Tom Atkinson’s ‘Into The Kingdom’ Delves Into The Humanity Of Forgotten Heroes

Inspired by a lifetime of historical fascination, Tom Atkinson used a fortuitous break in his career to pen his first novel. His gripping debut invites readers to explore the myth of Prester John alongside his protagonists: doggedly determined heroes lost to the ever-swirling sands of time.

Combining one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Christian Crusades with a Canadian veteran’s journey of self-discovery, Tom Atkinson proudly cements himself as a contemporary powerhouse of historical fiction.

For nearly 600 years in Christian Europe, tales of a powerful and elusive king gripped the imaginations of those defending their lands from invasion. Inspired by a single letter to the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus, Prester John purported himself to be a fantastically wealthy leader who could assist Crusaders in their fight for the besieged Holy Land. The letter’s utopian promises stirred hopes of a distant salvationist Christian paradise for warring Europeans, and set the stage for Atkinson’s enthralling debut novel, ‘Into the Kingdom’.

Akin to other literary icons, Atkinson secluded himself in his cabin for six months in near-total isolation to fulfill a childhood dream of writing a historical adventure novel. “I wanted to write something that I would enjoy reading…and I always had [Prester John] in the back of my mind.” Alongside this dream, Atkinson harbours deep compassion for the experiences of veterans, specifically those gravely injured in the name of duty. 

Often, he tells us, these heroes return to the country they set out to protect only to find a lack of compassion for the ardours they experienced, especially when left with severe defacements. Thus, Atkinson sought to bring public appreciation to the human experiences of overlooked heroes through the myth of Prester John. “I wanted my children to see that heroes aren’t always overly handsome guys… they’re often just normal people trying to survive.”

‘Into the Kingdom’ follows protagonist Peter Robertson, a grievously injured Canadian veteran. Peter’s story begins in a veteran rehabilitation centre, as he and his comrades grapple with the new realities they must face with their deformities. Twenty years prior, Peter’s grandfather mysteriously and suddenly disappeared in Ethiopia while attempting to locate the lost treasure of Prester John. The only hint the writer of the Prester John letter left of his location was a vague suggestion that he resided somewhere within ‘the three indies,’ a tantalizing offer that spurred centuries of fervent searches.

Anguished to defend Jerusalem with the help of the professed Christian King, the Crusaders sent an envoy armed with treasure of their own to offer Prester John, hoping to form a military alliance. After searching in vain for years, the envoy elects to hide their valuables lest they be discovered and attacked. Peter Robertson’s grandfather, an acclaimed archaeologist, vanished while in pursuit of the envoy’s treasure.

When an old friend of Peter’s grandfather contacts him regarding a strange map found in his grandfather’s belongings, Peter answers an undeniable call to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s disappearance as well as fulfill his mission of locating the treasure. 

‘Into the Kingdom’ has all the hallmarks of great historical fiction novels: intriguing characters, a bewildering quest, and the promise of an undiscovered treasure trove. However, Atkinson takes his novel beyond the typical action-adventure tropes and adds insight into the humanity of ordinary heroes. The novel is ultimately a celebration of those who are stirred to duty and risk their own lives in service to a greater cause.

Atkinson expertly traverses time and place to bring together modern-day Ethiopia, the Afghan war, and the Age of Discovery. Through enchanting visual storytelling, the locations Atkinson describes become characters in and of themselves, teeming with life. 

Atkinson chose to draw parallels between Ethiopia and Afghanistan given their similar ecological landscape, and describes Ethiopia as “such a fascinating place that gave me all kinds of storylines within the story.” His narration leaps off the page and allows readers particular insight into the common threads of hardship shared by soldiers, separated by hundreds of years.

The legend of Prester John turned out to be nothing more than a fable, an enticing mystery whose origins have yet to be uncovered by historians– the original letter being the only evidence of a man who never existed. But the expansive exploration this letter inspired is real, as are the human experiences crafted within ‘Into the Kingdom.’

Desperation is at the heart of Atkinson’s story: Christian crusaders desperately cling to the hope of an opulent king who will aid in the defence of Jerusalem and everything they hold dear. Peter Robertson’s indomitable will to uncover the fate of his grandfather, rediscover his purpose as a depleted veteran, and fierce commitment to his comrades-in-arms constructs his desperation.

Atkinson’s appeal to the perseverance of underappreciated heroism grips readers and refuses to let them go. ‘Into the Kingdom’ invites readers to acknowledge all forgotten soldiers with reverence, those who dutifully lent their lives to the ever-continuing saga of history without ever receiving so much acclaim as a footnote in a textbook. 

Enter ‘Into the Kingdom,’ and let Atkinson whisk you away into the hallows of forgotten heroes.

Into The Kingdom is available on Amazon and in bookstores.

Written by Emily Hellam


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