Set against the vividly realized backdrop of the disastrous crusade of 1101, Hawthorne’s latest medieval historical novel consistently broadens and subverts the very categories it invokes. This is the story of young noblewoman Elisabeth von Winterkirche, who trains as a warrior alongside her brother Elias and his squire (and lover) Albrecht—until Elias dies and Elisabeth is confronted with the normal role of a 12th-century high-born woman: loveless betrothal and joyless marriage, in her case to a brutish local baron. She opts instead for a strategy right out of medieval legend (not to mention Shakespeare): she dons her brother’s armor and goes off to the Crusades herself, disguised as a young man.
“Could a woman wield a sword and fight alongside trained knights on destriers?” Hawthorne asks, then answers (with more personal assurance than historical support), “Of course she could,” and some of the most entertaining parts of this novel involve Elisabeth doing just that. But the book’s main emphasis is on love, not war: Elisabeth quickly finds that, like her brother, she’s attracted to her own gender. “Love is love,” she declares, “Pleasure is pleasure. I don’t care what anyone says.” Readers who might wonder if things were really that simple nine centuries ago would do well to remember that Hawthorne is writing fiction—and quite good fiction at that.