Hirsch’s ‘A Horde of Fools’ is historical fiction at its best

‘A Horde of Fools’
‘A Horde of Fools’

Former Ocean Springs Superintendent of Schools and USM graduate Robert E. Hirsch has released the third book in his “Dark Ages Saga of Tristan de Saint-Germain” with “A Horde of Fools.”

In this latest offering, Hirsch returns to his thill-a-page formula that worked so well in “Promise of the Black Monks” and “Hammer of God,” the first two books in the saga.

This third incarnation finds Hirsch’s fictional protagonist, monk-turned-Bishop and papal envoy Tristan, assigned by the real Pope Urban to persuade an evangelist monk commonly known as “KuKu” Peter to abandon his goal of leading 30,000 peasant men, women and children on a Crusade to free Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks in 1096.

Tristan’s tragic failure is every reader’s good fortune, allowing them an opportunity to experience the actual People’s Crusade up close and personal with Bishop Tristan, his brother, knight Guillaume, three rowdy Viking bodyguards, and Handel, a righteous papal mercenary.

The historical Peter the Hermit did lead such a crusade against the Turks, aided by the Christian knight Sir Walter Sansavior, and two thuggish miscreants named Tafur and Burrell, with the catastrophic results you would expect when a horde of peasants armed with clubs and pitchforks accost an army of vengeance-minded Turks riding roughshod over them with bows, swords and maces.

Man’s abject foolishness caused by misdirected religious fervor and insatiable greed are examined through Tristan’s eyes, and this is a cautionary tale for the ages.

Hirsch employs all his previously successful tactics to bring this story to life — believable Dark Ages characters, fictional and real, drawn to perfection in all their disparate quirkiness; the actual salty (and that’s salty with a capital “S”) language of the day; a forbidden romance between Tristan and his former Romani lover turned millionaire business woman, Mala; and several gut-wrenching battles where major series characters are almost certain to perish.

The novel catches fire when the crusaders reach Byzantium and Emperor Alexius I, where Hirsch utilizes historical detail to contrast the hapless flea-bitten western horde with both the luxurious lifestyles of the Byzantines and the efficient and ruthless Turkish military machine led by the bloodthirsty Mahmoud Malik.

This is history come alive on the page.

Hirsch is an exceptional writer. One good example is where Mala, already stung by Tristan’s return to the church from her bed, asks the zealot Peter how he dares to proclaim as a sacred “mystery” why God has “called” him to his idiotic crusade.

“Why must everything be a mystery?” she asks, “Why would He not speak in simple terms?” And the Muslims are no different, she argues, “putting non-Muslims to the sword, conquering lands and slaughtering in the name of Allah. You’re preparing to do the same…and people will die by the thousands on both sides!”

Blind religious fanaticism is the plague here. Agonizing over a cruel pogrom perpetrated on Jews by Archbishop Hess and his gang of crusaders, Benedictine monk Handel chides him sarcastically, “Is it possible that God speaks only to the buffoons of this world and not the rest of us?”

This is strong writing, and alongside rich characters and mind-boggling action, helps make this story a worthy summer project for any serious reader of historical fiction.

‘A Horde of Fools: The Dark Ages Saga of Tristan de Saint-Germain’

By Robert E. Hirsch

W & B Publishers (May 29, 2017)

500 pages