Not content with a life as a passive and powerless noblewoman, a young Bavarian woman dons her late twin brother’s armor and weapons and sets out to join the disastrous Crusade of 1101. She is able to pass as a young man because, as she observes to her squire, who was also her brother’s lover, “People see what they expect to see.” She learns two things on her journey, that honor is not always where you expect to find it and that true love can come in the form of another woman
Review by Yakalskovich
A book about lesbian crusaders — that sounds either like some bizarre sexploitation premise, or a massive dose of historically incorrect strangeness. Still, once I started reading this book, I found that Nan Hawthorne made it work quite brilliantly.
Elisabeth von Winterkirche is a young noblewoman living in Bavaria around the year 1100. Owing to a series of rather tragic circumstances, she runs away from home in her dead twin brother’s armour, with her brother’s former lover as her squire. Only the squire, Albrecht, know her secret. Wanting to fulfill her brother’s vow and to find their father who had joined the First Crusade, she joins a number of latecomers to the crusade assembling fist at the Melk monastery, then in Bologna in northern Italy.
Albrecht and Elisabeth — who goes by her brother’s name, Elias — join up with a number of other crusaders and pilgrims whom they will stick will, or meet again, during their entire journey. This journey turns into a journey of self-discovery for Elisabeth, from her first infatuation through the discovery of sexual pleasure to true love. Other than her lovers, she keeps her secret from everybody, taking to the knightly life like a fish to water. After a brief if lovely respite in Constantinople, the crusaders depart for the Anatolian highlands, to fight free a direct overland route to the Holy Land through the Turk occupied territories…
This book is filled with historical detail and characters that we really learn to care about. There are three problems, however, that keep me from giving it the full five stars. For one thing, Hawthorne gets many of the German names wrong; she should have asked a native speaker whether these work as place names or surnames. Unfortunately, many don’t, which made me laugh in places where I shouldn’t have.
Then, there is a very slight undercurrent of OK HOMO in the development of the main characters. They keep happening on people who keep telling them that love is love and a good gift from God, no matter what the circumstances, which would have been deeply heretic at the time, to put it mildly. Acceptance and self-acceptance comes a tad too easy to the protagonists. And lastly, there is a problem with the POV. We normally stick strictly with Elisabeth, apart from a few surprise moments when we do not. These moments increase in frequency and length after the crusaders leave for Anatolia; during the campaign and battles, we often see events from a vague third person omniscient POV in which we observe the commanders talking, whole armies moving, and strategies explained with nary a sight of Elisabeth for several pages. Also, a map would be really helpful at times.
Still, despite these little weaknesses, it is a lovely book that I enjoyed very much which makes me look forward to a potential sequel. Plot lines have been left dangling that the reader still cares about — what happened with Elisabeth’s father? Will any of them ever actually reach Jerusalem? Will they return to Bavaria and oust the usurper from the castle? This calls for a second book; and the author’s web side reassures us that it is in the works.-
Filed under: 12th Century, 4 stars, Crusades, Fiction, lesbian, Nan Hawthorne, Reviews