True to the spirit of The Ill-Made Knight, the Long Sword features engaging politics, sprawling battles, hangovers and lechery, action and adventure, valor and audacity, true friendship, ordeals and meaningless wars, fighting prowess, blackmail, feats of arms and, of course, swords, all set in years where violence was daily happenstance and “swordplay was a form of human communication”.
Calais, 1381. Sir William Gold and his retinue, as well as Chaucher and Froissart, still wait for clearance to embark for England. Little snippets of conversation, meaningful glances and references to Prince Lionel's Italian wedding hint how deep the relationship runs between Chaucer and Gold. As another night approaches, William is ready to relate more tales of his youth, and this time he takes us in Venice and on the Alexandrian Crusade. Freshly knighted, William leaves John Hawkwood to keep his oath to go on a Crusade to his spiritual savior, Father Pierre Thomas, Grand Master of the Order of St. John, the Hospitallers. Along with longtime friend Fiore de' Liberi, he leaves the prospect of riches, fame and women to serve as a donat in the order, a low ranked volunteer, and goes back to Avignon under the orders of Fra Peter Mortimer. In companionship with other returning characters from the previous novel, and new ones such as the witty Nerio Acciaiuoli, William witnesses and actively takes part in the preparation for the Alexandrian Crusade, whose command falls on King Peter of Cyprus, a young and ambitious knight of great renown and high repute, with whom William eventually gets well acquainted on both a personal and professional level. To his disappointment, he quickly realizes the real battle is first with the inner enemies of the crusade and his own personal foes, while aiding the Hospitallers and the King of Cyprus in their quest to gather an army and seeking financial support for the emprise.
This time the starting pace of the narrative is more gradual, as probably required by the complexity of the events around William: he is not a mere cook boy, or an ill-armored routier living by the day in France, he's a professional knight who actually meets many of the most influential players of the period and who becomes a piece in the branched board of the Pope’s and Emperor’s feud.
As its predecessor, this book has plenty of humorous episodes, and William the narrator quickly captivates his audience with his story dropping hints for things to come and seasoning the passages with witty remarks and a lot of irony, but at the core, it is a tale of more mature scope and depth. He carefully discloses the political struggles and personal enmities playing out against the backdrop of the Crusade and its preparation in years 1364 and 1365, and the reader easily immerse in the flavor of the XIV century.
"Old hand at making war" (in a society where you're "older than dirt" at 40, I suppose early twenties compare to full maturity), Sir William is a man of enough consequence to become privy of some of the inner workings of the subtle and violent game of crowns which is afoot. Dumbfounded, every step he takes seems to lead him deeper into a dark maze of political intrigue, power strife, trade interests, bankers and internecine warfare.
Eager to live by his convictions, but no fool, William gradually comes to understand that he knows very little of the ways of “kings and princes and cardinals and popes” and at first, en route to Venice, his behavior is still brash and sweetly arrogant in the self-absorbed flush of his youthful exuberance, he faces challenges openly, angrily, and thinks that the rightfulness of his Order’s purpose will win the day. He’s soon to be disabused of such romantic notions and I loved the way he slowly learns through a personal “road to Damascus about temper” the fine art of keeping (every so often) his anger in check and to wager battle with words, reaching the conclusion that “I could not kill everyone I disliked” (in the anticlimactic final confrontation with d'Herblay, for one, he manages to uphold).
However, he is full of contradictions, tormented by his love for Emile and the temptation of fleeting pleasures, and always wonderfully human in a very flawed way. No sooner had he reached an epiphany than his newfound resolutions are sorely tested. Violence and piety, chastity and carnality, friendship and egoism: William’s sense of humor sums (most of) it up nicely when, lost in his dark thoughts, he wonders why his friend Miles never seems in need of “a wench or a confessor”.
Again, William is not shy to indulge his audience with tales of his amorous encounters (that is, before he vows to forsake his libertine ways and focus on his lady par amours, striving towards the ideal of courtly love. Delectably enough, he often wavers in his resolve) or to relate his failures and the hard consequences of many of his mistakes. Of course the concept of sin and spirituality play an important part in the book, as religion cannot be excluded when dealing with a crusade or the society of that time in general, or with the disastrous combined effect of the “profession of arms” and the “profession of Christ”.
