Mary Ann Bernal has crafted a tale that has romance, war, and vivid characters. A young nun, Avielle, treats lepers. She desires to follow God, but the temptations of the flesh are too much for her. She goes after Gideon, a Jew posing as a Gentile, and becomes pregnant. To hide her disgrace, she joins the Crusade of Peter the Hermit, traveling to the Holy Land as penance. She bumps into Gideon again, but their union is brief. Peter, it seems, is no general, and his army is hardly an army. When Duke Robert 1 of Normandy comes through with his chief retainer Etienne, Avielle joins the new crusading group and finds a more permanent romance. Mary Ann has done her research and exposes the underbelly of the Crusades and the actors involved.
In the early parts of the book, the tales of Avielle and Etienne are disconnected and parallel, one seeming to have little relationship to the other. The flow of the story is interrupted by omniscient narrator history dumps, not told from any character’s point of view, which detracts from the pacing and suspense. Avielle and Etienne are drawn well, as the principal characters of the book, but it was difficult for me to root for them, as each time I start liking them, they did something wrong – Etienne ignores his wife, whores with Duke Robert, and although a good soldier, his personal life is a mess. Avielle inspires pity more than empathy, as a young woman unable to control her desires, and taken advantage of, albeit with her cooperation, by men. Her most endearing trait is her medical skill, which she shares freely.
The romance between Etienne and Avielle is the central focus of the latter portion of the book. Etienne learns to treat her better than Isabel, his first wife. Avielle learns the trials of a woman whose husband is in the military, with frequent absences and danger.
For those unfamiliar with the Crusades, the tale is an eye-opener as to what really transpired, and the conflicting goals of the princes who undertook to free Jerusalem from Islam. The story is engaging, and well-told, except for the side jaunts into encyclopedic history.
More tragedy than romance, Crusader’s Path exposes the flaws of the Crusades and the vulnerable position of women in that time. You’ll likely be wondering up to the end as to the fate of Avielle and Etienne.
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