CROSS AND CRESCENT
by Susan Shwartz
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Susan Shwartz's Cross and Crescent is a sequel to last year's Shards of Empire. Set twenty-odd years later, Leo Ducas and his Jewish wife Asherah have settled into a quiet lifestyle in Constantinople. Their life is changed by the simultaneous secret visit of Anna Comnena, Leo's cousin and the daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus, and the arrival of a letter for Asherah informing her of the slaughter of whole communities of Jews in the Rhineland as the Western knights prepare for the First Crusade.
Even as Leo and his two foster children, Binah and Theodoulos, are summoned into Alexius' service, Asherah turns her back on all Christians save Leo in disgust at their actions against her kin. Although Leo remains on stage throughout the novel, this is less his story than the story of his foster children and the caesarissa Anna, who would go on to write the Alexiad, recounting the First Crusade from the Byzantine point of view. In fact, it is this point of view that is prevelant in Cross and Crescent. The crusaders under Bohemond are not the glorious warriors for Christ as they are so often depicted in Western literature. Instead, they are viewed by Byzantines and Turks alike as dirty opportunist barbarians who do not understand how to behave in the situations in which they find themselves.
While in the earlier work, Leo Ducas had to discover who he was, in this novel, his children must determine their identities, as does the caesarissa. Theodoulos, perhaps most of all, is torn between the Orthodoxy his father belonged to and which he has lived while studying with Father Meletios, the Judaism which is his mother's religion, but from which he feels estranged since the events in the Rhineland, and the strange Latinate form of Christianity he comes into contact with as he journeys with Bohemond's knights at Alexius' request.
Shwartz's characters remain likeable, although the situations in which they find themselves are frequently murky. As perhaps befits a novel set in the Byzantine Empire, everyone's motivations are hidden. Unfortunately, the murkiness of the political situation often boils over into the scenes Shwartz describes and it isn't always clear who is involved in any given scene, nor what has happened.
Cross and Crescent suffers from many of the same problems which appeared in Shards of Empire. One area where Shwartz does excell is in reminding the reader of the events of the earlier book without seeming preachy. Her comments about Theodoulos' or Binah's histories give enough information to remind the reader what has happened if they read Shards of Empire and give enough background to follow the story if they haven't.
Once again, however, Shwartz exhibits a strong knowledge of the period and location she has chosen to describe. Even if her characters' motivations often seem strange, if not out of place, Shwartz's understanding of the political situation and cultures comes through, making her characters' seem even more extraordinary than they already are.
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