Defender of Jerusalem

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Defender of Jerusalem, by Helena P. Schrader, is the second book in the Balian D’Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem series, and was Book of the Day on February 2, 2017. This is an outstanding piece of historical fiction, which I can highly recommend for adults and teens who have an interest in the Crusades period.

The novel is the second in a series – the first book relates Balian’s arrival in Jerusalem, the establishment of his place in the court, and establishes his relationship with the prince who later becomes king. In Defender of Jerusalem, Balian’s story further unfolds, with excruciating detail paid to the events of the era, the machinations not only of war but of period politics, and the relationships between members of the court with each other, with servants, slaves, enemies, those of the same faith, those of different sects, and those of other faiths and cultures.

As both an educator and a reader, I have particular appreciation for the notes at the end of the book. Here, the author explains her approach to the format of historical novel: All the events take place as described. The task she set for herself was to weave a story through these threads of occurrences and happening, to bring to life the real people behind the actual events recorded in history.

DOJ LargeMs. Schrader has done a masterful job with her task. To be honest, I was prepared for a reading of drudgery, after reading other reviews – including positive ones. It just seemed difficult to imagine actually enjoying a story set so far in an archaic past, particularly with the attention paid to the battles. On the contrary, I was more than a little surprised to find myself swept up in the story nearly from the start, and feeling empathetic not only to the protagonist and his supporters, but also for those who were officially on the same side (of the crusades, at least), but working with great efforts directed at political machinations in opposition. Ms. Schrader demonstrates a gift for making these people, who really lived, so many hundreds of years ago, come alive and be relatable, all while honoring, factually and accurately, the actual historical events around which her narrative is woven.

I was more than a little tickled to discover that Ms. Schrader is the writer of quite a few works of historical fiction… and in my explorations online, came across this page: Defender of Jerusalem, an absolute treasure trove of reference material for the period and culture during the life of Balian d’Ibelin. With categories covering the riles of women, arts and the economy, general society and more, I urge you to check it out and utilize it as a valued learning resource.

Now… before you rush out and grab, order, or download a copy – or plan it into your tenth grader’s history reading next year – there is a caveat I want to share. While Defender of Jerusalem is an engrossing story with great merit, it is not a particularly easy read, and, at more than 600 pages, it is long. If your student (or you) are fascinated by the Crusades and the surrounding culture and history, by all means, get the book. I believe such a read will find any extra effort that is required to read the book well worth it. However, if you have a reluctant reader, assigning this book may backfire. And, unfortunately, the book is not available for Audible. In such a case, I have a few suggestions:

  • Read the book as a read aloud. For the past year, my pre-teen and teen sons and I have been reading aloud, round-robin style, our history text for the year. Our book (a different title) is also quite a bit “above” their reading level; however, reading as a group has led to many opportunities to explore new vocabulary, to answer questions as they arise, and to have spirited discussions on the content read that day. Such an approach, combined with the mesmerizing tale of the novel, has great potential for success.
  • If you have a Kindle Fire, a reluctant reader could take advantage of the Text-to-Speech function, which is enabled in this title. If you aren’t familiar with this, basically speaking, Alexa reads to you. (You do not need to own an Alexa device, the function is a feature of the Kindle Fire.) I generally try this with every Kindle book I get; Alexa does not always allow for context (she regularly reads b-o-w as the knot tied in ribbon rather than the gesture of bending at the waist), and she makes a real butchery of the names in Star Trek novels. but the text in Defender of Jerusalem has translated quite nicely in this feature, and I have enjoyed the times I have listened to the next section of the book while washing dishes or preparing a meal.
  • Consider having your reluctant reader begin with book one of the series,  Knight of Jerusalem. While I found that Defender of Jerusalem works very well as a stand alone story, the shorter (at 317 pages) and introductory novel may be less intimidating, and get your reader invested enough into the characters to willingly read the longer second novel in the series.

Defender of Jerusalem is available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback format.