Review: Pillars of Light

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Jane Johnson’s Pillars of Light is billed as a “masterpiece of historical fiction” by none other than Anne Fortier, author of Juliet.

I am always looking for new historical fiction to get swept up in and the promise of a completely new era (this one takes place during the Third Crusade, in and around 1189) was more than enough to get me excited about this one. I mean, I love reading about Yorks and Tudors, Victorians and WWII but sometimes you need something new.

Pillars of Light is supposed to be a love story between Zohra, a young Muslim woman responsible for looking after her father and brothers after the death of her mother, and  Nathanael, a young Jewish doctor in the middle of a siege on their city of Akka, in Syria.

pillars

But their story is almost a footnote to the battle for control of the Holy Land, between Christian kings and the Muslims, who’s country it actually was. We meet the Sultan who is trying to wrest the port city of Akka back from the infidels, a band of thieves and con artists from England who travel all the way to Syria to take part in the battle and a host of other secondary characters that muddy the waters of what I had hoped was going to be a straight up love story in a historical context.

Johnson is a talented writer; she knows her subject matter and I suspect that were you to sit down with her to talk about the Third Crusade, you would come away much better educated than you went in. And I appreciated the theme of love woven through this tale: love of others, love of self, love as conquerer in a world torn apart by hate and misunderstanding. The fact that most of the action took place in Syria, among a people who were being starved out of their town, victims of a war that none of them wanted any part of, is obviously extremely topical and made me think about the plight of those same people now and what we have a responsibility to do to help.

But in terms of the actual reading…this one was middling for me. It felt at times like maybe Johnson had a hard time deciding if she was going to tell a story about the every day people or about the people making the decisions that affected the every day people. In the beginning, when we first meet Zohra and Nathanael and are appraised of Zohra’s life in particular, it seemed like maybe it would become a story of her asserting her personhood in the face of her family, culture and religion. I would have loved that story. There was a moment when one of the band of thieves, John Savage, realizes something about himself and his relationship with a mysterious man called just The Moor, that seemed like maybe it would become something bigger, a rare example of an LGBT relationship in historical fiction where the point of the relationship wasn’t persecution, but acceptance.

But none of it ever materialized.

I wanted more from this book than I got. Back to the drawing board for me and Crusade-based historical fiction.

Any suggestions for me?

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10 thoughts on “Review: Pillars of Light

    • I’m totally with you here! If the whole thing had been the one relationship, coming to terms with their homosexuality against the backdrop of the crusades, that would have been an incredible book. Especially as the glimpse that we do get of the relationship was so tender.

  1. It sounds like this could have been so good! I wish I had suggestions for you, but I can’t think of any. I like that it’s set in Syria – I think any book I’ve read from this long ago has been set in England. I’ll be checking back later to see if anyone is able to think of a good rec for you!

  2. Too bad this one fell a little short. Do you know Nicole Galland’s books? I’ve read and enjoyed both The Fool’s Tale and Crossed. The latter is about the Fourth Crusade. (Because, you know, “if at first/second/third you don’t succeed, try, try again.”)

  3. I’ve been in your reading shoes before – where you see one storyline that really could have driven a book, but instead of developing that one, the author muddles it with another dozen storylines that are not nearly as potent. Sorry this one wasn’t the best! -Tania

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