A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree

Medium: eBook

Overview (No Spoilers)

Sarah’s Thoughts: 

A Wind from the Wilderness is based around the First Crusade with fantasy elements scattered loosely throughout. We follow three main characters of various heritages, with several other perspectives randomly popping up. The majority of our time is spent following Lukas, a Syrian Watcher who attracts trouble regardless of how innocuous his task or interaction may seem to be. Coming in a close second with dedicated time allotment is Ayla, whose foretold death looms heavy as she attempts to make her life meaningful in her limited time. The last main character that we spend significant time with is the guilt-ridden Count Saint-Gilles whose responsibility to his people, while following God’s path, weighs significantly in every decision during his dangerous quest to the Holy Land.

Rowntree starts her tale off with a bang as Lukas has his whole life turned upside down in one magic-filled night that shapes the rest of this novel. However, once Lukas becomes part of Count Saint-Gilles retinue, the progress for the remainder of the novel assumes a pace comparable to that of the pilgrimage. While I found the story generally entertaining, I struggled with it since there was no building of anticipation for me as the novel neared its end and expected climax. The plot steadily marched forward like the footsore pilgrims on their journey. 

Despite crafting a rich realm filled with intriguing characters, I was left wanting to know more about pretty much every aspect. The characters assumed fairly predictable, stereotypical roles and remained one-dimensional throughout, such that even if a main POV were to be in danger or killed off, the loss would not elicit much of an emotional reaction from the reader. Rowntree provides key details about their past, and the characters actively reflect upon the influential events that have shaped who they are, however they failed to achieve the depth needed to connect on a deeper level. This trend continues for overall worldbuilding as well, as upon finishing A Wind from the Wilderness, I still am not able to confidently tell you the goals and motivations for either the Watchers or the Vowed. Nor could I say much of anything regarding the history or prerogative of a mysterious flying vulture/demon/woman. These complaints aside, I found the overall foundation intriguing, especially as the story takes place in the early Crusades. 

Overall, despite a beginning that can’t help but draw readers in, A Wind from the Wilderness stalled into methodical pacing that leaves the reader with more questions than it reveals. Sarah’s Rating: 6/10

Stephanie’s Thoughts: 

Outside of fantasy, historical fiction is my jam.  I am the kind of woman who marks the release of a new Ken Burns doc on her calendar, spends hours reading the plaques at museums, and can’t bear to part with her history textbooks from college.  So, it will be no surprise when I say that I was excited to pick up A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree, a soaring crusades epic that is heavy on the history, and limned with battles and political intrigue galore.

The tale begins in ancient Oliveta, with Lukas Bessarion, the son of the alliterative Praetorian Prefect of Palestine, a Roman official and also member of a semi-secret group of “Watchers,” a shadowy council of men who are supposed to protect fellow Christians and seem to have some mysterious powers.  However, corruption is rampant, and after a falling out with the council, the Bessarion clan is ambushed by their Muslim nemesis, the sorceror Khalil.  As a consequence of this confrontation, Lukas is catapulted some 400 years into the future, right at the start of the First Crusade.  He invariably finds himself intertwined with a savvy Turk named Ayla, and together they join the Frankish and Greek forces heading south from Constantinople to Jerusalem in order to free the Holy Lands from their Muslim rulers.  Rowntree introduces a host of other characters, mainly major leaders in the Frankish and Greek contingency that I have to confess, at times, were difficult to keep straight.  Likewise, my Google search was in constant use as I looked up this emperor and that, along with a string of middle eastern locations.  For someone not well-versed in the 11th Century Byzantine Empire, parts of the journey proved to be challenging to add context and importance.

However difficult the geographical settings may have been for the reader to envision, Rowntree does an outstanding job of writing vivid battle scenes and describing First Crusade military tactics and armament.  Not usually one drawn to descriptions of gore and fighting, I found myself captivated by Rowntree’s descriptions of the attempt to storm the walls at Nicaea and the battle of Heraclea.  

While I enjoyed the story’s historical perspective and Rowntree’s adept, polished writing style, I wasn’t quite compelled by the two main characters, Lukas and Ayla.  I never found myself really rooting for either of them or passionately concerned when they put themselves in danger.  Quite honestly, I was more intrigued by the third most important character, Saint-Guilles and his shrewd, stalwart wrangling of the noblemen leading the crusade.  

I also took some issue with the old trope of casting the “other” as an almost cartoonishly evil villain; it seemed like rather than capitalizing on the opportunity to dispel Lukas’ prejudices against “heretics” through his interactions with Ayla, the story stubbornly kept his biases intact.  The beginning of the story has some promise to deliver on themes of tolerance and compassion, but never fully realized either of them.

All in all, A Wind from the Wilderness will appeal to history buffs and those who like sprawling stories with light fantasy elements.  Her knowledge of the age of crusades and sophisticated writing style make this a good choice for those willing to keep their Google search handy. Stephanie’s Rating: 7.5/10

Jennie’s Thoughts:

As Watchers, we are supposed to do justice and love mercy. Like salt preserves meat, so the Watchers preserve us from the divine wrath. But if the Watchers are as bad as this – if the Council is so corrupt that it must be abandoned, then there’s no help for us. The time of wrath has come.’

Published by Suzannah Rowntree in October 2018, A Wind from the Wilderness is the first book in the Watchers of Outremer series. One fateful night, the Bessarion family is torn apart, displaced across space and time. Following an enchanting prologue that questions how a religious group known as the Watchers should carry out their mission, the reader is transported along with Lukas Bessarion to Constantinople at the end of the 11th century. Disoriented, Lukas stumbles upon and inadvertently rescues Ayla, who returns the favor only moments later – this ends up being a recurring theme throughout the novel. As the result of another chance encounter, both opt to join Raymond of Saint-Gilles as he leads Frankish troops on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. All three of these characters provide valuable and opposing perspectives to many of the topics this tale examines (e.g., Christian vs. heretic, noble vs. peasant, etc). In terms of character motivations, Saint-Gilles strives to offset the sins of his past, Ayla aims to do something meaningful in the here and now, and all Lukas wants is to find a way to rejoin his family in the future (well, past).

