Monday, July 26, 2010

Shadow of the Swords

Few will argue the old cliché that there are “two sides to every story,” or that truth requires consideration of both sides, especially when it comes to the study of written history. The tendency of history textbooks to present only one point-of-view brings to mind the famous Winston Churchill quote, “History is written by the victors.” But the “victors,” unfortunately, tell us only what they want us to know, and the losers generally have lost their right to argue the point.

Kamran Pasha’s Shadow of the Swords is an opportunity for Western readers to look at the bloody Third Crusade of the late twelfth century through the eyes of Saladin, commander of the Muslim forces in Palestine at the time of Richard the Lionheart’s invasion of the region. Note, however, that portions of the book are written from Richard’s point-of-view, although Saladin’s character remains the most influential one throughout the book.

Most intriguingly, at the time of Richard’s quest to recover the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslim “infidels,” the relative strengths and weaknesses of the European and Muslim worlds were near opposites of what they are today. The twelfth century Muslim world was well ahead of its European counterpart in the areas of science, mathematics, medicine, government and weaponry. Despite this, Europeans generally considered Muslims to be little more than barbaric infidels with no right to occupy the Holy Land, especially the city of Jerusalem. As Saladin and his people saw it, Richard the Lionheart was the terrorist of his day, leader of an army seeking to destroy Muslim and Jew, alike, in the name of Christianity. More than 800 years later, the roles and positions of the two cultures have largely reversed.

Just three years before, Saladin had successfully rid Jerusalem of the Christian army that had controlled it for so long. Now, while Saladin continues to fight remnants of that army along the coast, Jerusalem is a peaceful city within which people of all faiths live and work in relative harmony. Saladin, a bit surprised at how quickly the Europeans have been able to place such a large army in Palestine to challenge him, realizes that he and his people are faced again with a war that might very well change the course of history. This fight, though, is as much about Saladin vs. Richard the Lionheart as it is about huge conflicting armies and religious differences.

Pasha uses a combination of historical and fictional characters to tell his story. And his fictional characters are so vividly painted, and his historical ones so well fleshed, that it can be difficult for the reader to remember which are real and which are made up. Pasha, very helpfully, explains which are which in an attachment to the end of the book that also puts much of the story into its historical context. Shadow of the Swords is eye-opening historical fiction cloaked in a love story involving Miriam, the niece of Saladin’s Jewish advisor and doctor, Maimonides. Fate gives Miriam a chance to charm both leaders and she makes the most of her opportunity, eagerly playing the spy on Saladin’s behalf. The inclusion of a fictional character like Miriam allows Pasha to create more complete personalities for Saladin and Richard so that there is a very personal aspect to their clash as the two men meet on the biggest world stage of their day.

Readers may find this one to be a little bit of a slow-starter (and some may, perhaps, even be a little put off at first by the point-of-view from which it is written). Do not, however, give up on this one too early; if you do, you are going to miss out on one heck of an adventure and a very painless history lesson.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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