"I do not come to Malta for wealth or honour, but to save my soul."
The Religion, by Tim Willocks, is probably the best read I've had so far this year -- at times I had to put the book down so as not to finish it too quickly. The author has chosen the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 as the back-drop for his story, and he does a brilliant job of depicting this truly epic clash between the cross and the cresent moon.
In 1565 the Grande Turk, Soleyman the Magnificent, launched an attack on the Knights of St John. The sultan had fought the Hospitallers before, when he drove them out of Rhodes in 1522. Now he sent the cream of his army, some 30,000 men, to make sure the knights could never again pose any problems to his empire.
The Grand Master of the Order, La Valette, had also been present during the Siege of Rhodes, and was determined not to be defeated again. Against the massed strength of Islam, the Grand Master had about 700 knights and in the order of 7000 thousand militia and lighter troops. All the participants were willing to die for the possession of a barren sandstone island in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Enter Mattias Tannhauser, ex-Janissary turned smuggler and adventurer. He is just the type of charming scoundrel needed to fulfill the intrigues of a beautiful woman and the Grand Master, and so it is that he finds himslef thrust into the middle of the man-made storm about to be unleashed. The story we are told has all the elements one expects; romance, heroism, intrigue, loyalty, humour, evil inquisitors, and battle-scenes, all set in the middle of one of the most epic conflicts in the history of man.
Personally, I've been fascinated by the siege since I read about it in the Phantom when I was a kid. Still, I've never actually done any digging into this event. Reading The Religion changed that. Before the last page had been turned, I had placed an order with Amazon on two other books on the subject.
Having read one of these, and being in the process of reading the other, I have found no major discrepancies between the siege of The Religion and that of the historical event. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Great Siege was extremely rich on fantastic details and characters, and Willocks has managed to weave much of these into his story.
Of course, his hero, Tannhauser, is accredited with many deeds done by other men, but such is fiction. The opening quote is one such example; it is from a bracelet Tannhauser is given by a young Greek defecting from the Turks. In actual fact, a knight of Navarre took it from a slain Turkish officer during the first sally of the siege. This is a good example of how Willocks uses elements of truth to weave a compelling tale of sacrifice and triumph.
Lastly, set in the watershed between the old and new worlds, The Religion will stand as one of the works of fiction I will quote as references for the world of Argos.
I found The Religion through a review on The Cimmerean.
The 'two other' books are:
Malta, 1565: Last Battle of the Crusades; Osprey Publishing
The Great Siege, Malta 1565; Ernle Bradford
Knights of St John
Soleyman the Magnificent
The Great Siege of Malta