________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 1 . . . . September 4, 2009


Crusade. (The Heretic's Secret, Book 1).

John Wilson.
Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 2009.
348 pp., hardcover, $17.95.
ISBN 978-1-55470-096-7.

Subject Heading:
Crusades-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Mary Thomas.

**½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.


The old man gazed thoughtfully at John, drumming his fingers on the table. "So you know nothing of us?"

"I know that you believe that the material world is the realm of Satan, that you don't take oaths, that you believe the Catholic Church is corrupt, that Christ was just a man, that ..."

"Enough." Umar stopped John's recitation. "But you don't know of our origins?"

"Not much, no."

Umar rubbed his eyes. "Such strange times," he said more to himself than to John. "I hope Beatrice knows what she is doing." He sighed again. "Very well. I shall tell you something of the burden we Good Christians carry. In doing so, I shall be passing some of that burden on to you. Can you bear it?"

"I can," John said as confidently as he could manage, although he had not the slightest idea what the burden might be.


The Crusades, in spite of romantic tales of Richard the Lionheart's attempts to reclaim the Holy Land for Christendom and such, were not the high point of medieval Western civilization. Many were initiated from less than spiritual motives and, once begun, were supported for an incredible mixture of reasons. Sending quarrelsome younger sons off to Palestine removed them from being in a position to rise up against their lords, for example, and burdens of heavy taxes could be blamed on the cost of maintaining knights in the East. The young and adventurous looked on the Crusades as an opportunity for excitement and plunder, all in the name of good works and a guarantee of eventual heavenly bliss. They were also a means by which politically minded popes could attempt to rid their own lands of any inconvenient brand of heresy. John Wilson's book focuses on this last reason.

     In France, the Cathars, or Good Christians as they were called, held that all material things, including their own bodies, were inherently evil and, therefore, works of Satan. Only the soul, being immaterial, belonged to God and had the potential to be truly Good. Consequently, they eschewed all wealth and possessions and denounced the Catholic Church and its leaders for their corruption and ostentatious riches. Like St Francis, they lived lives of poverty and were loved by the people they helped, tolerated by most of the minor nobility because, on the whole, they caused no trouble, and hated by the Church for their theology and its practical consequences.

     Crusade is the story of two boys on the verge of manhood. Within weeks of each other, John and Peter had been abandoned on the steps of the Priory of St Anne in Toulouse as infants and had been raised together by the sisters, taught to read and write, and to be good Catholics. Although best friends, they are very different. Peter is intense, introspective, and religious, in almost complete opposition to John who is inquisitive and loves learning for its own sake, but especially if it can teach him how to draw pictures that portray the world as it really is. Their paths diverge at the very beginning of the book with Peter seeing a vision of death that sends him straight into the arms of Mother Church as a novice monk, leaving John to take up first with a travelling minstrel and later with the Cathars. One of the aims of these Good Christians was to preserve the contents (immaterial and, therefore, holy) of books (material and, therefore, wicked, as well as being open to destruction) by having people memorize entire volumes. The weakness in this system was in finding suitable people to whom to pass on the knowledge thus acquired, and John is identified as one who might be capable of the task, with the added advantage that he is not a Cathar and, therefore, less likely to be killed because of his beliefs.

     The story follows the parallel paths of the two boys through the beginnings of Pope Innocent III's Crusade against the Cathars, up to the fall of B'eziers and Minerve to the forces of the Church and the subsequent burnings of the Cathar heretics. It ends with John and his childhood sweetheart heading off together toward Al-Andalus and the wonderful books it is said to contain, and Peter going to Rome as an emissary of the bishop in charge of the campaign of the Crusade. Their paths are obviously destined to cross again.

     Crusade is a good story, though it is told in a somewhat preachy fashion that will probably not grab your average young reader. I found the details of the Cathar heresy instructive and the ideas presented thought-provoking and very interesting. It is a piece of history of which I knew very little and now feel--perhaps mistakenly--that I know a good deal more. Wilson has done his research thoroughly. However, Peter is an unsympathetic character, and his associates in the Church even more so, while John's love of drawing, learning, and adventure are not enough to carry the action along. There are, as well, some infelicities of language that grated on my ear, though they might not bother everyone. Adso, for example, is a rough country man who guides John and his Cathar mentor Beatrice away from the city of B'eziers as it is about to be taken over by the nobles fighting for the Pope. He drops his h's, English-style, to indicate his relative lack of education, but speaks of 'excrement' as they make their way through the sewers. So do the common soldiers out hunting for escapees. Not likely.

     Crusade is the first of a trilogy; and so it was setting the scene and getting us in the mood for what follows. As John pursues his dream of learning better drawing techniques from the elusive text that he has heard may be extant in Al-Andalus, and Peter his advancement in the church hierarchy, the reader may be drawn more compellingly into the conflict between their divergent paths. I look forward to reading the next book with great interest.

Recommended with reservations.

Mary Thomas works in an elementary school library in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.