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Monday, October 1, 2018

"Rebels against Tyranny" - A Review by Chanticleer Reviews

“A romantic and intricate historical fiction that will entrance - sometimes enrage – but always enlighten readers. Welcome to the 13th century where things aren’t really as different as you may imagine.” – Chanticleer Reviews

Helena P. Schrader lays a beautifully intricate historical fiction at our feet and invites us to feast upon it. Much like her previous novels, Rebels Against Tyranny will not disappoint. And like her previous novels, she supplies the key: See Reviewer’s Note*

Time and place are the essence of Rebels Against Tyranny. While July 14th may commemorate the storming of the Bastille to protest the French monarchy's abuse of power, a momentous event occurred on July 14, 1229, on the island of Cyprus, one that also involved an uprising of people against despotic authority.

The despot was Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, a man with more titles than morals. Unfortunately, he was also the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of the Germans, the King of Sicily and the King of Jerusalem (a title he illegally usurped after marriage to the Kingdom's twelve-year-old heiress), and as if these titles were not enough, he refers to himself as, "Wonder of the World." No, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen did not hold a title in modesty! **

Those rebelling against Frederick the II were his own barons, disgusted and fed up with tax increases, property seizures, required oaths of loyalty, replacement of "baillies" (regents of young rulers), and the general mayhem his men wreaked in Jerusalem and Cyprus. Leading the rebellion was the highly cultured, intellectual, respected and well-connected Ibelin family.

Balian d'Ibelin is the grandson of the "Defender of Jerusalem," a title justly granted to a man who expertly negotiated with Saladin to limit the losses of the Christians following the critical Battle of Hattin. Schrader juxtaposes this chapter of diplomatic history with Frederick's self-serving negotiations to "buy" Jerusalem for the Christians through a treaty that will last only ten years. His wish to avoid battles but reap accolades confirms his narcissism and intellectual failure to consider long-term strategies. It's no wonder that Frederick especially loathes the tall, handsome Balian d'Ibelin and his many highly esteemed relatives. The dynamic jousting between such different personalities supplies much of the novel's drama, and it's made even more colorful with actual jousting scenes and gripping descriptions of epic battles in which horses were every bit as important as their riders. 

Medieval women weren't on the battlefield, but different sorts of battles characterized their lives. Our leading lady, Eschiva de Montbeliard, a cousin of young King Henry I of Cyprus, finds solace in illuminating scriptures, a skill that speaks to her privileged background. But her privileged background will not save her from a loveless marriage.

The Montbeliards and Ibelins are related and have often been rivals. That makes the blossoming romance between Esciva and Balian, cousins, a bit scandalous, but the reader is treated to a love story that incorporates the medieval code of chivalry in splendid fashion.

Although the reader feels completely swept away to the 13th century, Schrader motivates one to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The use and abuse of power has characterized political history since the dawn of civilization. A ruler's circle of advisers has serious influence, beneficial or detrimental, on the running of a state. The tug and pull of centralized authority versus the distribution of power will no doubt be debated for the duration of time itself. Helena P. Schrader has full knowledge of these complexities and explores them in this riveting tale of tyranny and rebellion.       

* Reviewer’s Note: Readers familiar with Helena P. Schrader's historical fiction are aware that her novels are the result of monumental and meticulous research. The superb scholarship that characterizes her other Crusades-related novels (Knight of Jerusalem, Defender of Jerusalem, Envoy of Jerusalem, and The Last Crusader Kingdom) also enriches her deeply engrossing novel, Rebels Against Tyranny, Civil War in the Crusader States. 

Before immersing yourself in this fascinating account of the baronial rebellion against Frederick II of Hohenstaufen during the thirteenth century, take time to familiarize yourself with the enormously helpful accompanying materials Schrader provides, including genealogical charts of royal and baronial houses and maps of Cyprus and Outremer at the outset of the 13th century. 

Schrader also gives a detailed list of characters and a glossary that provides fascinating definitions of words used during the Middle Ages (for starters, a "garderobes" was a toilet and "Greek Fire" was an incendiary weapon placed in crockery and catapulted).  Finally, the author shares voluminous information in her historical notes, letting us know the exact sources she consulted when considering character traits of historic people, as well as the decisions she made when sources conflicted. The result is that the reader not only enjoys a wonderfully adventurous account of knights and battles, but also learns a hugely satisfying amount of medieval history and politics.  

** Indeed, Schrader notes that one purpose of her book is to set the record straight on Frederick. Some historians have labeled him a "genius" and a man of "exceptional tolerance," but these mischaracterizations are revisionist history that arose from "centuries of popular approval of absolutism" and the habit of some German scholars exalting a royal forebear. 


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