THE WIDOW OF JERUSALEM
Alan Gordon

 


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Fourth in the Fools’ Guild series
St Martin’s Minotaur, March 2003
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Mostly 1187, mostly the Middle East

The jesters of Europe are not simple entertainers, as the world believes they are. Banded together as the Fools’ Guild, the juggler on a street corner, the hired troubadour serenading a lady, and the dwarf exchanging insults with court nobles, have all sworn themselves to the effort of influencing Europe toward peace. Master jester Theophilos has held posts in many countries. Traveling home from Constantinople with his pregnant wife, he tells her the tale of his assignment in the rich fortress city of Tyre.

There lives Isabelle, heiress to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Isabelle is wealthy, very beautiful, and a figure of tragedy. Whoever marries Isabelle rules her kingdom. She marries four times, not because she is loved, but for her throne. Her heart’s comfort is her dwarf fool, Scarlet, head of the local branch of the Fools’ Guild. Scarlet is even more of a figure for sympathy than Isabelle – an admirable leader, useful thief, and heroic sacrifice.

Historically, the Third Crusade has much in common with a migration of lemmings. The Muslim leader Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from Isabelle’s Crusader family, is more than capable of decimating the flood of Europeans with their impossible supply lines and quarreling leaders. This is the Crusade where Richard the Lionheart grabs all the credit. Assassinations among the leaders are not uncommon – including among Isabelle’s husbands. It is the mission of Scarlet and Theophilos to inch the region back toward stability after each destabilizing blow.

Author Alan Gordon has brought a pawn to life from the shadows of history. Isabelle is recorded only as an heiress, a lodestone for the ambitious. As the central figure of THE WIDOW OF JERUSALEM, she takes on a moving presence. This simple, feminine woman, who would have been happier as the wife of a baron, must occasionally direct the destiny of a region. Scarlet and Theophilos are with her, her hidden support.

A secondary plot in THE WIDOW OF JERUSALEM is the refugee camp outside Tyre. It has been the scene of a mysterious murder, but Scarlet is more interested in training a group of refugee children as apprentice fools. At least they have a future, unlike so many of the warriors locked in death grips over the Holy Land. It is heartwarming for us to watch their talents respond to Scarlet’s education.

Alan Gordon is something of a jester himself. He capers with verve, agility and wit. Yet, an extra dimension has crept into the series. THE WIDOW OF JERUSALEM has Gordon’s usual excellent plotting and careful fitting to history: with it now comes pathos and a pervasive sensitivity of feeling. Theophilos has ethical dilemmas to explore; the life of Scarlet is irresistibly moving. The Fools’ Guild series is increasing in stature.

The titles in order are: THIRTEENTH NIGHT, JESTER LEAPS IN, DEATH IN THE VENETIAN QUARTER, and THE WIDOW OF JERUSALEM. Then comes AN ANTIC DISPOSITION, an amplification of Hamlet which might have frightened any sane man. Alan Gordon, splendidly insane, took it in his stride. A sixth installment of fools prepares in the wings: working title THE LARK'S LAMENT.

May 2006

 

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