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Originally published Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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Justin Cartwright’s ‘Lion Heart’: a tangle of true quests

Justin Cartwright’s new novel, “Lion Heart,” interweaves the story of several quests, some as old as the Crusades, some as modern as a Dan Brown novel, all fraught with risk.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Lion Heart’

by Justin Cartwright

Bloomsbury, 352 pp., $26.99

For some unknown reason, Justin Cartwright has found little traction in the United States, despite being shortlisted for or awarded almost every prize that England’s literary lions confer. More to the point, the British novelist (“The Song Before It Was Sung,” “Other People’s Money”) writes a rousing good story, whatever subject he chooses. In “Lion Heart,” he has created a hybrid novel: part history, part romance, part spy story, and all wrapped in a quest.

Richard Cathar, nearly 33 and on no particular track in life, remembers his father, Alaric, recently deceased, as a delusional, drug-addicted hippie. Alaric was convinced that his hero, Richard the Lionheart, had a meeting with Robin Hood, on his way home from the Third Crusade. He based this on documentation he once had in his possession but somehow lost.

Richard, named for the King, sets out to separate fact from fiction in his father’s life. In the process, he finds evidence that Richard the Lionheart recovered a piece of the True Cross from Saladin. Says Richie: “You probably wonder why I should care about the True Cross at all, given that it is almost certainly nothing to do with the piece of wood Christ was crucified on ... Reality doesn’t come into it; belief is everything.”

Trading on his bona fides from his old Oxford college, Richie goes to Jerusalem to follow his father’s path to Robin Hood and the True Cross. Richie, a charming, handsome wastrel, is assisted along the way by friends, academics and acquaintances of his father. He fantasizes that a best-selling novel á la Dan Brown will be the result of his wanderings. What unfolds is much more byzantine than he could have imagined.

Richie is an innocent abroad, quickly caught up in the intrigue that permeates Jerusalem. He falls in love with Noor, a “journalist” who is almost certainly a spy. She is kidnapped and her absence becomes central to Richie’s life. Noor’s backstory, revealed to him by the elegant and imperious Haneen, Noor’s relative, is a serious game-changer.

The quests begin to blur and merge: Alaric’s search for proof of the King’s meeting with Robin Hood; Richard the Lionheart’s long and violent road home, perhaps having wrested from Saladin that piece of the True Cross; and Richie’s search for Noor. Not all of these quests end well.

Cartwright’s genius is his ability to interweave these convoluted plot lines, creating infinite sympathy and empathy for Richie. Amid all the high seriousness of historical rhetoric, Richie can say goofy things and make the reader laugh out loud: After an old girlfriend (with a new boyfriend) sells the apartment she and Richie shared, he observes: “…And her partner will eventually become a minicab driver or go into garden design, laying turf for lawyers. But I am happy about the money.” Or, his shrink tells him: “You are hard to pin down. It’s very attractive, by the way.” Richie thinks: “I could tell her that I am not elusive, merely half-formed.”

There is nothing half-formed about this palimpsest of a novel, replete with layers of characterization, belief and a search for identity.

Valerie Ryan owns the Cannon Beach Book Co. in Cannon Beach, Ore.

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