For Henry de Grey, the road to war is paved with good intentions. He wants to fight for God and save the Holy Land from the infidel. The Crusade is a noble cause to Henry’s way of thinking and, aside from fighting for King and county, he can test himself in the heat of battle. But the realities of war are far more horrific than Henry imagined and there are times that only his complicated friendship with fellow knight, Stephan l’Aigle, sustains him.
Stephan is a world-weary veteran when Henry enters life like a breath of fresh air. He can’t help his attraction for the man, but when Henry rebuffs his advances, Stephan decides his friendship is far more important. Buffeted by battle, injury, and heartache Stephan and Henry support one another through the grind of war.
For our Past/Future Week challenge, I choose Men of the Cross, which is the first in the Battle Scars series involving knights, Crusaders, Robin Hood, and the political upheaval of Richard the Lionheart’s reign. Did I mention Robin Hood? But more about that later.
Historically, Men of the Cross feels somewhat on the shallow side. I do not doubt the author did the research, but it doesn’t always translate to the page. The facts tend to read as very basic and lacking in depth, at least not the kind I would expect from a book dealing with the Crusades. It’s almost history-lite and that’s fine, but I never felt immersed in the overall story or the historical background.
Henry and Stephan are sympathetic characters, though it’s hard to connect with them most of the time. I didn’t feel that I particularly knew either one of them and there was a caricature-like quality to both. They weren’t devoid of depth, but neither Henry nor Stephan stepped off the page as fully formed. Which is a shame, because the complex nature of their relationship created real and meaningful tension that I enjoyed a great deal.
At this point, I’ll talk about the Robin Hood aspect. Basically, we’re introduced to Robin, Little John, and the lot, and that’s it. Robin is a knight and this story continues the modern day trend of suggesting he fought in the Crusades. Of course, Robin Hood is essentially a myth, with the reality of his actions and even his existence a matter of huge debate. So adding this historically suspect character to Men of the Cross struck me a bit odd, but I was willing to roll with it because I do love a Robin Hood story. But the character was so minimally utilized I wondered why he was included at all. He’s just sort of there, in the background, as a friend of Stephan’s, who occasionally shows up to fight and brood. Now this is the first in a series and perhaps Robin becomes a bigger part of the plot later on, but for the purposes of this book, he’s extraneous and rather forced into the action. He feels like a prop for the “ooh, Robin Hood” factor, but not much else.
A downside to Men of the Cross is the whitewashing factor. The Crusades are portrayed here, for the most part, as a noble and justifiable action on the part of Christian soldiers. Muslims are seen as the “enemy” and there isn’t much attempt to explain the geo-political situation. The story comes across from a purely Western perspective and doesn’t incorporate the full scope of the realities behind the Crusades.
There was just so much potential in Men of the Cross, but it wasn’t fully realized. The characters and overall historical scope were limited and, while the story was solid enough, I just didn’t feel like there was enough to truly elevate the book. For casual history fans, Men of the Cross is probably going to be enjoyable, but for those of us who want more depth, this one fails to shine.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for Past/Future Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of two great book bundles from Carina Press (you can see the details and full event prize list here)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on Past/Future Week here.