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Book Review: The Iron Lance by Stephen R. Lawhead

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"How long could it take to liberate the Holy Land from the slack grasp of a few Arabs?"

I wasn't very far into Stephen R. Lawhead's The Iron Lance before things started to feel a little familiar. The irony, of course, is that the book was written in 1998, well before our current Middle East debacle.

Book I of the Celtic Crusades trilogy, The Iron Lance opens as the kings and princes of Western Europe answer the church's call to go on crusade to the Holy Land. The book is deep in historical fiction, but not weighed down by the past. It does not, for instance, spend much time pondering the motives of Pope Urban II, the instigator of the first crusade. Instead, Lawhead weaves a three-part narrative that is enthralling and thought-provoking, especially from a current perspective.

The central story revolves around Murdo Ranulfson, a teenager from the Orkney Islands in Scotland. His father and brothers take the cross and head for Jerusalem, leaving Murdo behind to tend the farm and his mother. It's not long, however, before Vikings (who are being manipulated by the greedy local bishop) arrive and take possession of the land, leaving the wee Scot out in the cold. With little else to do, the young protagonist follows the crusaders, aiming to bring his father home and reclaim their family's land.

Lawhead makes a canny choice here in keeping Murdo from taking the crusader's oath. Even though he wants to, his father forbids it on the grounds of Murdo's age. Thus, when Murdo finally catches up with the crusade, he is able to bear witness to the gruesome violence without taking part. The reader isn't forced into any ambivalence over the character because he is merely an observer, a reader surrogate even, to the vile atrocities perpetrated by Western knights during the sack of Jerusalem. It is worth noting that the author minces no words when describing the slaughter. I found the chapters set in Jerusalem especially difficult to read, so much so that I actually questioned the necessity of some parts.

The second strand of the story focuses on the Byzantine emperor Alexius and his dealings with the Western lords who lead the crusade. For the better part of the book, I actually thought this was the more interesting narrative, and was sad to see the "Emperor of All Christendom" leave the stage. Lawhead's sympathies for the Eastern half of the Christian world are pretty clear through these chapters (well, that and he wrote a book in 1996 called Byzantium).

Alexius is a skilled general, warrior and administrator. He deftly manipulates the Western lords into swearing fealty to him and guaranteeing his control over any cities they might conquer. At the same time, he is the lord of a city and empire who is forced to grant passage to a gargantuan pilgrim army, most of them angry and hungry by the time they reach Alexius's gates. In his efforts to find food and lodging for these invaders, while still protecting his subjects, there is a real humanity in the emperor, which I found endearing.

The third and final side of the novel is the most curious, the most unresolved, and the occupant of the least space. On occasion the narrative will switch from third person in the late eleventh century to a first person in the late nineteenth. The narrator, one Gordon Murray of Edinburgh, Scotland, is the member of a secret society. In the first chapter of the novel, he undergoes a ritual which leaves him seeing visions. While it seemed unclear, I think the reader is supposed to understand that the visions are in fact the other two strands of story, and Murray is writing them down.

Exactly what society is involved and the nature of Murray's role in it remains shrouded throughout. The whole thing strikes me as Templaresque, especially given the crusade, but the name is never actually said. In the end, there is much the reader still doesn't know, which I hope is answered in the following books, The Black Rood and The Mystic Rose. There is hint that what has come before will be relevant on Murray's present, as he says "Our long, lonely vigil is drawing to an end …. The Day of Reckoning is upon us! That which exists will not long endure."

At 630 pages in paperback, the book was a fair undertaking, to be sure. Nevertheless, I was totally mesmerized by the quality of characters Lawhead creates, both in his major and minor players. As noted, aside from the Jerusalem chapters (which focus more on events than characters), I was thoroughly entertained. For more information on either The Iron Lance or Stephen R. Lawhead, check out his website.

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