Sunday 20 November 2011

Tim Willocks The Religion Review

It's taken me a while to get round to reading this and I'm kicking myself - it's a cracker! Massively longer than his previous novels, completely different genre, Tim Willocks has produced a huge work - and I don't just mean the number of pages.

Set in 1565 AD, The Religion pits the Emperor of the Ottomans against the Christian Knights Of St John Of Jerusalem. Suleiman The Magnificent has conquered all that lies before him and has forced the Knights, known as The Religion, to their last stand, the island fortress of Malta. The battle-hardened forces of Islam, with their fanatical janissaries and cunning miners, descend on the greatest stronghold in the Christian world, soldiered by Maltese with nowhere to go and The Religion - warrior priests, nobles all, no less fanatical in their beliefs and determination to stand to the last.

Into this maelstrom come Captain Mattias Tannhauser and companions, Bors the giant, Carla the disgraced noblewoman and Ampara, the fey companion of Carla. Tannhauser saw his sister slaughtered and his mother raped by Islamic mercenaries when he was twelve. He was taken by the Moslems and raised as a janissary for a decade, now he's a freebooting merchant and sometime mercenary.

Part tricked, part forced, part seduced, Tannhauser reaches a war that he wants no part of, yet a war that he must fight and indeed a war that he revels in through love of the fight. All the time though he has in mind a secret, personal mission and a cunning escape from Malta.

So, part potboiler, part romance, part oh, just another Crusades novel, you may be thinking. No - not by a long chalk. Willocks combines excellent research and eye for detail with a love of slaughter and cruelty. If you've read his previous novels, you'll have seen him pit man against man or, in Green River Rising, man against system. Here he matches system with system, and he cunningly makes it harder to take sides than one would expect.

A Western, probably Christian (ish) reader might be expected to cheer on The Religion - but Willocks shows enough of their casual cruelty and ruthlessness, enough of the venality of the powerful, the vileness of the Inquisition, to make them less than likeable - and then reverses that with descriptions of honour, bravery, good deeds, an underlying motive proud and pure. Against them are the barbarian hordes - except of course that the Ottoman era was characterised by love of good food, the arts, advances in medicine and enormous freedoms for slaves, including freedom of worship.

Willocks' descriptions of siege and battles are notable for scholarship and brutality of detail. He doesn't fall into the Tom Clancy trap of lecturing but he deftly describes mining operations and siege towers, tactics and faults. As to brutality, here we don't see people falling over bloodless as a sword swipes them - this is Peckinpah, not a mad Mary Poppins. Limbs are hacked off, guts galore spilled, gore and grime, pus and pestilence have their rightful place.

Some have indeed criticised the book for the number of battle scenes: I disagree - each has its place in moving the main characters around the board, allowing credible developments in the minds of the protagonists.

So then, highly recommended for those with strong stomachs and a love of excellent writing. Unrelenting, powerful - grab it and read it.

Excellent interview with Tim Willocks talking extensively about The Religion.


Ruth Cox aka abitosunshine said...

Excellent and intriguing review! I like that the reader becomes unsure of which "system" to root for.

Anonymous said...

Read The Religion when it first came out and cast the movie in my head, waiting for Ridley Scott to direct it, so perfect for him. Will this ever be made as a movie, ya think?

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