The Land Beyond The Sea – by Sharon Kay Penman – independent book review – Historical Fiction (Middle East)

As someone who reads more historical fiction than any other genre and has, for many years, considered Sharon Kay Penman the best of the best — you can imagine how much I was looking forward to THE LAND BEYOND THE SEA – her first novel in about five years. And it’s a tome – nearly 700 pages of very small type. But, alas, I came away disappointed. Awarded four stars on Goodreads but that’s a bit of a gift.

The novel begins in 1163, focusing on all the events that culminated in the pivotal Christian vs. Saracen battle over the Holy Land 24 years later. Much of the story explores complex court rivalries – between ambitious lords vying for power and among church prelates who are just as competitive — all the while featuring girls and women married off as pawns to cement alliances.

There are a few wonderful main characters. At the center is Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the so-called “leper king”, his mother Agnes of Courtenay, and William of Tyre – Baldwin’s friend, tutor, and father-figure. All three are strong, well-differentiated, and multi-dimensional. All are characters I came to understand and empathize with. Especially the well-intentioned and thoughtful Baldwin, a mere youth who bravely leads his kingdom while battling a disabling and degenerative disease.

I also enjoyed following the story of Balian of d’Ibelin with interest. He was one of the more intelligent and thoughtful nobles in Jerusalem, whose marriage becomes the central romance of the novel. Both Balian and his wife are also well-developed and distinctive.

Penman’s research is always impeccable but the result is that there were SO many OTHER characters to follow. And so many with only minimal roles in the overall plot. I have to admit I found it a struggle to keep track of who was who. And the similarity in names (though not Penman’s fault) certainly didn’t help me:
• In addition to King Baldwin and Balian — there is also Baudouin d’Ibelin, Bohemond, and Baldwin (the grandson of IV).
• There’s Hugh d’Ibelin, Hugues (son of the Princess of Galilee), and three characters named Humphrey de Toron.
• Among the women, we have Esquiva, Etienette, and Eschiva.
• Among the Saracens, you have Nur ad-Din Mahmud b. Zangi, al-Salih Ismaeil b. Nur al-Din, al Malik al-Nasir Salah al-Din Abu af Musaffur Yusuf (this one is Saladin), al-Malik al-‘Adil, Taqi al-Din, al-Malik al-Musaffar ‘Umar b. Shahanshah b. Ayyub, and Farrukh-Shah, ‘Izz al’Din Da’ud b. Shanhanshah b. Ayyub.
• Among the other players are Renaud de Grenier (also referred to as Denys), Reynald de Chatillon, and Raymond de St. Gilles (sometimes referred to as the Count of Tripoli)
• We also have Joscius (Bishop of Acre), Jobert (of the Knights Hospitaller), Jakelin de Mailly (Templar knight), and Joscelin de Courtenay (brother to Agnes – referenced way, way back in this review).
But wait. There are roughly another 30 characters not yet mentioned, including several more Williams and a couple of Marys.

NOTE: There is a List of Characters are the start of the book and believe me, I revisited those pages often.

I generally value with this author is the depth of her research. But in this novel, I felt she got a bit buried in it. At times I felt I was reading more of a scholarly work, rather than a historical novel. You will certainly learn a lot about the the battle for the Holy Land – so important to both Christians and Muslims (and Jews too). And Penman’s commitment to accuracy (she only made a few changes according to her Afterword) is admirable. But I found the sheer volume of characters and the level of detail (especially around battles) became downright cumbersome. And about 200 pages before the end, I was ready to be done.

Author Sharon Kay Penman
(from her Website)

Fortunately, the last few hundred pages turned out to be full of building drama. So I kept going. I’m glad I finished it. And would recommend it to those interested in this topic. But this one certainly isn’t my favorite historical novel by this author.

More about the author, Sharon Kay Penman.