Reading Group Guide
When Will Campbell joins the most powerful organization in Europe, the Order of the Knights Templar, he is thrown into a world of intrigue. Apprenticed to the foul-tempered scholar Everard, he must try to make sense of many things: his own past; the dangerous mystery that surrounds Everard; and his feelings for Elwen, a strong-willed young woman whose path seems linked with his own.
Charged with recovering a heretical book stolen from the Order’s vaults, Will ends up fighting for his life. In a time of war and secrecy, he will travel from the back streets of Paris to the burning plains of Syria to protect a legacy he is only beginning to understand.
ABOUT ROBYN YOUNG
Robyn Young has worked as a creative writing teacher, financial advisor, folk singer, and music festival organizer, and has traveled extensively in Europe and Egypt. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Sussex and lives in Brighton, England. Brethren is her first novel.
A CONVERSATION WITH KOREN ZAILCKAS
This is obviously a heavily researched novel. Where did you begin researching? Did you travel to the places in your novel?
Once I had the idea for Brethren, I read as many books as I could find on the Crusades to introduce myself to this world. I didn’t even dare attempt any writing at this stage. I hadn’t studied history since school and the only lesson I remember on the medieval period was on instruments of torture, which was regretfully unforgettable. At first, I had no clear methodology. The first two books I came to I simply read, assuming, I think, that it would all just remain in my head: two hundred years of history, with all the thousands of names, dates and events that went with it. Shortly after this, I started to make notes. I compiled a huge folder as I went, filled with information from history books, articles chopped out of magazines, maps I had to draw (because the first map of London wasn’t created until the sixteenth century). Being a penniless writer, I bought many books from charity shops. The new ones, which I promptly scribbled all over, came from every known relative each Christmas and birthday, meaning that I had a really eclectic mix, from fusty old texts written by academics in the 1950s to shiny books detailing the latest evidence on the Crusades. They were all helpful in different ways. I now have over one hundred source books on my shelves. It was many months before I began writing and the research didn’t stop there, neither did it stop with the second novel. I need to know everything, from the histories and actions of the real people whose stories I am retelling and the great events they were part of, to what coin they would have used to buy a loaf of bread, to the languages they spoke and the clothes they wore. To be a novelist you have to be devoted; to be a historical novelist you have to be positively zealous. In the end, readers only see around a quarter of what I actually researched. It’s the bizarre little details I love. Baybars really did have a soothsayer called Khadir and King Henry III really did have a pet elephant. In terms of visiting places described in the novel, I traveled in Egypt, which was a truly incredible experience. Quite a bit of the second novel is set there and the tight, winding alleys in the heart of Cairo are, I would imagine, pretty much the same today as they would have been. I’ve also been to the Temple church in London that features in Brethren. That was quite an experience, to stand there in the silence and imagine my characters once having done the same.
What motivated you to write about the Knights Templar?
Brethren was inspired by the name: Knights Templar. I first heard of these medieval warrior monks seven years ago, listening to a couple of friends of mine talking about them. The name sounded so evocative and the whole idea of them was instantly intriguing. How could you be a monk and a warrior? I wanted to know. A few months later, I discovered a fantastic book by Cambridge historian Malcolm Barber, called The Trial of the Templars. The Order, one of the most powerful and affluent of their time, was famously accused of heresy and arrested by the King of France on Friday, October 13, 1307. The trial the king masterminded was, scholars believe, an attempt to secure their wealth for himself. It saw the eventual dissolution of this two-hundred-year-old Order. It also saw the torture and execution of hundreds of men across Europe, the descriptions of which made for a harrowing read. By the end of the book I knew I had to tell the Templars’ story, focusing on the men behind the myths.
Do you read a lot of historical fiction? What books inspired Brethren?
I’ve been a fan of historical fiction since my early twenties, both literary and commercial, but it isn’t the only genre I read. The first contemporary historical fiction I came across was Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy [The Warlord Chronicles], which I loved. I particularly enjoyed the way he wove a mystery through a historical story and setting. This is something I’ve tried to do with Brethren, because that’s the kind of book I enjoy reading, but it was a history textbook that inspired Brethren rather than a novel.
Who is your favorite author? What books made you want to become a writer?
