Wednesday, June 28, 2006

book review - Mark of the Cross


Title: Mark of the Cross
Author: Judith Pella
Publisher: Bethany House
Genre: Fiction, Historical Romance
ISBN: 0764201328

We first meet Philip de Tollard, the 18-year-old illegitimate and outcast son of a British nobleman and hero of Judith Pella’s Mark of the Cross, on his way to a neighboring estate to work as a stable hand. On that journey he encounters Beatrice, the beautiful and spirited teenaged daughter of his new boss. From the story’s beginning in the spring of 1263, this 450-page book follows the tragedies and triumphs of these two for the next ten years.

The story is firmly rooted in the culture and history of the 13th century. The feudal system, crusades and knights, jousting and chivalry, castles and convents, servants and nobility are all part of the milieu.

Pella has divided the story into five main sections to follow the tale of Philip and Beatrice as they are first thrown together, then torn apart. The sections take us from England to France to Italy to Palestine and back to England as Philip and Beatrice follow their seemingly separate fates. In the process they mature. Philip goes, through the plot’s twists and turns, from being an impetuous and hot-headed though idealistic youth to a ruthless and decisive leader. And Beatrice’s selfish and sensuous tendencies are channeled, through her own set of trials, into selfless and compassionate healing pursuits. The question is, will they ever find each other again?

Though the two main players are complex, other characters are not as interesting or fully drawn. Few, however, are ambiguous. In that way, the book has the feel of a fairy tale, with the good characters thoroughly good, the evil completely evil.

For me the book’s strength is in the little known historical period it explores. To do that, Pella roots her tale in the middle of actual events, to the extent of making some historical figures minor characters. Mostly the story is told without undue explanation (with the reader given credit for background knowledge or knowing how to research if intrigued to find out more). The point at which Pella’s enthusiasm for historical details appears to take over, breaking the narrative spell, is in her explanation and opinion of relics on page 160, where she strays from storytelling to lecturing and dispensing editorial comment.

The storytelling style is distinctive, with a certain formality of word choice and sometimes convoluted sentence construction used in both conversation and narrative (“Mayhap” for “perhaps,” “coin” for “money,” “While the hunting party waited in a small glade, the huntsmen and handlers went forth with the limers and harriers to set upon the tracking...”). The text is also sprinkled with the vocabulary of the time (“destriers”, “braies,” “chausses,” “braw,” etc.). I assume Pella chose to tell the story this way to give readers the feel of a different time in history. I appreciated the historical accuracy, but the archaic storytelling style annoyed me at first. I did eventually get used to it, though, as Pella never strays from that path from beginning to end.

Some of the themes the story tackles – like class difference, and the meaning and purpose of marriage – also spring from the historical context. Others – like betrayal, revenge, love, friendship, the relationship between father and son, and having a relationship with God – are timeless.

If you are looking for a romantic story with a Christian slant, would like the vicarious experience of being a knight or lady, and prefer the graphic description of hand-to-hand combat over battles with guns, bombs and planes, Mark of the Cross may be just the fat beach-book for you.

(Thank you to the Internet Marketing Department of Bethany House for providing a copy of the book for review.)

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