Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 640 pp
My days of writing book reviews are long over, but not my desire to recommend books or to “discover” new authors—which in this case means discovering someone who has been writing fiction for a number of years and who I’ve only just stumbled upon. The Religion is a big fat, incredibly satisfying historical novel set during the Siege of Malta in 1565. It is apparently the first of three novels chronicling the life of Mattias Tannhauser, and the historical period is rich in possibilities.
Tannhauser has returned to the West after spending years as a Janissary in the service of Suleiman the Magnificent and has been dedicating himself to trade and sensuality, both of which conspire to place him inside the beleaguered fortress with “The Religion”, the Knights Hospitaler’s headquarters in Malta, as thousands and thousands of Turkish warriors descend on the island, determined to put an end to the fighting monks, who they view as terrorists.
Willocks has chosen a fascinating period in European history and done an incredible amount of research. This is still a period preceding the rise of nations in the West, with a great struggle between the Church and the wave of Protestantism, the Muslim East and the great array of languages and principalities. Tannhauser is a terrific vehicle for the story, as a man who has lived among the Ottomans and the “Franks”. Willocks reminds me very much of the late Dorothy Dunnett, except, well, far more violent, brutal and explicit, much like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe only, well, far more violent, brutal and explicit. Willocks surrounds Tannhauser will a host (literally) of other fascinating characters, all of whom felt to me as though they were human and rooted in their time, rather than 21st Century characters transplanted to the 16th.
I am intrigued to see where Willocks takes the trilogy. Unlike so many other “first” novels in a series, Willocks leaves no obvious trails to be dragged out into other stories, and The Religion stands alone very well.