The narrative is light on fantasy elements, allowing the events of the First Crusade to shine. Although this isn’t the type of story that I would normally choose for myself, Rowntree’s prose drew me in during times of action, eloquently expressing the highs and lows of battle (and its aftermath). The amount of time that the author has spent researching the religious wars of the medieval period is evident, and the scientist in me appreciated the inclusion of a reference list for those interested in learning more. Off the battlefield, Rowntree has penned meaningful moments of personal and political relationships, but overall, the pacing felt a little slow. And personally, I would’ve preferred for there to be more magical elements to balance out the historical fiction. I would have also liked further context on the magic that does exist, along with more insight into the ways of the Watchers and the Vowed. While I enjoyed following Lukas, Ayla, and Saint-Gilles on this journey, their stories conclude in a way that felt unfinished to me. Considering this series explores where each member of the Bessarion family ends up, it’d be interesting to see if and how the novels overlap. Jennie’s Rating: 6.5/10

Critiquing Chemist and her Bookish Boffins Average Rating: 6.5

Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound): 

  • I’ll have to say, I was a little disappointed the “amazing” weapon turned out to be an unbeatable spear.  I was expecting some kind of magic bomb or forcefield or some other wonderous object.  A spear just feels so pedestrian.
  • What exactly are the Messenger’s powers? What is the origin of the power of the Messengers? Lilith grants the powers for the Vowed, but what exactly are those powers and what is their extent?  Are there Messengers within the Vowed?
  • Why are the Vowed and the Watchers fighting? What are their actual goals as organizations? 
  • Was the black vulture on Baldwin’s shoulder Lilith? Is she already manipulating the Franks? How is she twisting Baldwin? What about the black vulture that flew away from the Watchers meeting in Constantinople? Has Lilith infiltrated them already too?
  • What are Lilith’s origins? Are there other magical beings like her? Are there good magical beings that would balance her out? Is she the biblical Lilith? 
  • The jump to Ayla being Lukas’ wife was a bit much. What if she couldn’t time travel with him? What about their conflicting religions? What about trust issues as Lukas knew she was a spy? Why did Lukas not avenge Ayla by telling Count Saint-Gilles of Evrard’s murderous ways? Lukas totally let Evard get away with killing Ayla! Her death should have been crushing but it really didn’t evoke any emotion from me. 
  • I couldn’t help but draw connections between Bohemond and Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger. We could never quite trust him or comprehend his motivations as he seemed to always be one step ahead.
  • Khalil’s fate makes you feel bad for him. That many years of suffering would be terrible. Why did Lilith never show herself to him before?
  • I’ll have to say, I was a little disappointed the “amazing” weapon turned out to be an unbeatable spear.  I was expecting some kind of magic bomb or forcefield or some other wonderous object.  A spear just feels so pedestrian.
  • I found Rowntree’s historical note fascinating, especially as she detailed the Nicaea siege and several other battles that happened in real life as described in this novel. I also enjoyed learning about which characters were actually based on real individuals and who was fabricated.
  • What happened or in what time period did the rest of the Bessarions? What about his Mother and baby sister? I’m intrigued that Rowntree has other stories following their threads.
  • Who was the old woman that Ayla and Lukas found among the rocks? How did Ayla know she was there?

Vocabulary Builder: 

Runnel: rivulet

Muzzily: lacking in clarity and precision

Jesses: a short strap secured on the leg of a hawk and usually provided with a ring for attaching a leash

Morass: a situation that traps, confuses, or impedes

Tesserae: a small piece (as of marble, glass, or tile) used in mosaic work

Peristyle: a colonnade surrounding a building or court

Readmit: to admit (someone) again

Suzerainty: a dominant state controlling the foreign relations of a vassal state but allowing it sovereign authority in its internal affairs

Ascetic: practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline

Cataphract: a suit of armor for the whole body

Bannock: a usually unleavened flat bread or biscuit made with oatmeal or barley meal

Compline:  the seventh and last of the canonical hours

Ordure: something that is morally degrading

Psalter:  a collection of Psalms for liturgical or devotional use

Portentous: eliciting amazement or wonder

Nascent: coming or having recently come into existence

Rood: a cross or crucifix symbolizing the cross on which Jesus Christ died

Genuflections:  to bend the knee

Tessellated– having a checkered appearance

Inchoate– being only partly in existence or operation

Cataphract– a suit of armor for the whole body

Apse– a projecting part of a building (such as a church) that is usually semicircular in plan and vaulted

Pantocrator– the omnipotent lord of the universe : almighty ruler —used especially of Christ

Porphyry– a rock consisting of feldspar crystals embedded in a compact dark red or purple groundmass

Tetrapylon– an edifice having four gates or portals (as one marking the intersection of two thoroughfares in an ancient Roman city)

Indigents– suffering from extreme poverty

Collop– a small piece or slice especially of meat

Varangian– a member of the bodyguard of the Byzantine emperors especially in the 11th and 12th centuries composed chiefly of Russians or later of Scandinavians or other northern Europeans

Ballistae– an ancient military engine often in the form of a crossbow for hurling large missiles

Preux– chivalrous; gallant

Byrnie– a coat of mail

Lamellar– having the form of a thin plate

Loggia– a roofed open gallery especially at an upper story overlooking an open court

Bivouac– a usually temporary encampment under little or no shelter

Heresiarch– an originator or chief advocate of a heresy 

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