The Crusades, religious corruption, and complex communities: Wayne Turmel confronts it all in his newest series, The Lucca le Pou Stories, of which the delicately written Acre’s Bastard is the first instalment of the series. In it, we are introduced to the famed city of Acre, to the half-Syrian, half-Frankish orphan Lucca, and his colourful collective of friends and enemies. The tensions of the time are well conveyed, but so too is this unbreakable sense of community and togetherness, which many traditional history books fail to deliver to their readers. By creating his own world with his own fully-formed characters, Turmel brings that faraway (and often inconceivable) time to life.
Although the novel is set in an exciting period of religious and political history, it is in fact the characters who continue to drive the story forward. Lucca – of course – is the standout in the text. Creating an incredibly believable ten-year-old mischievous boy, and somehow placing him right in the centre of the eve of the fall of Jerusalem, is no easy task and one that many writers (and perhaps readers) would shy away from. I must admit, when Lucca is first introduced to us as being just ten, an orphan, and seemingly of low standing (due partly to his mixed heritage), I was dubious as to how this immature character could hold up an entire story in an unfamiliar time period to many readers, all on his own. Why would a young boy care what happened to his city? Does he even understand the complexity of what is happening, the fury of what is to come? In many cases, the answer is no – but that turns out to be perfectly fine too, and actually works to the novels advantage. As Lucca moves and grows throughout the book, the reader learns with him.
Turmel makes sure that no prior knowledge of the Crusades is needed, although it is certainly clear that he himself has a strong and passionate knowledge of that period in history. In many ways, Lucca still remains that naïve ten-year-old we are first presented with, peering over the walls to catch a glimpse of a naked woman. He craves a mother’s touch, a father’s advice, the silliness that comes with having friends of your own age. However, due to his unique situation and the troubles he finds himself in, he has to grow up, and fast. A fantastic transformation occurs over the course of the text – one of the ending images, of Lucca standing with his newly acquired horse, watching helplessly but also somehow knowingly as the battle unfolds below him, is an image which for me, completed and cemented this change. Turmel uses Lucca to ask the questions which we as readers feel compelled to know – does everyone really hate each other, as they are told? Why do people still fight, knowing almost for certain they are going to lose? By the end of the novel we, like young Lucca, have a deeper understanding of the politics of the time, the atmosphere of the area, and the dynamics of its inhabitants.
Turmel’s world is an ambitious one, and praise must be given for the depths of detail which fills the novel. It is an interesting and difficult part of history to discuss, and Turmel does well not produce a monotonic history book; instead, he breathes life into the time period and injects it with other, equally challenging topics. At the beginning of the story, Lucca is assaulted by a Brother, someone who he was always taught to treat with the utmost respect. The attempted rape clearly lingers with him, and that final scene with Brother Idoneus is one heavy with emotion. Turmel manages to portray the deceit and the trauma that Lucca feels after the attack, without giving too much page-space to the brutality itself. He also chooses to focus on another challenging topic – the leper community. Presumably, like the reader (at least like me anyway), Lucca is tainted with misconceptions of what actually happens inside a leper hospital, and makes assumptions as to what the people would be like. In fact, Turmel establishes this beautiful and loving community; the relationship between the Sisters and Lucca is a particular favourite of mine. They are incredibly strong-willed and caring, smashing stereotypes of what it meant to be a woman of lower standing during that time. The friendship between Brother Marco and Lucca is another strong one, with Brother Marco evolving to be a character who is loved and rooted for by the reader as he helps Lucca along his quest into manhood.
For all the quality strong characters and their interlocking relationships, I do wish that more could have been done with the unique setting in which they are placed. Granted, it is a time and place which I know very little about, and I’m also unsure as to whether I would even take on an environment so far from anything I ever usually write – or even read – about. However, Turmel clearly has a knowledge of the area, which is explained in the afterword, his vision for the story being cultivated during a meaningful visit to the battle-sites years beforehand. This obvious passion, coupled with his writing talents, should have meant more elaborate imagery– more sights, sounds, smells, colours. When these descriptions are included, they are beautiful and pure: “About half the sun still hung over Acre’s wall bathing it in a golden glow that belied the filthy, fetid and dung heap the city really was” and “we blended into the purple shadows as the sun retired behind the Templar and Hospital houses and tucked into the sea for the night.” These are the images which, for me, really bought the city to life and gave me, as an outsider and a reader, a place in the novel. My only wish is that there were more of them.
Nevertheless, Acre’s Bastard is certainly an accomplished piece of fiction. Turmel makes it clear that he is not done with this story, and especially not with the characters themselves. This is great – upon finishing the book, I definitely got a sense that there was more to come, and I am especially intrigued to follow Lucca and his newfound confidence, as well as the other peripheral characters who lurked mysteriously in the dark shadows of Acre.
Acre’s Bastard is available here.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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