Thanks for stopping by for One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite!
The Australian author featured here at Tea Cozy is Catherine Jinks; and, in particular, her books about Pagan Kidrouk, 16.
Why? Because I think these books are brilliant. So, let's start at the beginning.
Pagan lives in Jerusalem in the 12th century; he's an odd mix. A penniless orphan who can read and write; a boy raised in a monastery who for the last few years has lived a rough and dangerous life on the streets of Jerusalem; a squire to a Templar Knight; and he's a Christian Arab, born in Bethlehem, looking "like a Bedouin boy".
Pagan may be a squire, but don't get the wrong idea; he's not some perfect, holy person (that would be the knight he's assigned to, Lord Roland de Bram). No, Pagan at 16 is . . . how shall I put this? Pagan owes people money. The people he owes are as ruthless and brutal as the times. And the job in the protected Templar headquarters will provide Pagan money to pay back the people he owes. Problem is, that won't be for six months; so in the meanwhile, it's a safe and secure place to, well, hide. Cause that's the kind of guy Pagan is.
I love Pagan; he's funny, he's a bit of a coward, he says he wants to avoid work and danger yet somehow, he finds himself being a good squire to Lord Roland.
Lord Roland is described as "the noblest of souls and a godly man and a great fighter. He is a gift from our Lord." Pagan's response? To dub Roland "Saint George" ("he looks like something out off a stained-glass window") and decide that "if he's as good as he looks, I'm in big trouble." Roland is the perfect Templar Knight; or, at least, he tries to be. Roland is a true believer; and at first Pagan thinks that means Roland is humorless and perhaps naive.
Lord Roland has never met someone quite like Pagan: blunt. common. and a free thinker. An orphan raised in a monastery who can read and write; who ran away and has been living in the streets of Jerusalem.
The relationship and friendship between Roland and Pagan is one of the strengths of this book; Pagan, unknowingly, grounds Roland; Roland pushes Pagan to be better than he is. Roland thinks he knows what is right and what is true; follow the rules, particularly the rules of the Templar Knights, and all will be well. But, as Saladin's forces get closer and closer, Roland is realizing that following the rules isn't always the right thing to do. Not when people's lives are at stake. Pagan grows; but so, too, does Roland.
The history! This is set during the months right before and after Saladin attacks Jerusalem. We watch the Templar Knights go from "top of the world" to bargaining for the lives of the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
The details. On the one hand, this is full of historical detail; Jinks is a medieval scholar, after all. But, on the other, Pagan talks like a modern teen; there is no fake-old language or linguistic styles. Descriptions of the pilgrims who come to Jerusalem are hilarious and sad; Pagan himself will keep you laughing, even as the situation in Jerusalem gets worse and worse.
I love how the past is presented in her books. The past isn't glorified and prettied up; there is vomit and blood and streets smell of piss and dung. It's honest and blunt; yet at the same time, it's funny. Pagan is sarcastic and realistic; he's full of one liners.
Historical fiction can be a hard sell; but Pagan's Crusade is an easy sell. While this isn't as over the top as Monty Python, the POV is Pythonesque. For, example, the pilgrims start playing "name that saint." (Here's my turn at playing the game: "I was a thief; I was crucified; my name starts with D; who am I?") Unfortunately the game doesn't last long, because the "my name starts with" falls apart when the vast number of pilgrims cannot read or write. But, for that matter, neither can Roland. He was trained to fight; not to read.
Pagan talks the language of a modern kid, yes, but he is of his times; and it's a great way to introduce readers to this fascinating, complex, bloody time period.
Another way to describe it? It's the same setting and similar events as the 2005 film, Kingdom of Heaven. But the book is way better (and much more accurate) than the film.
Pagan's story is continued in other books; as he follows Roland to France:
Pagan In Exile
Roland decides to join a monastery; and the loyal Pagan joins him:
Fast forward several years, and the story is now told from the point of view of Pagan's scribe:
And in putting this together I discovered: another Pagan book! And, while I use the US covers in this post, I think the Australian covers are more exciting.
Edited to add: all copies are library copies.
Other Australian authors I've written about:
Darrel & Sally Odgers