Friday, December 19, 2008

The Religion by Tim Willocks



I discovered Tim Willocks' The Religion on a bored afternoon, and I'm glad I did. Published in 2006, this is easily one of the most engrossing historical fiction works that I've read. The subject is weighty, the writing dense at times, testosterone infusing every page but it's a superb story that I highly recommend. The Religion has been promoted as book one of a trilogy. I'm eagerly awaiting information on a sequel.

The author introduces Matthias, byname Tannhauser, when he's hard at work on a dagger in his father's forge, only to baptize that dagger in the blood of men who slaughter his sisters, and then murder and rape his mother. The men are Ottoman Turks, and among their leaders is Abbas who adopts Matthias under the name of Ibrahim. The boy embarks on a twenty-year sojourn among the Turks, rising among the ranks of the Janissaries, elite guards of the Ottoman Sultan. Matthias embraces Turkish ways until he's commanded to murder the Sultan's grandchild.

Carla Manduca is a Maltese noblewoman by birth, desperate to return to her homeland in search of the bastard son she bore to a clergyman at fifteen. Unfortunately, the Turks have chosen to seize Malta. The island is home to twenty thousand, among them the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John, known as the Knights Hospitaller or more commonly as the Religion. The Hospitallers have been at war with Turks since the Crusades and lost Rhodes forty years before the siege at Malta begins. In command of the knights is Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, who owes his allegiance to Pope Pius IV in Rome. The Pope's representative in Malta is Ludovico Ludivici, who has two aims in life; to control the Hospitallers and prevent Carla Manduca from returning to Malta to retrieve their lost son.

Despite the danger, Carla intends to find her child and she enlists the Hospitallers' help. Through their contacts, help arrives in the form of Matthias Tannhauser, now a trader and mercenary. He agrees to help the beautiful Carla find her boy, whose name she does not know and whom she has not seen since his birth twelve years before. Provided the noblewoman will marry him to provide Matthias with a title. Their business arrangement concluded, the pair arrives in Malta in the company of Bors, a brute who’s been Matthias' friend for ages, and Amparo, a Spanish foundling who intrigues Matthias as much as Carla does. His attraction for Carla and their arrangement doesn't interfere with his seduction of her friend Amparo.

When he's not in bed with Amparo, Matthias aids the Hospitallers in their defense of Malta given his knowledge of Turkish tactics, while Carla works through her jealousy by giving care to the wounded of Malta. Amparo meets a young Maltese boy, Orlandu, who's inspired by the heroics Matthias displays in battle. The boy enlists himself in the army just as everyone comes to the realization that he is the son Carla's been looking for. Matthias goes after him, only to be captured by the Turks. He reunites with his foster father Abbas and learns about the Turkish strategy. He also finds Orlandu in the camp and teaches him how to survive. Recovered from his injuries, he returns to his friends, with a promise to Orlandu that he will save him.

Ludovico Ludivici arrives in Malta with a bold plan to accomplish his mission among the Hospitallers. He enrolls as a knight but finds his religious devotion tempted by a reunion with Carla. In his warped understanding, the past can be undone and they can have a future with their son. If only he could just get rid of Matthias Tannhauser. Matthias believes the Hospitallers cannot survive much longer and attempts to flee Malta with Bors, Carla and Amparo but Ludovico captures them. There are painful losses to follow and a surprising final confrontation between Matthias and Ludovico, leading to a satisfying, if somewhat predictable conclusion.

Willock's background as a screenwriter shows in his visceral scenes. This work belongs on the big screen. There's lots of blood, gore and guts; one detraction from the story was that each time danger appeared, everyone's standard reaction seemed to revolve around their insides. It's repeated many times to the point of being overdone. Some of the story does require a little stretch of the imagination, especially when a battle-worn Matthias still finds enough energy for vigorous lovemaking with Amparo, or how easily he scuttles between the Turkish and Christian camps. A few paragraphs are dense and there's a temptation to skip through certain scenes. But that would result in missing some of the great themes of the book; absolution and redemption, forgiveness and courage and most of all, how love and bonds of fellowship can transcend the worst times. The reader cannot fail to connect with Amparo, who's never known love until Carla and Matthias entered her life, or Carla and Brother Ludovico's forbidden passion, or the shadows that haunt Matthias and drive him to absolve the past. There's rich historical detail, in battle scenes, medical information and the politics between the Hospitallers and the Papacy, that's sure to satisfy readers.

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