Book review: Eagle: A Warrior is Born by Jack Hight

To the West, he was the curse of Christendom...the Saracen leader who impeded the Crusaders’ road to the Holy Land.

Thursday, 7th April 2011, 7:00 am

But Saladin, shrewd diplomat, decisive leader and fearless warrior, was respected by all – whether Muslim, Jew or Christian.

The Kurdish military hero, a towering figure in the history of the 12th century Crusades, succeeded where others had failed by uniting the disparate parts of the Middle East and Mesopotamia to create an effective fighting force.

His military exploits have featured in many a Hollywood blockbuster, not least the 2005 epic The Kingdom of Heaven, but now American historian and novelist Jack Hight has put a far more penetrating and enlightening spotlight on the legendary leader.

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Eagle, the first of a Saladin trilogy, introduces us to a skinny, polo-playing, bookish and religious boy called Yusuf Ibn Ayub, son of the former governor of Baalbek in the Lebanon.

In reality, little is known of Saladin’s youth but from a few scraps of history, Hight has fleshed out the budding military and political giant to create a credible and refreshingly sympathetic account of his early years.

By allowing Saladin’s story to unfold from a Muslim perspective, we are able to understand the man and his motives with far more clarity than Western history books have allowed.

And to help put Saladin’s life in context, Hight has included the parallel story of a fictional English teenager called John who has fled horrors at his home in Northumberland and whose fate becomes entwined with the Saracen boy Yusuf.

When the Crusader army, under the handsome but cruel Frankish leader Reynald de Chatillon, is routed beneath the bulky walls of Damascus, 16-year-old Saxon foot soldier John is cruelly betrayed by one of his own and left to die.

John, an idealistic young man who has come to the Holy Land to genuinely seek redemption, is captured by Saracen troops but not expected to live.

Despite being badly injured, he is bought as a slave by the young Yusuf for the price of a pair of sandals and taken to Yusuf’s home where skilled Jewish doctors use medical techniques, unheard of in the West, to save his life.

Brought together in a time of war and turbulence, the two boys form a friendship that will change the face of the Holy Land.

Timid Yusuf, bullied mercilessly by his older brother, will grow up to become the warrior Saladin, nicknamed ‘the Eagle’.

Meanwhile, John will teach his young master the military arts before returning to the West to serve first the King of Jerusalem and then the great crusading King Richard the Lionheart himself.

Hight’s stirring book is brimming with all the excitement, action, romance and adventure that readers would expect from a tale set in the turmoil of the Crusades - but it is also an eye-opening window onto the sophistication and complexity of Islamic life in the late Middle Ages and a superb early portrait of one of history’s most fascinating characters.

Roll on the next chapter.

(John Murray, hardback, £12.99)