The Falcons of Montabard
The year is 1120, and Sabin FitzSimon is in trouble again. The bastard son of a noble English family, Sabin is a wild and reckless young man whose latest escapade has resulted in the death of an innocent. Since his bad reputation is about to affect the fortunes of his legitimate half-siblings, his family hastily arranges for him to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Haunted by guilt, Sabin wryly agrees to this exile.
What is today called Israel was then the kingdom of Outremer (old French for “beyond the sea”), captured from the Muslim empire by Christian crusaders at the end of the eleventh century. Sabin joins the entourage of a warrior named Edmund Strongfist, who, accompanied by his daughter Annais, journeys to Outremer to make his fortune. Strongfist warns Sabin to stay away from Annais. Sabin agrees, although he finds the convent-raised young woman attractive. Annais, like many an innocent young teenager, is fascinated by a bad-boy reputation, and keeps an eye on Sabin as well.
This is the love story. It’s a fairly long and complicated story, encompassing quite a few secondary characters and spanning several years. When they first meet, Sabin and Annais are both too immature for each other. Sabin is far too wild for any sort of permanent relationship, and Annais is just too naïve and sheltered to know what to do with a man like him. They gradually form a prickly alliance, and when faced with the dangers of a strange land they stand by each other with uneasy loyalty. As the story unfolds, the author skillfully shows how the events of their lives in the Middle East change them both. By the time they do get together – over two hundred pages into the book – they seem to be made for one another.
This book is marketed as historical fiction rather than historical romance, and the author clearly takes her history seriously. Ms. Chadwick’s understanding of the period is deep, and details are seamlessly integrated into the story – she creates the smells and textures of another time and place without ever lapsing into lecture mode. Romance fans should note that while the tale of Annais and Sabin develops very slowly, it doesn’t break any of the rules of romantic fiction. The end of the book is a happy one, if somewhat bittersweet: we know, and they have some inkling, that the Christian kingdom of Outremer will not be there forever.
I enjoyed The Falcons of Montabard a great deal. It’s romantic, exciting, and it taught me a lot about an unfamiliar period as well. The climax of the book is extremely suspenseful. My one criticism is that the characters lack some indefinable immediacy, but I recommend it highly for anyone who enjoys good historical fiction and romance.