Monday, 11 January 2016

Pillars of Light

Author: Jane Johnson
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 469
Publisher: DoubleDay Canada
First Published: February 5, 2016
First Line: "Summer 1187 - It was born a godless creature."

Book Description from GoodReadsIn the Syrian city of Akka, Nathanael, a young Jewish doctor, and a Muslim girl called Zohra are about to fall in love, unaware that Jerusalem has just been taken by Saladin's army and that their city will soon be engulfed by war.

Meanwhile in England, John Savage, a foundling boy, runs away from his cruel life in a priory with The Moor, a mysterious man driven by a dream of perfection.

John and The Moor become members of a band of conmen travelling through the English countryside faking religious miracles for cash, until they are recruited in Richard the Lionheart's drive to regain the Latin Kingdom from the infidel. Akka awaits. It will be the site of the greatest--and cruelest--siege of its time. But even in the midst of war, lovers find ways to make transactions of beauty.

Pillars of Light is a powerful and moving novel about the triumph of the human spirit against all the odds. It will delight fans of Philippa Gregory, Ken Follett and Diana Gabaldon. 

My Review: I went into this book thinking that it was a romance set within a historical fiction backdrop of a 12th century siege.  What I got was an engrossing, vivid and human look at the impact of war on the people involved with some romance thrown in for good measure.

Initially the book feels like two stories in one.  The plot is told via multiple story lines with one starring John Savage and his group of English misfits who are on their way to help Richard the Lionheart's crusade to take Akka.  The other story line focuses on a Jewish and a Muslim family living in Akka and how they endure during the siege on their city.  These two story lines ultimately converge and show not only the brutality of war but how it affected people.

This was the first time I've read a book by Jane Johnson and I was quickly engaged by her writing style which is wonderfully vivid and introduces her readers to an era and cultures that readers may not know much about.  She does this in an engaging way without bogging down the plot's pace as she deftly includes information on Syria's history, religious architecture and the two year siege of Akka in the 12th century.  Ultimately she shows what happens when humanity does its worst to each other, each group fighting for what they believe is right. 

The common theme throughout the book was that we have more similarities than differences. This includes similarities in religion, family life, love and relationships with the author focusing on romantic relationships that were considered unorthodox at that time -- Jew and Muslim, Muslim and Christian and homosexual -- yet all had the same basis ... love.

"What did it matter that they each came from a different family, from a different culture?  Jewish, Muslim and in Nima's case who-new-what?  This was how the world should be -- people brought together by love." (pg 393)

"There is a savagery in all of us." (pg 426)

I found Johnson's way of writing about war very unique in that her readers get to see war from many different sides.  She shows the Christian side as they try to take Akka, the human side of the war through the eyes of the people, both Jew and Muslim, who live within the walls of Akka, John Savage's group and the two armies' points of view.  Throughout all of these different viewpoints, but especially through the citizens of Akka, Johnson brings the emotional side of war to the forefront as the reader sees the human toll of long battles - from starvation, disease, loss and brutality.  The author holds nothing back.  Johnson also gives her readers a glimpse into how this war affects people at various levels - from the commoner in Akka, to the soldiers on the battlefield to King Richard the Lionheart and Saladin.

Johnson describes war in a raw, vivid and brutal telling and shows the horror and often senselessness of war but she also brings to light the more human results of war. Readers, don't be afraid of this book's size!  You will enjoy this intelligent, historical read (similar in feel to Ken Follett's style) and will quickly get caught up in the characters lives and the historical references.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to DoubleDay Canada for providing me with a paperback copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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