Book review: Kingdom by Jack Hight

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The complex politics and warfare of the long-running medieval Crusades comes to life again in the second part of American historian Jack Hight’s thrilling Saladin trilogy.

Kingdom sees a new and dangerous chapter in the life of Yusuf ibn Ayub, the man who earned the title Saladin, meaning ‘righteous in faith,’ after he saved the life of his king in a ferocious battle.

Saladin was a mighty Kurdish warrior, the curse of the Crusader armies and yet revered as a diplomat and leader by both friend and foe. He succeeded where others had failed by uniting the disparate parts of the Middle East and Mesopotamia to create an effective fighting force.

Western history turned him into an ogre but Hight has dusted off his accomplishments, his life and his tarnished reputation in this brave and ambitious adventure series which tells his life story from a Muslim perspective.

Hight offsets the amazing career of the legendary Saladin by intertwining his fortunes with the life of John of Tatewic, a Crusader from England who was captured by Saracen troops and bought as a slave by Yusuf. The two young men formed a close and enduring friendship forged in time of war and turbulence.

In 1164, we find Saladin in Aleppo and trying desperately to distance himself from the palace of the Syrian king Nur ad-Din. Saladin is one of the ruler’s most trusted advisers but he has a guilty secret.

He betrayed the king by sleeping with his queen Asimat and she is pregnant with Saladin’s child.

But now he must put all his energies into joining a Saracen army headed for Egypt where he will fight to retake the country from Christian invaders. ‘I will bring you a kingdom,’ he tells the king but there are powerful factions at court who know his secret and unless he does their bidding, Asimat and the child will die.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, John has been branded a traitor for killing fellow Christians during the days he fought at Saladin’s side. Spared execution by King Amalric who is impressed by the prisoner’s courage, strength and integrity, John becomes the king’s spy and finds himself embroiled in dangerous court intrigue.

Dark forces are conspiring to seize the throne and as John confronts them, his loyalty to Amalric and his old friend Saladin are put to the test and in Egypt, Saladin is surrounded by enemies and soon discovers that no one can be trusted, not even his own family...

Whether it’s his street guide to Crusader Jerusalem in the 12th century or a map of Syria and the Holy Land as it looked in 1175, Hight transports us into the heart of a bitter religious conflict, and into the mind of the man who fought back against ‘the savages from beyond the sea.’

Action, politics and drama are the hallmarks of this excellent series which gives a fascinating and balanced insight into one of the most turbulent periods in world history.

The final showdown in the last of the trilogy should be one to savour...

(John Murray, hardback, £18.99)