last year with the sensational The Gates of Athens, which focused on the war against the Persians, with this novel examining the origins and outcomes of the battle of Marathon and Thermopylae.  The Gate of Athens was an incredible read that I deeply enjoyed, and I have been eagerly waiting to see how Iggulden would continue the cool story he set up in this first novel.  The second Athenian novel, Protector, will be released on 18 May 2021, and while the official cover is not out yet, the synopsis makes it clear that this upcoming book will feature some fascinating battles and conflicts.

Synopsis:

TWO LEGENDARY BATTLES.
ONE FEARLESS WARRIOR . . .

THE BATTLE OF SALAMIS
Persian King Xerxes stands over the smoking ruins of Athens, an army of slaves at his back. Come to destroy, once and for all, everything that the city stands for, he stares pitilessly at the hopelessly outnumbered Greeks.

Veteran soldier Themistocles cannot push the Persians back by force on land, and so he so does so by stealth, at sea. Over three long days, the greatest naval battle of the ancient world will unfold, a bloody war between the democracy of Athens and the tyranny of Persia.

THE BATTLE OF PLATAEA
Less than a year later, the Persian return to reconquer the Greeks. Tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides ready themselves for war. For the Spartans, Plataea is chance to avenge their defeat at Thermopylae. For the people of Athens, threatened on all sides, nothing less than the survival of democracy is at stake. And once again Themistocles, the hero of Salamis, will risk everything – his honour, his friendships, even his life – to protect his country.

Protector looks set to be an exciting and captivating read that will continue to explore some of the most fascinating periods of Greek history.  It looks like each of the novels in the Athenian series will focus on two battles, in this case the battles of Salamis and Plataea, and Protector will no doubt contain Iggulden’s trademark deep dive into the intriguing history behind both epic conflicts.  The previous entry in the series, The Gates of Athens, contained an impressive examination of the politics, key events and preparation each side did before the battle, as well as the impacts the battles had on both nations, and I think we can expect the same for Protector.  I am deeply excited to find out more about each of these battles and I cannot wait to see the background battles for supremacy that occurred between some of the leading men of Athens.  This novel has so much potential to be incredible, and I know that I am going to get through this novel extremely quickly.

As you can see above, 2021 is looking extremely awesome on the historical fiction front.  All three of novels featured in this article are going to be absolutely incredible and, based on my prior experiences with each of these amazing authors, they all have the potential to easily receive a five-star rating from me.  It is already certain that I am going to love all three of these cool books and I am extremely keen to read them as soon as possible.

Lionheart by Ben Kane

Lionheart Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 14 May 2020)

Series: Lionheart – Book One

Length: 381 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Honour, glory, loyalty and war! Bestselling historical fiction author Ben Kane takes the reader on a medieval adventure alongside a young King Richard the Lionheart, with his latest epic novel, Lionheart.

I have been on a real roll with some great historical fiction novels in the last couple of weeks, having absolutely loved The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis and The Viennese Girl by Jenny Lecoat, so when I got a copy of Lionheart by Ben Kane I jumped at the chance to read it. Ben Kane is one of the top historical fiction authors at the moment, having produced a number of fantastic books set in ancient Rome, including The Forgotten Legion trilogy, the Hannibal series and the Eagles of Rome series. I have read several of Kane’s previous novels, and I have always found them to be exciting and compelling books with loads of historical detail. This latest release, Lionheart, is Kane’s first novel that does not involve Rome in any way whatsoever, and it acts as the start of a brand new series that will follow the life of one of England’s most iconic kings.

England, 1179. Henry II rules a vast empire, made up of England, Wales, Ireland, Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine, controlling all with an iron fist, with his only blind spot being his four rebellious sons. Ferdia is minor Irish nobleman, taken as a hostage by the English to ensure his rebellious family’s cooperation and loyalty. Given the name Rufus by his captors, he spends years languishing in an English castle, before a chance encounter with Henry’s second oldest son, Richard, will change everything.

Managing to save Richard’s life, Rufus is taken in as his squire. Drawn to the prince’s natural charisma, bravery and dedication to his men, Rufus gladly swears his loyalty to Richard, and boldly follows him to war as he attempts to subdue the rebellious lords of Aquitaine. The battles and sieges that follow will make Richard’s reputation as a warrior and leader, and Rufus is able to prove his worth beside him, despite the actions of his bitter rival Robert FitzAldelm.

However, while Richard seeks honour and glory in Aquitaine, his ambitious brothers grow jealous of his success and begin to plot against him. Lending their support to the rebels, their actions lead to a crisis that could split the kingdom in two and deliver it to the King of France. As Richard finds himself surrounded by traitors and plotters, he makes his own bid for the throne. It is time for the Lionheart to rise?

