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Book Review: The Road to Jerusalem by Jan Guillou

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The Road to Jerusalem is an engrossing work of historical fiction by Swedish author Jan Guillou. Set in Sweden in the mid-twelfth century, the story follows Arn Magnusson, the second son of a noble family. After surviving a childhood accident that should have claimed his life, Arn is sent to be raised in a monastery as an act of gratitude for what they believe is God's intervention in saving Arn's life.

In addition to the education he receives in the monastery, Arn is tutored in swordplay and horsemanship by a former Knight Templar. When he finally returns home, Arn is unprepared for the politics and intrigues of the secular world, and must prove himself to his father, his kinsmen, and even to the enemies of his family, while also struggling with his desire to serve and please God. His devotion to his faith is tested many times in a variety of ways, including physical confrontations, his relationship with the beautiful Cecilia, and encounters with her deceitful sister.

Some readers will find the pacing of this novel much too slow. Arn does not truly become the main character until well into the book, as the first one hundred-fifty or so pages are devoted to setting up the story, and action is minimal, with many scenes devoted to theological discussions between Arn and his superiors. At times, it feels as if Guillou is telling the reader what happened, rather than letting the reader experience events through the character, thus subtly distancing the reader on an emotional level.

On the positive side, Guillou masterfully immerses the reader in the historical context. The attention to details both great and small will please fans of historical fiction, and the plots and machinations make for an intriguing tale. If you enjoy a story unreeled at a leisurely pace, I recommend The Road to Jerusalem.

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