The Book of the Lion

Book of the Lion

Author: Michael Cadnum

Publication: Viking, 2000

Pages: 208

Overall Rating: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]                         

Rating for Action: bth_2-star-rating-1_zps4cdc0d23[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_2-star-rating-1_zps4cdc0d23[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary: Edmund’s master, a man who mint’s coins for King Richard, is found guilty of counterfeiting.  As his apprentice, Edmund shares his guilty.  But he is saved from the punishment of having his hand chopped off when a knight agrees to take him on as a squire.  Soon Edmund is on his way to the Holy Land, part of King Richard’s crusade.  He travels through France, and sails on a galley to Venice, and from there to the great city of Acre.   As part of the crusader army, he takes part in the siege of Acre and fights a pitched battle on the plains of Arsuf.

Age of Main Character: 17

What I Liked the Most: The sounds, flavors, language, and beliefs of Medieval Europe really come to life in this novel.  It’s easy to imagine walking along side Edmund as he travels the muddy tracks of England, rides aboard a galley across the Mediterranean, or lives in a Crusader camp.  The attention to history is exact, and Cadnum isn’t afraid to include details that might make the reader squeamish.

From the first few pages it was clear that Cadnum had no intention of sanitizing life in the Middle Ages for the sake of his readers.  Nor does he flinch from the describing the violence of war and battle in all its gory detail.  The crusade comes across as the bloody, hot, and often boring event that it was.   Edmund lives in the crusader camp for weeks, sweating under the molten sun, often with little to do until the moment of battle, when he is tossed into a swarming mass of people, throwing himself at the enemy, trampling bodies into the earth and slipping on blood and gore.

What I Liked the Least: The book feels emotionally distant.  At the start of the story Edmund goes through a series of horribly traumatic events – being attacked in the middle of the night, watching his master have his hand cut off, escaping, almost having his own hand cut off, and being tossed in the dungeon.  But throughout, I had no idea what was going on in his head or how he felt about any of the things that were happening to him.  The same thing was true the first time he went into battle.  I had little sense of what he was thinking or feeling.  Was he terrified?  Excited?  I don’t know

The writing style was a challenge for me.  It felt like Cadnum often switched subjects in the middle of a paragraph, making it hard to follow.  For example, take the following paragraph from page 13:

“I could see no sign of a fool, and no woman at all.  The Exchequer’s man sat beside the lord sheriff, and I tried to read his expression.  The Exchequer’s man was no longer armored, but dressed in finery, rich indigo sleeves.  I had never seen a ceiling so high, roof beams so far above.”

Each sentence in that paragraph seems to be focused on a different subject: the lord sheriff’s wife and his fool, what the Exchequer’s man might have been thinking, how he was dressed, and what the room looked like.

When Edmund and the other crusaders are besieging the city of Acre there are vague references to the Saracen army being camped nearby.  Edmund runs into Saracen soldiers out exercising their horses, and there are even skirmishes, but when the crusaders attack Acre there’s no mention of the Saracen army doing anything.  I know this is a historical novel, and the events surrounding this siege really happened, but Cadnum needed to find some way to more clearly address why Saracen army didn’t reinforce the city of Acre.

Finally, Edmund and his companions hold some truly horrible beliefs regarding their Muslim enemies, and some equally awful beliefs about women.  Again, I understand that this is a historical novel and Edmund’s beliefs would have been completely true to the time.  However, I would really like to have seen some opportunity for Edmund to have those beliefs challenged – perhaps by meeting a Muslim, or better yet a Muslim woman, who changes his opinions.  It would have provided some real opportunity for Edmund to grow as a character.  As it is, Edmund has a lot of adventures but never really grows or changes in any meaningful way.

How Good was the Action?  That’s debatable.  The battles are gory and explicit in their details, but I wouldn’t really call them action-packed.  Even when Edmund was in the thick of battle I didn’t really feel very much tension.  There was no fear, no adrenaline.  I got a bit of that when Edmund battled storms aboard the Venetian galley on the way to the crusades, but overall the action lacked any sense of tension.

How Engaging was the Story?  So-so.  I never got that much of a sense for who Edmund was, and even less so for his companions.  So when they got in trouble it was hard to get too concerned or worked up about it.  I enjoyed the story for the most part, but I wasn’t glued to the page.

Overall Assessment: I think that the best way to think of this book is as a fictional history lesson.  Don’t get me wrong.  This is not a boring book.  But in many ways it felt like Edmund was there largely to introduce the reader to what life was like in the Middle Ages and on a crusade.  So while it’s only moderately interesting as a novel, it is a fascinating approach to the history of the period, and a way to bring the facts learned in history textbooks to life in a very visceral way.

Profanity: None to speak of.

Sex: Yes.  There are no actual sex scenes, but there are many references to sex, to ‘pleasure women’ as Edmund calls them, to rape, and to other people having sex.

Violence: Yes, and it’s fairly graphic too.  Right at the start of the book someone has their hand chopped off.  Thousands of prisoners are slaughtered in gory detail, and the battles – while fairly brief – are quite vivid on their descriptions of the slaughter taking place.

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