The Waste Land tells two very different but interlinking stories. The first and main story in the novel is based at the end of the eleventh century and revolves around a young man called Hugh de Verdon. Hugh is the youngest son of a minor French noble and has always dreamed of been a fighter and a knight, just like his father. However, after his father and brothers are killed in an ambush, Hugh is forced to take on a clerical life, as his mother cannot cope with the death of his father and sends Hugh to become a monk. Hugh is enrolled as a novice at the great Monastery of Cluny, where because of his quick mind and his family connections, rapidly becomes secretary to the Prior of the monastery. Although Hugh enjoys been able to read and study at the monastery, he feels that the clerical life is not as fulfilling as he wanted. Hugh still wants to be a fighter like his father; he still wants to feel the exhilaration of riding a horse and chasing down pray. Luckily for Hugh, the declaration made by Pope Urban, stating that there would be a Crusade against the Saracens of Jerusalem, answers Hugh's preys. Also, with the emergence of the Duke of Lower Lorraine (Godfrey Boulogne, who is a distant cousin of Hugh's) at the monastery, finally convinces Hugh that been a Crusader is his path. Hugh manages to gain leave from Cluny and heads east with Godfrey. However, unluckily for the young knight, Hugh soon finds out that war and Christianity are not as glorious as he believed in his dreams, as he is introduced to secrets and stories that reveal the true nature of Christ's death.
The second story is that of a group of Oxford professors and scholars. The school has come under a lot of financial pressure over the last few years, resulting in a new Master being employed to sort out the mess. The new Master knows that money has to be brought into the university and with the emergence of an ancient manuscript from the Crusades, written by none other than Hugh de Verdon himself, the Master comes up with a plan to get the university out of debt. He employs a Best-Selling author who used to go to school at the university and who, like the university, has also fallen on hard times. The professors help the Best-Selling author to tell Hugh's extraordinary tale and help fill in some of the gaps which are missing from the era of the Crusades. However, with the discovery of Hugh's manuscript comes jealousy and envy, as it is the school and not the finder of the manuscript who will make all the money off the new book. This causes a chain of events that leads to sabotage, arson and even murder as the individual tries to kill the university professors who will deny him his fame and fortune.
I really enjoyed reading The Waste Land! As many of you know, I am a massive fan of historical-fiction but have never really read any fiction based around the Crusades, and only have the most basic of knowledge about what happened during the First Crusade in 1096. For me, The Waste Land was an excellent book to read to get an introduction and an interest in the Crusades, as Hugh's story is so interesting and takes him all over the various battles and cities in the Holy Land. Furthermore, Acland does a brilliant job in describing the battles and cities in his novel and to say that he describes himself as a `modern linguist' and not a historian, really shows how well written and descriptive this novel is, as it emerges you in the history and makes you feel like you were there, fighting alongside Hugh! Moreover, the added aspect of the murder-mystery of the university and the witty-and-often-malicious banter between the professors adds some humour and a further dimension to the book, which I really liked!
However, I did have one minor issue with the book; towards the end there was a lot of Hugh riding and walking. I felt that this slowed the pace of the book down as the riding often took place between two major events. Now obviously I understand that marching and riding was a major part of any Crusader's life, but I still felt that towards the end, Hugh's travelling did slow the book down. Also, this is not really a problem for me (I really liked it in fact) but the novel does end on a cliff hanger! Like I said, I really like this as it sets up the next novel of the series and makes you really excited to read it. However, I know some readers do not like cliff hangers! But do not worry! Simon's next book in the series The Flowers of Evil is already released, so if you wanted to, you could just buy this book straight after The Waste Land and continue reading Hugh's tale!
Nevertheless, even though I did have this small issue, I still really enjoyed the book! It was a great historical-fiction novel mixed interestingly with murder mystery and medieval Grail romances. I would suggest this book to anyone who is interested in the Crusades or has an interest in historical fiction as a general. I would also suggest it to fans of other historical grail quest novels such as Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell or the Templar novels written by Michael Jecks.
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