Of the first part of the book, I absolutely loved Venice and the events set in Krakow, and the engaging description of the tournament. It’s quick paced, superbly detailed and entertaining. As William gains new allies, like Nicholas Sabraham (well-known to Chaucer) and counts on his faithful friend donats, he also gains new foes, such as the powerful bishop Robert of Geneva, and confronts old acquaintances like his nemesis, the Bourc Camus, or the Count d’Herblay whose personal hate for William drives him to the brim of insanity.
The chapter about the eventful journey to Alexandria, the crusaders deployment and the battle aftermath is richly detailed, with scenes from naval battles –in full harness- to clashes with naphtha bombing Mamluks. Here William's narration takes a somber, almost detached quality, as if reminiscing the horrors of the Alexandrian Crusade through the emotions of both his younger and older self needs just chronicling to present the facts poignantly.
William’s paramount devotion to Father Pierre helps him to overcome the painful moments when the bright paint starts to crack, and the meat of the crusade emerge in its wretched and gruesome reality. His faith in the ideals of Chivalry and in the godly purposes of a few is thwarted in front of the more secular attitude and the evident shortcomings of his so-called allies, he eventually sees beyond the charade put up by most of the people sworn to battle for Christianity and acknowledges the bitter truth that, not even so much deep down, noble ideals and the quest for the true faith are just excuses to engage in power plays and to pursue economic interests, paltry self-righteousness to cover the little petty squabbles of men. Through grappling and loss, William reinvents, and rebuilds the very foundations of his personal hope. His new level of self-awareness and understanding of the importance of love and friendship in life reveal maybe a more balanced character, less prone to childish impetus but not disdainful of worldly affairs and still utterly amusing (and thrilling delectable to read about!).
I like that William is not a character of pure black and white morality, he lays open his inward grief and a flinch factor, during the tale he gets broken in body and spirit but he rises again because actions matter, the sacrifices for a purpose, a cause or for another person are, ultimately, never vain, or at least "it matters to the men who are in it. Even when the cause is worthless". Disenchanted, he still abides by the ideals of chivalry, revels in the genuine friendship of his companions, and hacks down anything that moves for good measure of survival, aptly called “the time of the longsword”.
Christian Cameron delights us with vivid descriptions of the period, his knowledge is vast and well documented; fictions facts and historical evidence are cleverly mingled together and his storytelling is surely enriched by his personal experience in medieval dueling. As in the previous novel, the descriptions of battle techniques, of military strategies deployed (or lack thereof), of armors and warships, of historical background and culture add to the tale and don’t dam up the flow of the narration. This time of course there are more such moments, as the readers are swept from Italian communes to Greece and then to Egypt all the way beneath the walls of mighty Alexandria.
On the editing and proofreading: fortunately, this time typos and errant punctuation do not reach the dismaying levels of the previous novel. Anyway, the editor should make up his mind about spelling; it's either "Accaioulo" or "Acciaioli" (“Acciaiuoli" would be better though). On other notes, I thought the Guelfs supported the Pope and the Ghibellines the Holy Roman Emperor, not the other way about, as the factions are presented in Verona. Am I missing something? Or confusing things like Admiral Contarini described as a man of sixty-five years old and a few pages later of “being over eighty”. And what’s with Miles Stapleton getting knighted both in Rhodes and on the sand of Alexandria? I think the editing still falls short of the standard one would expect from Orion, a veritable ricocheting blow for readers planning to buy a hardcover edition of a favorite book.
I liked better the first book, but this second could not count on the novelty of the format and the slower pace is probably intrinsic to 400 pages spanning only two years of one main character’s career.
William Gold is such fun! I am looking forward to the next book. Like The Ill-Made Knight, The long sword can be appreciated as a standalone book, and the epilogue opens for more tales of the brilliant 25-years-old knight and returning crusader. The author is planning three more installments, depending on the sale figures of the current novels.
I keep my fingers crossed.