Simon & Schuster | 2018 (8 February) | 552p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is March 1096 and the people of Sens in France gather to hear the crusading call of Peter the Hermit. The Holy City of Jerusalem is in the hands of the Saracens, the Christians within persecuted, the places and rituals of Christ forbidden. The Emperor of Constantinople and the Eastern Empire is begging for help from the west and, in return, the Pope has promised that the sins of all crusaders shall be forgiven. Among the crowds who hear the call there are many who stand up to follow it, including Sybille and her husband who sees earthly riches at the end of his pilgrimage, not heavenly ones. Likewise, brothers Odo and Fulk have their different reasons for taking the cross – Fulk sees opportunity and adventure while Odo feels the stirrings of a buried faith. And then there are the women. Jeanne and Guillemette have been treated badly, finding refuge and independence as prostitutes in a brothel. For them and the other women and children on the pilgrimage there will be particular dangers.
And still they come. Many more of all walks of life, of every age, take the cross and are faced with a journey, mostly on foot, across lands that have no idea how to deal with this flood of humanity. Knights and preachers urge them on, pressing them to fight when necessary, even when they go hungry and can hardly walk another step. There are almost as many motives as there are pilgrims but one thing is sure – not all of them will reach their goal and even fewer of them will live to return home.
Pilgrim’s War is a fabulously rich chronicle of the First Crusade, which brings the events of 1096 to life through the varied experiences of a small group of individuals. Often the strands of the stories come together as people meet, hate each other or fall in love. They’re such a wonderful mix of people and all are given their time in the spotlight. I particularly enjoyed how both male and female pilgrims are given equal footing, showing how this crusade isn’t at all how crusades are usually perceived. This one, the first, was a madly disorganised affair, mostly undertaken by ordinary men and women with their children, and this spirit of hope, of a new age, of people being on the move for the first time, is all captured so brilliantly by Michael Jecks. As is the age’s absolute dread of the Saracen and the barbarous cruelty that was carried out in the name of Christianity against anyone perceived as different.
Of course, it might start off with dreams of glory and victory but soon the reality hits and it’s fascinating watching these people transform. The stories of Odo and Fulk are particularly powerful. There’s a real agony in watching what happens. And there’s also tragedy. The stresses and anxieties of this extraordinary, unprecedented pilgrimage kept me gripped.
I thoroughly enjoyed the mix of action and romance. Pilgrim’s War is in many ways a sweeping historical epic. Many lives move through its pages, each with their own dreams, and the structure of the novel dramatically moves backwards and forwards between them. There are some great battle scenes, including my favourite – sieges! – and these are complemented by the quiet moments of friendship and love. As the novel (and the pilgrimage) moves on we meet new people, this time from the East, although not necessarily originating there – I really liked the character of Alwyn.
Pilgrim’s War is the beginning of a new series, which is such good news because when I finished it I was so ready for more. It’s a substantial novel but I gobbled it up in only a couple of days. It moves around so quickly, there’s so much to look at, and the historical setting is wonderfully described and evoked. The movement from the known to the exotic is especially well done. The First Crusade was a disastrous affair for many – and catastrophic for many that they encountered along the way – and this novel gives us a good idea why and it makes for glorious reading. Pilgrim’s War is the first novel by Michael Jecks that I’ve read which is plain daft because he’s clearly a fantastic storyteller. I can’t wait to see where this series and its pilgrims take us next.