The Fool's Crusade, by Pip Vaughan-Hughes, is a charming piece of historical fiction featuring the most unlikely of heroes: a banker. Petroc, "Patch" to his friends, was once a roguish relic-hunter. Now he owns most of Italy and swims with his lady-love in vast piles of gold.
Normally, this would be considered a charmed sort of life. However, the late 16th century is a pretty awful time. While the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor trade blows (military, religious and political), Petroc and his heaps of money are stuck in the middle. It takes all of his skill to keep out of the conflict, but, inevitably, he must choose a side.
Petroc's plans take him to unlikely places - including the middle of the Seventh Crusade.
As a (rich) merchant, Petroc is a bit more worldly than the rest of the soldiers and lacks the necessary jingoist sentiments to be an effective Crusader. And with near-anachronistic savviness, he's tired of religious warfare. Between battles, disease, assassination attempts and flirtations with early alchemy, Petroc has a rough time.
The Fools' Crusade is an unusual take on adventure. Petroc-as-banker is a unique take on heroism. He's past "reluctant" and well into "unwilling" - he's someone whose adventuring days should've been well-finished. The Fools' Crusade takes place after the traditional happy ending, and I appreciate the exercise. Petroc should be shagging his beautiful wife in a villa made of gold. Instead, he's sleeping in a hut, somewhere out in the Nile delta, wearing clothing encrusted in his own choleric fecal matter. Similarly, some of his best acts of heroism are fairly unique: You will be dazzled by acts of money-lending! Astounded by usury! Thrilled by the counting of ducats and writing of letters!
In fact, when Petroc lapses into traditional sword-swinging macho silliness, I was quite disappointed. Anachronistic intelligence is one thing. But unnatural cunning combined with battlefield invincibility stretches my suspension of disbelief.
The Fools' Crusade is the fourth (and presumably final) book in the series. Awkwardly, this was the first I've read, but I was impressed enough that I'll go back and seek out the other three. Reading this as a stand-alone did not create any problems, although there were a few dramatic reveals that fell flat due to my ignorance. The story is good, the era is well-researched and the character is compelling - if a few characters seemed to come out of nowhere, that's still better than the genre standard.
Out September 2010 in the UK from Orion.