“The small pieces of rat meat went into the cook pot. The pot bubbled and greasy foam rose to the top. The smell was odious, but the men rubbed their hands in anticipation. They were filthy and emaciated, covered with lice and fleas, skin red from the bites, short hair and beards matted. There were so many lice in the blankets they held round their shoulders, it felt as though the blankets were alive.” ‒ from DEATH’S HEAD, conditions in the Crusaders’ camp around Acre during the winter of 1190-1191
DEATH’S HEAD by Robert Broomall is a work of historical fiction based, I suspect loosely, on the siege of Muslim-held Acre (August 1189 – July 1191) by the Christian armies of the Third Crusade and depicting conditions within the Christian lines and assaults on the city walls both before and after the arrivals of King Philip II of France and King Richard I of England.
At the micro level of the plot, the story begins in England at Huntley Abbey with the monk Roger. Without undue delay, circumstances and Broomall’s pen finds Roger forced to flee the place to become a common soldier with the English forces in front of Acre. From that point, the story evolves pretty much as any other soap opera though staged in a place that, at times, makes a Third World slum look like Paradise. It didn’t help conditions in the Crusaders’ camp that they themselves were surrounded by Saladin’s army positioned to the east of the city. Against this background, which includes the most brutal of fight sequences, our hero Roger experiences professional advancement, love, treachery, loyalty, sickness, near-starvation, great friendships, and implacable enmities. Just like any other day at the office and all for the Glory of God.
Beyond its entertainment value, DEATH’S HEAD provides what one hopes is insight into the nature of medieval siege warfare and personal combat. Perhaps the author did the requisite research; he doesn’t say. There are also the character studies of the principle historical figures of the time and place both in the now of this book and the presumed future sequel: Philip II, Richard I, Saladin, Duke Leopold of Austria, and Conrad of Montferrat. In what seems a minor detail at the time, the novel interestingly relates how the design of the Austrian national flag reputedly came about.
DEATH’S HEAD ended so abruptly that I would have fallen off a barstool in surprise had I been sitting on one. It’s immediately obvious that Broomall is setting up a sequel. Roger is attractive enough a hero that I’ll continue to follow his exploits, especially as I suspect he’ll play a part in the great dramas to come. Indeed, the author may very well continue with multiple volumes in a “Roger of Huntley series”; the historical material is there to be mined and exploited.