Thursday, June 1, 2017
Review: "The Holy Lance" by Andrew Latham
This is a book that (finally!) describes Templars as they really were: devout Catholic fighting men, rather than as fantasy creatures and costumed, modern myths. Andrew Latham has with this comparatively short, action-packed book done the much-maligned Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem a worthy service by pulling them out of the realm of mystery and romance and putting back into a historical context and perspective.
The book does not attempt to paint a panorama of the Third Crusade much less the Holy Land at the end of the 12th century. Instead, it follows a single Templar troop (or banner, as Latham calls it) on a fictional but completely plausible mission to try to recover from deep inside enemy territory a controversial relic found during the First Crusade, the “Holy Lance,” i.e the lance that pierced Christ’s side before the crucifixion.
Historically, this relic discovered by a priest in Antioch inspired the Christians of the First Crusade, who were besieged in Antioch and suffering intense privation at the time, to successfully sortie out against the numerically superior enemy. Within the first decade after the establishment of the crusader states, however, the Holy Lance had been discredited and replaced by the True Cross as the most holy relic of Christendom. At the time of this novel, July/August 1191, the True Cross had been captured by the Saracens at the disastrous Battle of Hattin, and the crusader states reduced to the cities of Tyre, Tripoli and Antioch. It is completely plausible, therefore, that Richard the Lionheart and other Christian leaders would remember the Holy Lance and want to secure possession of it. A relic, even a dubious relic, would have been kept in a monastery, and every part of former Kingdom of Jerusalem except the above named cities was under nominal Saracen control, the recovery of the relic would inherently have entailed crossing into enemy controlled territory.
Based on this plausible mission into enemy-held territory, Latham has built a great war-story similar in structure to “Saving Private Ryan” about a small band of men on a dangerous mission with a guide of uncertain trustworthiness and unexpected enemies in their own ranks. Latham keeps his story focused and moving, with completely realistic situations and challenges, never once falling into the temptation of fantasy, legend or romance. His characters are fighting men: some of them mercenaries, others former mercenaries. They can be violent and brutal, but they remain men (not monsters) and they are grounded firmly in the 12th century, with 12 century motives and beliefs.
Latham is a master of suspense, not so much in the overall plot as in his ability to tease out each new danger and make the reader really sweat it out with the protagonists. The way time gets stretched to unbearable infinity when one is in danger or approaching danger is brilliantly conveyed. The dialogue is also convincing and comfortable, with neither unnecessary anachronisms that shatter the sense of time and place nor with stilted, artificially old-fashioned speech. The use of Latin is excellent as an anchor to the period, but always translated so the reader is not left feeling like the author is talking down to him. The descriptions of equipment, landscapes, clothing etc. reflect the author’s meticulous research, and this is by far the best description of Templar daily routines I have ever seen in a work of fiction. I particularly liked the fact that Lathum has given the Turcopoles and Sergeants of the Knight’s Templar a significant role, reflective of their significance in historical Order but almost always ignored in works of fiction that feature the Templars.
My only quibble with the book is the exaggeratedly negative portrayal of Conrad de Montferrat. Although this has become commonplace and Lathum's plot needed an antagonist, Lathum's Montferrat is more a caricature villain than a nuanced historical figure.