Friday, May 20, 2011

The King's Witch by Cecelia Holland

The King’s Witch. Cecelia Holland. Berkley Penguin Group Books. June 2011. 320 pp. ISBN #: 9780425241301.

Picture a female doctor whose identity is unknown and therefore mysterious to all in this year of 1191. Spanning various cities between Europe and Jerusalem, this novel depicts the various Kings vying for control and power in the Crusade to defeat Arabs presently holding Jerusalem. Edythe is a secret Jew by birth but has no connection to that religion as Jews are anathema in Christian circles during this part of the 12th Century. She is known as the King’s witch because of her effective medical skills, displaying amazingly in various descriptions such as actually doing some head surgery, no mean feat in this time and place. Most notably, she manages to keep King Richard the Lionhearted alive throughout his bouts of a life-threatening illness. That is the only background to the respect she receives, and for that reason alone she remains free to come and go at her own pleasure and is not subject to the bawdy acts of men away from home on a brutal campaign journey.

Meet King Richard, a man who makes a vow to capture Jerusalem but cannot force his peers to stand with him to finish the job after Acre and Jaffa are successfully taken in formidable battles. Then we encounter Rouquin, a sidekick officer of Richard’s army, who possesses a secret about his own background that binds Richard to him beyond that of a King and servant. The plot thickens with the introduction of various characters all connected to Joanna, Richard’s sister, but using her to achieve their own military and religious designs. These characters the King of Jerusalem who lost his kingdom, as well as the representatives of France, Germany, etc. The notorious Knights of the Templare are also present in a rather vibrant but devious way. One character Richard particularly yearns to meet for a physical reason that is totally anathema in that day and age. Church and State are no friends in this race for power and victory!

Those who know history know Richard was unsuccessful in his Crusade quest, but Cecelia Holland tells such a riveting story that we forget what we know and find ourselves rooting for this dedicated leader striving to accomplish what he perceives as a holy war free of rivalry and defeat. Edythe and Rouquin finally dare to rebel and come to a peace about who they are – a process and subplot just as complex and fascinating as the story about the King.

Although the names and places appear initially complex, the reader will quickly be entranced by this totally beguiling, historical though general, and passionate story that does this author credit. The King's Witch is a fine beginning to the Heirs of Eleanor of Aquitaine series. Nicely done, Ms. Holland!

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