Best selling Swedish author Jan Guillou, renowned in Sweden for a series of novels about military spy Carl Hamilton, (Coq Rouge, The Enemy’s Enemy) also wrote historical fiction with a Swedish backdrop. Although the “Crusades” novels are popular throughout Europe, the first book The Road to Jerusalem, was only recently published in English. Road sets up the story for the series. It tells the story of future knight Arn Magusson, who is born to an aristocratic Swedish family. The first quarter of the book concentrates on Arn’s parents, particularly his mother Sigrid, and the strict precepts of the Church in Scandinavia in the 1100s. After that, The Road to Jerusalem traces Arn’s journey towards manhood and finally, his conscription into the Knights Templar.
Arn stays in a monastery where he learns about life and faith under the tutelage of Brother Guilbert and Father Henri. Arn studies Latin and becomes an accomplished swordsman and horseman. He considers his loyal horse Khamsiin his best friend. Innocent Arn’s horse and his studies are the focus of his life until he meets two sisters, the beautiful Cecelia and her sister Katarina. Arn, still being somewhat naïve in matters of the heart, makes a mistake which sullies his reputation, and is excommunicated for this transgression. By the end of The Road to Jerusalem, the brothers send him to serve on the Knights Templar as punishment.
The Road to Jerusalem relives medieval times when Sweden’s religion and aristocracy ruled the country with an iron fist. Guillou spends a lot of time outlining Arn’s lineage, so we get a good back-story on Arn through his family. The young Arn survives a childhood accident and is then sent to serve God as thanks for this miracle. When Arn enters the monastery, he takes over the narrative as main character. Guillou’s slow-paced prose (translated from Swedish by Steven T. Murray) develops even minor characters fully, so this book is not apropos for the readers who like “airport” books plotted in an ADHD style. My only complaint about the book is that Guillou spends too much time in the character’s heads at the expense of action scenes and “showing” the story. For history buffs that have some time to sit down with a cup of coffee and a good book, though, The Road to Jerusalem is worth the time. It will be interesting to see how Arn Magnusson matures during the final two books of the trilogy.