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Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Road from the West" -- A Review

Rosanne Lortz’s “Road from the West” is a well-researched and, on the whole, realistic portrayal of the First Crusade seen through Norman eyes. While it does not white-wash the crusaders or their actions, it does not turn them into monsters either. Indeed, this book makes no attempt at political correctness, and so it is not laden with anachronistic values and perspectives. Instead, the absence of moralizing lends the book a refreshing authenticity.

Like all “road” books, the plot is determined mostly by the progress made, the milestones of the First Crusade itself, but Lortz has done an excellent job of enlivening and rounding out her story by adding characters with slightly different perspectives, such as the camp-follower Alexandra and the priest Bernard.  I particularly liked the inclusion of Alexandra because, as Lortz points out in her Author’s Note, there were in fact thousands of women in Alexandra’s shoes, following along behind the crusaders and suffering with them.

Nevertheless, I thought Lortz was at her strongest in her portrayal of Bohemond and Ademar, two historical figures that she brings effectively to life. I especially liked the relationship she developed between Bohemond and Tancred, while Tancred himself is a strong protagonist throughout most of the novel. I certainly disagree with other reviewers, who object to Lortz inventing Tancred’s motives. The evidence that he was “sadistic” or homosexual is dubious at best, and Lortz is completely within her rights as an author to portray him in a more positive light as long as she sticks to the known facts — which she does.

Yet for all its strengths, this novel is flawed by the introduction of not one but two Muslim women in fantastical (not historical) circumstances. The second encounter is so absurd as to be nothing short of operatic.  Suddenly the sense of reading serious historical fiction was shattered. Within one chapter, the reader was catapulted into a cheap romance with (of course! stunningly beautiful yet exceptionally courageous) female characters behaving in ways unthinkable for their culture and period. A very disappointing end for an initially promising historical biography.

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