Unlike a number of other reviewers perhaps, this is the first book I have read from Michael Jecks. The point here is that I am not influenced or prejudiced - either way - by having read the previous thirty or so that he has written about the adventures of Baldwin. I simply do not know what they are about. This book, however, has made me want to read about them.
I hesitated to buy this book, partly because this is not exactly the first novel about a young warrior at the siege and fall of Acre, and partly because I was afraid that it could not be read separately from all the others in the series. I shouldn't have worried. The author mentioned that he wanted to write about Acre and its final battle for a change, and, in doing this, he has certainly been successful.
The author has obviously researched his topic extensively. He also excels in catching the atmosphere of terror and horror during the siege, showing how terrible it must have been to be subject to the unrelenting pounding of about a hundred of war machines. He is also very good at capturing the sheer savagery of hand to hand combat and the sense of exhaustion and hollow relief of those that are survived the latest bout of fighting.
Two more excellent features were the author's ability to show Acre as a multicultural and multi-ethnic city based on trade, and the deep divisions that this entailed among its constituent parts. These divisions had led to various bouts of civil war in the recent past, with, as well shown at the beginning of the book, Genoese fighting against Venetians and Pisans on the seas even when all sailed for Acre.
I was a bit less taken in by some of the author's other interpretations. In particular, I found at times that he had a bit "overdone" the role of the Templars, as the real Guillaume de Beaujeu (the Order's Grand master) shown here as the voice of reason and a paragon of knightly duty, was not above intrigue. His and his Order's exact role in the fall of Tripoli a couple of years before was not entirely clear as they had been among the ones to pull out, possibly before all was lost, although they were not the first ones (they only pulled out after the Venetians had done so). They did not pull out early at Acre - quite the opposite in fact - but whether this was because they wanted to protect the people or whether it was because neither their Grand Master (who had been killed) not their Marshal was there to organize the evacuation remains unknown. The author has chosen the more "noble" interpretation here.
What is also clear from the book is that both the troops of the King of Cyprus and Jerusalem and those of Otto of Grandson (and the French Regiment that had been garrisoning Acre since 1254, and whose role the author tends to minimize) sought to save themselves once they saw that the walls could no longer be held and that the city was lost. While perhaps understandable in the case of the King, it was neither very chivalric nor exactly glorious, however much the author might want to show Otto in a good light. Both the Genoese, before all others, and the Venetians and Pisans, are shown as eager to empty their warehouses and save their goods rather than the population of Acre. This is certainly true of the Genoese, which did leave the siege before the end, and whose main base had anyway been Tripoli, not Acre. It is perhaps less the case for the Venetians. This was not because they were any better but simply because they had more to lose, as Acre was key to the Venetians.
Then you have the fictional characters themselves, most of which are very plausible and good, including Jacques of Ivry and Ivo, in particular. The portrait of Roger de Flor, who would become the leader of the Catalan company of mercenaries about a decade later, is mostly accurate. He did fight bravely on the walls and did behave as despicably as he did when the city fell. He does not seem, however, to have broken the truce and attacked and massacred Muslim merchants and caravans to rob them for his sole profit, although he would certainly be capable of something like this. Here it seems that th author has attributed to Roger the Flor a behaviour that was borrowed from Renaud de Chatillon, Prince of Outrejourdain and Lord of Kerak) a bit more than a hundred years before.
I was less impressed with Maria of Lydda, on one hand, and her servant Lucia (strange name for a Muslim, by the way) largely because I felt that the author had "laid it on a bit thick", with the first being an "arch-villain" which resorts to violence and torture where there seems to be no real need for either. Another little grip here is that I felt that our hero Baldwin who starts out as a naïve, ignorant and idealistic fool becomes a bit too quickly a somewhat jaded "veteran". Granted, it took him about a year, but the transition felt a bit rushed to me, maybe because he was made to be a bit too naïve at the start.
Having mentioned all of my little quibbles (here's one more: there really was a Mamluk Emir called Abu al-Fida at Acre, but he was neither an ex-merchant nor an expert in siege engines, and he actually wrote an account of the siege, but never mind), I must admit three things:
- First, this was a superb romp and a rather wonderful read - one of those page-turners that you simply cannot drop before the last page
- Second, this is exactly what I did: I was unable to drop it until the end and read it in less than 48 hours
- Third, not only do I warmly recommend this book for anyone wanting to read a superb "swords and scimitars" book, but it has also made me want to get hold of and read the thirty or so previous books from this author on Baldwin.
So, while perhaps not quite "perfect", this one is certainly worth a solid four stars from me.