Book review: Perdition by James Jackson

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As war approaches, the toughest battles ahead are often those fought in the mind...

And so it is for 14-year-old orphan boy and Crusader spy Benedict who has already witnessed the wounded, the slain, the shrieking and the despair at the destruction of the city of Tripoli in 1289.

Ahead lies a new battle for the royal port city of Acre, the last Christian enclave in the Holy Land ... for Benedict, it will involve hard choices between boyhood and manhood, Crusader and Arab, remaining and departure, light and darkness, life and death.

Perdition is Jackson’s second novel set in the killing grounds of the Holy Land but moves forward to the decisive year of 1290 when the Saracen forces, under the leadership of the resplendent Sultan Qalawun, are determined to finally ‘swallow up’ the Christian invaders.

Jackson’s epic story is not so much a blood-and-guts adventure as a stirring and yet thoughtful recreation of the conflicting ideals, motives and cultures that underpinned the Crusader missions, so dominant in the Middle Ages.

His characters, drawn from all walks of life and from opposing camps, reveal the complexities at the heart of the warring factions as well as the sense of history that drives them all forward.

There is so much to lose and so much to gain as the siege of Acre ... the Saracens seek revenge for the 200 years that have elapsed since the Crusader armies took Jerusalem and the European Templar Knights are aware that too much blood has been shed and too many brethren sacrificed to contemplate the ignominy of failure.

Acre is a jewelled prize, a city that moves in a frenetic flow and where goods are traded and bartered, vessels are unloaded and a tumult of different tongues are heard.

Looming above is the moated Lion Fortress where William of Beaujeu, Grand Master of the Templars, will stop at little to secure the city and keep alive the scared flame and mystery of his legendary military order. He knows that final judgement is approaching and that time is running out.

He has allies at the garrison – the Italian adventurer Roger de Flor, as brave as he is reckless, Theobald, the young Hospitaller Knight Theobald of Alzey who sets bones and binds wounds, the court dwarf and jester Amethyst and the fierce and flinty camel master Selim – but there are also hidden enemies.

And in their midst, ducking and diving between the lines, is young Benedict who must stay alive in the chaos to be unleashed and learn who is friend and who is foe.

And so the defenders await their fate. All will be tested and all may perish for this is the endgame. No quarter will be given and no mercy shown. Deserted by the pope and the princes of Europe, it seems as if Acre faces annihilation, but perhaps something can still be salvaged from perdition...

Brimming with action, conspiracy and burning ambitions, Perdition brings history to life in all its bloody technicolour.

(John Murray, hardback, £12.99)