This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults. It appears in volume 16.2.
Grail suffers from the plague that besets all great historical novels: the reader cannot determine with certainty where the history leaves off and the fictional narrative begins. To say that John Wilson has done his homework is not, I think, giving him sufficient credit. He has not only researched both historical setting and historical incident, but manages to convey, through his densely packed narrative, what feels to be the reality of life during the Crusades. The historian in me despairs that we can never know, for sure, how close his account comes, but for modern readers, I think it more than suffices.
His tale revolves around four main characters: friends and comrades who must choose their own paths through the tumultuous political landscape of Southern Europe in 1211. John and Isabella seek knowledge and truth in the deserted libraries of Al-Andalus; their childhood friend Peter follows the Church leaders in the search for the Holy Grail and the persecution of heretics; Adso, their soldier companion, has his own troubles, which lead him to the brink of destruction. Their stories are entwined in the history of the Knight Crusaders’ persecution of the Cathar heretics of Southern France, and the search for both the mythical Grail and the apocryphal Gospel of the Christ. The characters are engaging and consistent. We value the wisdom of he who became St. Francis of Assisi, and respect John’s search for learning as an artist, but one wonders how the modern young adult reader will respond to the voices in Peter’s head and the stigmata on his hands and feet. In this instance, the confluence of historical fact and authorial narration becomes problematic. Most of the archaic thoughts and beliefs—such as Peter’s opinion that “[i]f God wished us to see the moon and stars as if they were in our hands … [h]e would have given us the eyesight to do so” (236)—can be interpreted within their historic context; Peter’s voices and stigmata, on the other hand, we are asked to accept as real. If one can set aside the wonder and questions that this raises, we are left with a tightly woven tale of intrigue and mystery, presented in the most authentic of medieval armour and cloak. For the lover of historical fiction, a series to be savoured.