01/05/2009. Contributed by Rod MacDonald
pub: Macmillan Audio. ISBN: 978-1-4272-0100-3. 21 CDs 25 hours. Price: $59.95 (US) read by Simon Vance.
check out website: http://us.macmillan.com/Book.aspx?isbn=9781427201003
This is historical fantasy. Now, the purists out there will say this isn't proper fantasy and it shouldn't be included along with other works set on esoteric worlds and in different dimensions. The only difference is the background story to this novel takes place on Earth, the siege of Malta in the sixteenth century to be precise, and the events are actual history.
As such, it's probably easier to adopt an already made situation based on real events rather than construct an entirely new scenario for a fantasy novel. However, on the other hand, the amount of painstaking research required for historical accuracy, sufficiently so to satisfy the scrutiny of the myriad of pernickety nitpickers out there, must make the exercise rather daunting.
If you haven't heard of the author, Tim Willocks, then you surely will in the future when his books become adapted for movies. He already appears to be quite accomplished. An author of several books, including 'Bad City Blues', 'Bloodstained Kings' and 'Green River Rising', he has also spent ten years as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. More surprising, Willocks is also a psychiatrist and has a degree in surgery! The mind boggles!
Whether or not he still practices surgery is unknown but his knowledge of the subject has certainly come in useful when writing 'The Religion'. Commensurate with activities of that era, this book is very violent at times. When guts are splattered and brains are bashed, you can be sure it's done with anatomical accuracy and surgical precision.
Not only that, bladders and bowels are inconveniently emptied and torture is carried out without the use of anaesthetics or modern surgical implements. Was it really like this in the sixteenth century? Certainly people were close to nature and life expectancy was perilously short in these days. Violence was not as common as we would think but in times of conflict, especially in the theatre of war between Christians and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, etc, etc, then you can bet your life it surely was worse than we could ever anticipate.
How real are these people in 'The Religion'? One will never know unless Doctor Who comes to the rescue. Speaking in an archaic manner with similar actions and mannerisms, they seem to be authentic enough to someone like myself lacking detailed historical knowledge.
Nevertheless, even with perceived shortcomings, there does seem to be the impression that this is all a bit Hollywoodish. We are presented with scenes, each one linking to the next with a momentum geared towards a movie. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. The only problem is the novel's construction is revealed, evident to all those willing to see it, like a skeleton which has been covered with flesh. We know which bone is connected to the next and so on.
The main character is Mattias Tannhauser. Larger than life in every department, he was initially a blacksmith's son. After his sister and mother were butchered by marauders, he was taken on by the Ottoman Empire and became a member of Janisary, the non-Muslim bodyguard of the Sultan. After leaving their service, he became an adventurer, a soldier of fortune, with friends and enemies in high places and undertaking activities few of which were legal even in these days.
Concerned mainly with Western history, people of Europe and America are largely unaware of the extent and power of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. For hundreds of years, it held sway over the Middle East until its downfall in 1918. Its expansion embroiled Central Europe into a protracted war for most of this time.
The background to this book is the siege of Malta in 1565. The Knights of St John had been pushed back from Jerusalem, Rhodes and finally to Malta. They would retreat no more! Against them was the might of the Ottoman Empire, a force to be reckoned with, which was pushing its way through Europe and the Mediterranean under the guidance of Suleiman. Essentially, this was a conflict between Christians and Muslims. Now, does that ring a bell?
The Knights of St John are very concerned about the invasion. People have been recruited from all over Christendom but their forces are sadly lacking. They need an expert to help them and who better than Tannhauser. The only problem is, he doesn't want to come. They use an attractive woman as bait. Carla La Penautier, a noblewoman, had an affair with the Grand Inquisitor some years before and an illegitimate son was produced. He was taken away from his mother shortly after birth to prevent scandal but on discovering his whereabouts on Malta, Carla is determined to secure his rescue and asks Tannhauser for assistance. Hence, they all end up in the siege of Malta, not an experience you would wish on your worst enemy.
Although this conflict is between Christians and Muslims, in 'The Religion' it doesn't take sides and you'll be happy to know this isn't an exercise in Muslim bashing. Tannhauser has a boot in each camp, can see both sides to the argument and doesn't make judgements. In helping Carla to find her son, which isn't easy because she's got no idea of his appearance or whereabouts, he ends up on his own quest, deeply rooted in his psyche which is something to do with salvation and redemption.
Today, many people regard the religion and the secular as separate entities but in sixteenth century this division was very diffuse. Furthermore, with religion playing a large part of everyday life, it was much more pragmatic than it is today. Less ethereal and more immediate, the battle for survival was not only for life in this world but for the soul in the next world.
A somewhat archaic style of delivery in 'The Religion' was initially irritating but as the book progressed, it surprisingly became quite natural and seemed to fit the theme. Okay, it was a bit over the top at times but if accepted for what it is, a Hollywood dramatic embellishment, it is just a part of the story. With no idea of how people really talked in sixteenth century, especially in the Mediterranean, the accuracy of the dialogue style remains in question. It's perfectly possible to come to terms with written work as with Shakespeare and other contemporaries but did they actually speak like that? Perhaps not! Regardless, when listening to 21 disks, it was very easy to lose oneself in the other world, a fantasy world of the author's construction.
The siege of Malta was the most dramatic and bloodiest in history. The Turkish Empire under Suleiman was at its greatest extent and was a very powerful force at the time. This was the last stand of the Knights of St John and if Malta was captured, the strategically placed island in the Mediterranean could have provided a launching platform for attacks on Spain and the Western world.
It lasted for four months in the heat of the summer of 1565. The bloodshed was tremendous but there was also starvation, disease and all the other things that go with a prolonged siege. Tannhauser and Carla become involved in the siege but, at the same time, they are busy trying to find a long lost son. It isn't an easy task especially when some in authority are not pleased with their meddling.
Of course, we know the outcome of the siege but what about the survival of the characters? Tannhauser seems too good a character to kill off! Nevertheless, the story is very entertaining, attention grabbing at times and also addictive. If you can stand the blood and guts and occasional sex scene then you should be okay. It's not a book for a younger audience!
The audio book by Macmillan is well presented and Simon Vance, a veteran of many narrations, gives us an accomplished performance. In a work requiring stamina, his delivery does not diminish at any time. Neatly packaged, it's a bit expensive but you get a lot for your money, enough for 25 hours of entertainment. As for Tim Willocks, the author, well, I'm sure he'll be very successful and very rich should this, and the sequels, be turned into movies.
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