Pagan's Crusade by Catherine Jinks

As you might imagine, the whole change jobs, sell my house, pack up, and move across the country thing has me a little stressed out. As a result, I am not always interested in reading serious non-fiction or even fiction. As a way to take a break and relax I have been reading young adult fiction. I find it interesting to compare and contract how various author’s approach the genre and what styles and stories work. Recently, I have discussed the Sister’s Grimm and Landon Snow series.

The last time I was at Half Price books I stumbled upon another intriguing new YA series: The Pagan Chronicles by Catherine Jinks from Candlewick Press.

The first book in the series, Pagan’s Crusade, introduces the character of Pagan Kirdouk, a Arab-Christian sixteen year old living in Jerusalem. Pagan is trying to put his dicey past behind him and so joins the Knights Templar. As the book’s dust jacket explains, however, things don’t quite go as planned:

He’s expecting only some protection from the seedier aspects of life on the street and a few square meals. Instead, Pagan finds himself hard at work for Lord Roland de Bram – an exciting life of polishing Lord Roland’s armor, laundering his garments, and even training to fight by his side.

But as the Infidel Saladin leads his army to Jerusalem, it becomes more and more difficult for Pagan and Lord Roland to discern what action to take or whom to trust. Neither Saladin’s army nor the Christian Crusaders offer easy answers. Is a bloody battle for control of the Holy City inevitable?

It won’t spoil anything to say that there are some bloody battles involved, but the real heart of the story is the relationship between Pagan and Roland. Initially, Pagan is only interested in paying off his debts and moving on, but in the course of working for the Knights Templar and works at being a good squire to the saint-like Roland, he develops a loyalty and maturity that changes his perspective.

Jinks brings an unique perspective to the series as a medieval scholar and the subject is creative and imaginative. Pagan is a likable character and the unique setting and time period makes for an interesting backdrop. But the book isn’t without its problems.

The School Library Journal’s critique provides a good jumping off point:

Rich with historical details, yet lacking in explanation of period or setting, the book fails to give readers the broader context of the events. Also, the ungainly first-person narration, much of it written in decapitated sentence fragments and parenthetical asides, will leave teens with the difficult tasks of empathizing with the narrator and attempting to understand the action. The character development is weak, leaving most of the players as mere caricatures. Pagan learns a lesson or two about responsibility while working with Roland and defending the city, but he doesn’t really evolve beyond anachronistic, sarcastic remarks. His favorite phrase, “Christ in a cream cheese sauce,” is funny once or twice, but loses something on the 20th reading.

I have to confess I didn’t find the lack of explanation of period or setting a big deal. But perhaps that is because as an adult I wasn’t looking for lots of back-story and with my study of history I already had a good handle on the background. But in thinking about it, I realized that younger kids might be confused about some of these elements and need a little more background. Depends on the child I would suppose. Curious kids might do the research themselves and still enjoy the books; or some might just enjoy the story without need a lot of details. Those who like to have the details up front might be a little lost or might be distracted by wanting to know more than the author is providing.

On the narrative and dialog structure, I have to agree with Library Journal. There were times when I felt the way Jinks structured the narrative led to confusion. Pagan’s internal dialog and actual conversations aren’t always clearly separate and tend to get jumbled up together. As a result, the transition between internal and external conversation is often too abrupt or unclear. A lot of Pagan’s snide retorts and cynical attitude is shown in his internal thoughts. But Jinks doesn’t manage the flow of dialog in a natural way.

Unlike the Journal, however, I felt like Pagan’s smart alek personality worked fine. He wasn’t laugh out loud funny or anything, but his character – a poor street smart, but diminutive, kid with a sharp wit – worked on that level for me. I didn’t notice the line noted in the review. I also thought that Pagan’s perspective was an interesting angle with which to view Jerusalem, the Knight Templars, and the Crusades.

The aspect that didn’t work as well was the sudden change in pace midway through the story. The story takes awhile to get going and then suddenly the emotions and action picks up pace substantially. The lack of character development makes this change seem artificial. The second half of the book is better than the first, but the deeper emotions involved don’t really flow directly from what was set out in the earlier story. Pagan and Roland seem to connect on a level that isn’t warranted from what we have been shown. Pagan just suddenly seems to care about Roland a great deal and vice versa.

All in all, Pagan’s Crusade didn’t knock my socks off, like the Sister’s Grimm did, but neither did it disappoint me in the way it seems to have the School Library Journal. It struck me as a promising, if uneven, first book in a series. If was intriguing enough for me that I will read the second book to see how the story continues and if Jinks grows as an author. If you have an interest in the crusades, or enjoy interesting young adult fiction with a unique twist, you might want to check out this interesting series.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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