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Review: A Wind from the Wilderness, by Suzannah Rowntree

A historical fantasy set during the First Crusade

You might guess that I really enjoy a portal fantasy, where the main character is transported from one world to another by some mysterious means. And if that involves time travel between real historical eras in our own world, the more the better. In fact, I like that concept so much I wrote one of my own!

But it’s often difficult to find other books like this. So you can imagine my delight when I heard of A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree, a historical fantasy in which a young man is transported through time to another era in history. It was especially intriguing to me because the setting is one that is very different from my own book.

Wilderness opens in Syria in AD 636. Lukas Bessarion is a Greek Christian from a noble family. They belong to the Watchers, guardians who look after certain geographical areas. As the story opens, the Arabs are invading Palestine and Syria. Sixteen-year-old Lukas and his

Don’t you just love this cover?

family have fled the heretics who have conquered Jerusalem to find sanctuary in Antioch, where his father hopes to find assistance from other Watchers to fight for Jerusalem. Emperor Heraclius, the ruler of the Byzantines, has himself fled to Constantinople, giving up control to the Arabs.

The Watchers are startled when they are told by a supernaturally-endowed Messenger that their Council is disbanded because of their greed and deceit. The guardianship of the area is given to the Bessarions, as Lukas’ father had repented of the evils he and the other Watchers had fallen into. Chaos ensues when the Arab army descends on Antioch, bringing with them a sorcerer, who seeks to find a powerful weapon that Lukas’ father has hidden.

The sorcerer casts a spell, bringing horrors and demons from the wilderness, including a mysterious black vulture-woman. But Lukas’ little brother crawls away in terror, breaking the spell, and this casts Lukas far away into the future, to AD 1097. He ends up in Myra, a Turkish city four days away from Antioch.

Of course, much has changed in four centuries, but some things have not. Mighty armies still battle for possession of the Holy Land. A Crusading Army has come to take back the land and especially its holy city, Jerusalem, from the Arab conquerors.

The bulk of the book tells of Lukas’ struggle to adapt to this new world. He eventually finds favour with the leader of the Crusade, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, a wily old Frankish warrior. He also begins a friendship with Ayla, a Turkish teen who acts as a spy for her people in the Crusaders camp. Their relationship blooms into something more, which brings with it obvious difficulties. These star-crossed lovers must choose between a future together and their loyalties to their people. Throughout, Lukas’ main goal is still to get back to Antioch and somehow find a way back to his home and time.

As Lukas becomes more entwined in the Crusading army and makes more enemies in its midst, he and Ayla become both closer together and further apart. There is no denying the attraction between them, but both are fighting for opposite sides of the warring armies, and a future together seems impossible.

But there is more than meets the eye here in these dusty lands. Lukas soon realizes that the black vulture-woman is amongst them, bringing terror and death in her wake.

And, out in the wilderness, a terrible secret awaits discovery…,

This book is full of rich historical details and interesting personalities, with enough of a touch of fantasy to keep things intriguing. I enjoyed visiting this fascinating time in history and seeing the struggle for power among the Crusaders as they fought not only the Turkish forces but for supremacy among themselves. I loved that real historical figures were used as characters, like Raymond of Saint- Gilles. Rowntree refuses to paint either the Crusaders or their enemies, the Turks, as either heroes or villains. These were real people with complex motives and goals, and she allows us to see that.

This is a YA novel, which is not my favourite type of novel, but even so, I did enjoy this book. The author does a great job with the details of history and setting, transporting the reader effortlessly into this distant time and place. She explores questions of loyalty and friendship and the responsibilities and limits of power.

A worthy read if you enjoy historical fantasy!

A Wind from the Wilderness is the first book in the Watchers of Outremer series. The other books in the series, Lady of Kingdoms and  A Day of Darkness, are also available. They tell the stories of other members of Lukas’ family after they are cast into the future. So, if you are intrigued, you’ve got a few books to add to your TBR list!