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The Jester    by James Patterson & Andrew Gross order for
by James Patterson
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This first foray into history by James Patterson, along with Andrew Gross, is framed by the miraculous discovery of a precious relic from the time of Christ in a duke's grave ... but local lore tells that this prize really belonged to a jester. The authors then move on to 1096 in southern France for the story behind the discovery, one with a strong flavor of Robin Hood and fainter echoes of Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche - a winning combination.

Red-headed Hugh De Luc, married to his childhood sweetheart Sophie, is tempted when Peter the Hermit passes through their village calling for commoners to join in his Crusade. But it's the brutal murder of a village child by knights of the local lord that finally persuades him to take the Cross, in return for the promise of freedom. Hugh gives Sophie a sunflower and remembers her teasing song, 'A maiden met a wandering man ...' during his two years absence.

In the Holy Land, Hugh watches as friends and companions die, one by one, and is shocked by the ferocious savagery of the Tafurs, Frank warriors and 'disgraced knights who followed a secret lord.' After the siege of Antioch, Hugh comes close to death himself but is saved and freed as a result of his gift of laughter. He takes a staff and other small mementos and heads home to Sophie, earning his way as a jongleur.

Hugh returns to disaster; his inn burned to the ground, his small son (born in his absence) murdered and his wife taken by riders wearing black crosses. Hugh's vowed revenge is delayed after a boar injures him in the woods. He is saved by the lovely and compassionate young maiden, Emilie, and taken in her train to Borée. In the meantime, the Black Cross riders, les Retournés, act in other scenes of atrocity and torture (always with links to the Crusades), and we wonder what it is they so ruthlessly seek.

Emilie aids Hugh in his quest to discover Sophie's fate; she has the lord's fool, Norbert teach him the jester's trade. Hugh plies it in order to gain access to castles (and their dungeons) where his wife might be held. Endangered himself, he finds both friends and enemies in surprising places. He finally hears Sophie's song once more, learns the identity of the lord behind the Black Cross scum, and goes to war dressed in motley, old friends joining his fellowship with 'sharpened ax', hammer and whatever other tools they have at hand.

The Jester is an accessible, improbable, and romantic historical thriller, written with the short succinct chapters that Patterson always uses to keep his action at a gallop. It's both the tale of a fool in search of freedom in the medieval period when it was hard to achieve, and a celebration of laughter. Though the authors take great liberties with history, they sure know how to entertain.

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