To open BRETHREN is to become trapped. From the beautiful excerpt of THE BOOK OF THE GRAIL in the Prologue, to the barbaric grandeur of the Mamluk-Mongol clash in Ayn Jalut in Chapter One, to the chase and murder in Saint-Martin's Gate of Paris in Chapter Two, Robyn Young's debut novel will ensnare you and will not let go until the final page is turned. As a work of historical fiction, it succeeds in being both an educational read and one that simply bears a very compelling story.
Will Campbell is a young man who is sworn to the Temple and eagerly wants to be knighted. He and his friend, Garin, who tend to find themselves in more trouble than they should, each follow a rough path toward knighthood. Will's father has gone to the Holy Land and is raised and mastered by Owein, who is tough but fair. Garin is mastered by Jacques, who is tough and seems to hold to the belief that to spare the rod is to spoil the child.
Jacques and Owein grow more concerned when they learn that the Book of the Grail has been stolen. Within that tome lies secrets that could unravel all that the Templars have worked for and expose something they've hidden that could change the world itself. Of equal concern is the movement of the Mamluk army of Kutuz, who has successfully defeated the Mongols and driven them back from the Holy Land. The need for a new Crusade is growing more obvious, yet the one thing standing in their way is dwindling coffers. King Henry III has been borrowing from the Templars but has yet to repay.
Yet all of our concern is not for Will and the defenders of Christianity. Young deftly shifts the viewpoint to that of Baybars and the Mamluk army and gives us insight into their motion, their motives and their own problems. Baybars, a victorious general for Kutuz, is angered when he is denied a requested reward for his service. Paying off members of the army, Baybars assassinates Kutuz and proclaims himself Sultan. This done, he turns his attention toward the remaining Christian strongholds in the Holy Land and begins to undo years of tentative peace.
That Young can so easily maneuver readers from one army and one view to the next without pulling them out of the story is a great testament to her ability as a storyteller. Her characters, those of historical fact and those of her own design, are so perfectly crafted and so unique in presentation that they seem to act out on the page instead of being mere words strung together. Following Will on his quest to achieve his knighthood --- including his failures, his anguish, and his friendships with Garin and Elwin --- is intensely personal, and being able to connect with him, which is vital, is an easy success. Baybars, as the enemy of the Christians and the murderer of his own Sultan, does not come across as a mere cookie-cutter villain. He is a fully developed character, and while we would love to hate him, we come to understand his views and his desire as the story is told from his side. While we may not agree with him or his ideology, it makes us less able to hate.
In a historical novel of such epic scope as this, one would fear falling into the trap of being buried beneath a tidal wave of facts. Another great credit to Young is the strength of her narrative, which continues to read at a quick and heart rate-inducing pace; while giving historical knowledge it does not do so at the expense of advancing her chosen story. There are some moments of an overload of information. One in particular takes place during a conversation between Jacques and Hasan, where conversation is used as historical bookending to make a point, but the comments Jacques makes would not need to be done were the two engaged in true conversation. It is information Hasan would no doubt have known. Readers do gain information but it seems dumped upon us in that moment. These moments are extremely few and easily can be forgiven considering the strength of the remainder of the work.
Approximately 12 years pass over the course of BRETHREN, incorporating the time up to and including the Ninth and final Crusade. The majesty, brutality and romanticism of that time are so beautifully painted on the page that it is often difficult to separate the fact from the fiction, and we as readers are dropped into the very center of history to experience the events from within. A last acknowledgment to the quality of BRETHREN is in its power to encourage investigation. While engrossed in the book, it came as no surprise to find time also being spent in reading up on the Ninth Crusade over coffee, broadening the knowledge of the time, widening the canvas Young began painting, and giving a fuller appreciation for all she accomplished in putting together this incredible tale.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on December 23, 2010