Lionheart turned out to be an amazing and exhilarating book that combines intriguing moments from history with a compelling and action-packed tale of honour, loyalty and desire for power. Kane crafts together an impressive and exciting narrative that follows the early life of King Richard the Lionheart as he fights in some of his earliest battles and deals with the various members of his family. The story is primarily told from the point of view of the fictional character Rufus, as he follows Richard through his various adventures. Not only does this allow the reader to see some of the key events of Richard’s life, but it also provides an intriguing central narrative around Rufus, as he attempts to find his place in the world after being taken from his family, while also battling his ruthless opponent, Robert FitzAldelm, another fictional character, who serves as a wonderful foil to the protagonist. Lionheart’s story contained an excellent blend of action, intrigue, compelling historical elements and fantastic interactions between the various characters, which makes it extremely easy to get lost in this book.

The absolute highlight of this novel has to be the enjoyable historical backdrop of Richard’s life that the entire story is set to. Lionheart takes place between 1179 and 1189, which is a really intriguing period of history. The book does not examine Richard and his brothers’ joint rebellion against their father (although it is mentioned several times), but it does focus on the turbulent familiar battles between Richard and his family. During this period, Richard had to put down an extended rebellion in Aquitaine, fighting first against the plots of his brothers and later against the whims of his reluctant father as he attempts to win the throne. Kane does an outstanding job exploring all these chaotic historical events in great detail, and it was extremely fascinating to learn about all the battles and politics that occurred. It also ensures that the book’s plot, which was set all around these events, proved to be rather exciting, as the protagonist watches Richard weave through all the battles and political intrigue. I also have to say that I was impressed with the shear amount of historical detail that Kane installed into every aspect of the plot. Not only has the author made use of a vast cast of historical figures throughout the story (helpfully recorded in a character list at the front of the book), but every line of this book is filled with details about period culture, dress, day-to-day life, battle and the life of a squire and knight. Kane has clearly done an incredible amount of research for this book, and I really loved the authenticity that this added to the story, making for a story that is both captivating and enlightening, just like all great historical fiction novels should be.

Another great aspect of the story is the way that Kane also spent time exploring the life of William Marshal. Marshal, a real-life historical figure of some significance, serves as the book’s secondary point-of-view character, and a number of chapters are told from his perspective (in the third person, rather than the first-person perspective used for all of Rufus’s chapters). This proves to be a clever move on Kane’s part for a number of reasons; primarily because William Marshal is such an absolutely fascinating person. Marshal was a successful and well-known knight, famous for his loyalty, honour and martial prowess, and he was widely considered the pinnacle of knightly virtue in Europe at the time. Kane spends a lot of time exploring the character of Marshal and portrays him in a more ruthless and opportunistic light, which worked rather well for this realistic and compelling story. Marshal is also an incredible useful point-of-view character, as for the entirety of this book he was either in the service of one of Richard’s brothers or his father the king. This provided the reader with a viewpoint into the camp of Richard’s political opponents, which added to the tension of the story, as the reader became privy to information that the protagonists did not know. In addition, it also allowed for an intriguing contrast between Richard and the other members of his family, as Marshal considered the deficits of his lords against those of Richard, who he held a great respect for. Marshal also finds his loyalty tested several times, as his master’s plots threaten to weaken the kingdom, and he must decide whether it is more dishonourable to disobey his liege or to allow them to act unopposed in their own worst interests. I am extremely glad that Kane decided to use Marshal as a secondary protagonist, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future books.

I also have to mention all the awesome action sequences that Kane fits in throughout Lionheart. Due to the historical circumstances in which this book is set, there are a large number of battles, fights and sieges, which our protagonist often finds himself in the middle of. I really enjoyed seeing all the cool fight sequences that occurred throughout the plot and Kane has a real flair for historical action scenes, bringing them to live in exciting detail. Definitely a great book for those lovers of medieval battles and fights, this book is guaranteed to slake anyone’s desire for action and adventure.

Lionheart is an excellent new novel from Ben Kane, who thrives in a non-Roman history setting by bring together an impressive story about a young Richard the Lionheart. I had an amazing time reading this book, and I loved the exciting narrative and the fascinating historical elements. Lionheart serves as an awesome first book in a new series from Kane, and the second novel, tentatively titled Lionheart: Crusade, should prove to be a brilliant read for next year. Until then, Lionheart comes highly recommended, and is really worth checking out.