If you enjoyed Jonathan Phillips' treatment of the Fourth Crusade ("The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople") and you expect more of the same from his treatment of the Second Crusade, prepare to be disappointed.
Phillips' book on the Fourth Crusade was (and still is) one of my most treasured history books. The narrative was engaging and the characters were memorable (who can forget the venerable, charismatic doge of Venice?). It was high drama. It was narrative history in top form. The same, sadly, cannot be said of Phillip's latest book on the crusades: "The Second Crusade: Extending the Frontiers of Christendom."
In a nutshell, this book did not fulfill my expectations-- expectations which had been established by reading Phillips' previous Crusades book. Phillips' wrote engaging narrative history in "The Fourth Crusade," and I expected a similar tone and treatment in his book on the Second Crusade. Unfortunately, "The Second Crusade" is not what I expected. I would not call it "narrative history." Rather, I would label it "scholarly history": there is much less emphasis on telling the story of the Second Crusade, and far greater emphasis on examining sources, dissecting speeches and charters, and, in the end, writing more *about* the story rather than just telling the story.
Phillips' "The Second Crusade" commits the heartbreaking crime of turning what could have been a fascinating story into nothing more than a list of names, places, dates, and events. It is all the more agonizing because Phillips' previous book on the Fourth Crusade was the epitome of great narrative history. What happened to that great writing? Why the drastic change in tone from "narrative" to "scholarly"? Only Phillips has the answers.
I gave this book 3 stars because, despite all of its narrative shortcomings, Phillips clearly conducted exceptional and groundbreaking research to compose this book. And, in the end, I did walk away with firm understanding of the Second Crusade-- an event that I never really understood before, despite reading many other books on the Crusades. Disappointingly, I had to wade through the muck and mire of sloggish "scholarly" writing to gain that understanding. The book received 3 stars (rather than 2) because there does exist a stretch of 60 pages (concerning the failed siege of Damascus) that revives the lively narrative style of Phillips' book on the Fourth Crusade. It feels like a breath of cool, fresh air after being stuck in 200 pages of steaming desert. This may sound like harsh criticism, but it's just my honest, personal appraisal.
In the end, all the facts are present in this book, but the dramatic narrative that makes history so fascinating is not. If you want a scholarly analysis of the Second Crusade, buy this book. An academic approach to historical writing is a necessary and respectable enterprise. But if you are looking for captivating narrative history, skip this book.