I find it impossibly hard to say who my favorite author is, or who my influences are. I think I’ve probably been influenced by every good book I’ve ever read and there are many authors whose books I enjoy. My teachers at university always said that to be a good writer you have to be a good reader. It’s very true. I also read a lot of autobiographies and nonfiction, but some of my favorite fiction authors in recent years include Donna Tartt, Matthew Pearl, Bernard Cornwell, Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman, Angela Carter, Iain Pears, Roddy Doyle, Jeanette Winterson, David Gemmell, Iain Banks, Gabriel García Marquez. The list really does go on.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished the second novel of the Brethren Trilogy, which is called Crusade, and will be published in the summer of 2007. The story begins two years after Brethren ends and is set entirely in the Holy Land. While it is a continuation of Brethren, and follows many of the characters introduced in the first novel, it does have its own specific plot line. Factions on both sides of the conflict between Christians and Muslims are plotting to bring about the end of everything Will and the Brethren have worked for. New alliances will be forged and old friendships broken when Will finds himself caught at the center of a devastating web of deception and destruction, as he and all those around him rush headlong toward one of the most dramatic moments in history.
- In the beginning of the novel, we see Will spying on a knight taking his vows of knighthood. Why is Will, as a child, so fascinated by the knights? What do they represent to him? Why is becoming a Templar Knight so important to him?
- How do the characters in the novel each honor their individual heritage? How does Baybars? How does Will? How is honoring the past and the sacrifices of their ancestors such an important part of the men they become? Why?
- When Garin is punished, Will stands by him, subjecting himself to the same punishment as his friend. Why does Will do this? Do you think Garin would have done the same thing? When in the novel does Garin change? What motivates him? Do you think Will ever changes?
- In what ways are Will and Baybars both haunted by their pasts? How does each cope? How is each motivated by the difficulties they have overcome?
- Why do you think Garin agrees to help Prince Edward? What do you think he hopes to gain? In what ways does his association with Edward backfire? Do you think that Garin, in the end, gets what he deserves?
- After the attack on Opinicus, Will is overwhelmed with guilt. Why does he feel so guilty? Why does he feel responsible for his master’s death? How does that guilt solidify in his relationship with Elwen?
- As Baybars is preparing to attack Safed, a Christian soldier says, “They say he will not stop until every Christian in these lands is dead, but I was born here. My men and I have more right to be in this land than he does” (p. 174). Do you agree with this statement? Does anyone really have a right to the Holy Land? Do you think Baybars’s mission to conquer the land for his people is correct? Do the Christians have any right to it? Are they both equally right? Discuss.
- Why do you think Will lies to his father about taking his vows? Why is his apprenticeship to Everard an embarrassment to him? Why is being a scribe less impressive than being a soldier?
- Everard is very hesitant to let Will become a knight. Why do you think this is? Do you believe the reasons Everard gives to Will? Do you think there is more to it? When Will does finally take his vows, do you think he is ready to become a knight? In what ways does he prove himself worthy? In what ways does he prove he’s not ready? What does becoming a knight mean to Will? To Everard?
- Discuss the relationships the men in the novel have with women. Why is Will conflicted about Elwen? Why does Garin go to Adela? What are the roles of women in the historical context of this novel? Do you think Elwen and Adela are strong women? Why or why not?
- What role does Hasan play in the novel? Why is he loyal to the knights? As a Muslim serving the Christian mission, do you think he is hypocritical or a traitor? Why or why not?
- Baybars and James Campbell are two men with complicated relationships with their sons. Discuss each relationship. What does each man want for his son? In what ways do their sons fail them? In what ways do their sons make them proud?
- Why does Everard destroy the Book of the Grail once he finally gets it back? What does the book represent to him? Everard goes to great lengths to protect the secrets of the Temple. Do you agree with his methods? Do you think keeping the Temple’s secrets contributes to the greater good?
- Why does Baybars agree to a truce? Why is peace with Baybars so important to Everard? Why do you think Will is so against it? In what ways do each of these men put aside personal vendettas for the good of the people they serve?
- Why is Will so fixated on seeing Safed? Do you think seeing where his father dies will help him bury the ghosts of his past? In the end, does Will forgive his father for leaving him? Does he forgive himself for his own past?
- Everard gives Will the chance to abandon the mantle and leave his knighthood. Why doesn’t Will take that chance when it’s offered to him? Do you think that he will remain a knight? Do you think he would rather be a knight or be with Elwen? How do you think Will’s story will continue?