The Kings of Vain Intent!
Our book today is the lusty 1970 historical novel The Kings Of Vain Intent by Graham Shelby, a mid-20th century hack book reviewer who struck historical novel gold with his book The Knights of Dark Renown, the prequel to this present book. Shelby is a largely artless writer, but he knows full well the visceral heart of the story he’s telling, the violent and bloody story of the Third Crusade, and he spares no effort to make his readers feel it all:
Men-at-arms and crossbowmen lept aside as the horsemen thundered toward the surviving Mamlukes. The riders heard shouts from their left, “La ilaha il Allah! There is no God but Allah!” Then ostrich-feathered arrows and cane spears rained down on them. They had been met unexpectedly by Takedin’s contingent and the garrison from Acre. As horses plunged and fell, causing havoc among the tightly-grouped knights, the iron-tipped missiles were replaced by bladders of Greek Fire. The acrid stench of burning flesh mingled with the stirred dust, while hardened Crusaders gagged at the sight of men and horses wrapped in a cloak of flame. Animals collided, splashing the ghastly liquid; riders threw themselves from the saddle in a frenzied effort to avoid contact with their burning comrades.
His King Richard I is an entirely un-nuanced character, a violent hothead who scarcely ever troubles to control himself. When he’s outraged, for instance, by the French king’s emissary William des Barres, he immediately offers simply to brawl about it – a childish suggestion that promptly fills des Barres with scorn:
William snapped, “I’m not out here to wrestle …” but got no further, for the furious, heavily-built king collided with him and seized him ‘round the neck.
By now the onlookers were too embarrassed to laugh. Here was Richard Coeur-de-Lion, the greatest general and strategist in the West – time would tell if he was even better than Saladin – and here was William des Barres, a paramount warrior and one of Philip’s military advisers. Here they were, these giants, reduced to grappling like peasants on a greased log. It was degrading, and it was Richard’s doing.
Had the king released William without further ado, the nobles would have put it down to his hot temper. Had he then apologized, it would have been forgotten. But Richard was Richard, and he hung on.
The Kings of Vain Intent is one-dimensional chewing-gum entertainment, especially compared with fantastic modern renditions of the character from masters of the form like Thorvald Steen or the mighty Sharon Kay Penman. In fact, the book represents fairly accurately the depths to which historical fiction had sunk (always excepting standout figures like the great Alfred Duggan and the sublime Mary Renault) in the decades prior to the 1980s. But even so, you can hardly go wrong with England’s legendary warrior-king: there’s plenty of entertainment here.