Pagan’s Crusade by Catherine Jinks. New York: Collins. 2004. 272 pages.
I learned about Pagan’s Crusade on a medieval history list, where a poster recommended it for young adults. Pagan, a 16-year-old product of war rape who arises from the grimy underbelly of 1187 Jerusalem, finds himself desperate to join the Knights Templar for both the money and protection from the lowlifes to whom he’s indebted. Life as a Templar squire won’t be easy, he’s told. “Lord Roland’s last squire was disemboweled by the Infidel and his guts were tied across the road to the fortress,” to which Pagan mentally responds, “Hip hip hooray.”
It’s Pagan’s irreverent commentary and metaphors that may hook the young adult reader. In Pagan’s world, those who aren’t rotting from disease and poverty are rotting from corruption and cynicism, with one remarkable exception—the man to whom he’s hired himself as squire.
Like many teenagers, Pagan nicknames individuals based on their appearance, so for example the sergeant who interviews him becomes “Rockhead” (“face like a fort, eyes like arrowheads”). When Pagan learns that his Knight Templar, Lord Roland Roucy de Bram, is a paragon of looks, strength, and virtue, he dubs him “Saint George” (“like something off a stained glass window”). If Pagan can’t stand Rockhead, he’s not too sure about Saint George, either, as they set about protecting pilgrims and then defending Jerusalem itself.
Pagan sounds like the teenager he is, but his voice is that of an alienated loner who’s come of age in the age of video and games rather than the twelfth century. Young adults may relate to his running, clipped commentary on everyone and everything, but I found it to be tiresome, especially as it is not leavened by a sound, suspenseful plot or even historical context. The anticlimactic, predictable denouement didn’t leave this older adult reader wanting more of this series about the “misadventures of a squire in peril,” a young man surrounded by war, violence, starvation, disease, and death who whines, “Lentils again. Terrific.”