Reviewing Reviews…

Cathy, one of our longest-standing contributor/members (if not the sole claimant to that title) asked me a few days ago about a review I wrote back in 2007 for “The Religion” by Tim Willocks. The novel, a 627-page tome published in the USA by Sarah Crighton Books [Farrar Strauss Giroux] and in Canada by Douglas & MacIntyre, was touted as Book One of the Tannhauser Trilogy, and I have been waiting avidly ever since then for the second book in the trilogy to make an appearance… Alas, like many others, I have been waiting in vain and it looks as though Book Two may be on permanent hold.

Be that as it may, Book One was a doozy, and having re-read the review I wrote on it for the Globe and Mail, I’ve now started reading the book a second time and I might even be enjopying it more than I did the first time around. Anyway here, for Cathy and for those of you who have missed out to this point on one of the finest historical novels of the past quarter century, here is my review of Paul Willocks’s “The Religion”:

This book is excellent in so many ways that I shudder a little over how close I came to throwing it away in disgust, early on and for what I considered to be more than sufficient reason. Fortunately, I stuck with it for one more attempt and was eventually rewarded with one of the most satisfying reading experiences I have had in years, despite one huge and intensely annoying flaw. At what point does a flaw become a death wish? Within the first thirty pages the author, Tim Willocks, insisted, time after time, upon snapping me out of the mood he was working hard to create, reminding me that he was there in person. That’s called “author intrusion” and in my book it is the worst sin an author can commit. Willocks perpetrates it consistently throughout this otherwise fine book by using inappropriate, highly modern abbreviations within a stylized, historically authentic context that makes them screech like clawed fingernails on a chalkboard. In my initial notes, I wrote: “ . . . infuriating, persistent abbreviations, not simply in dialogue but in the narrative, as though this author has never encountered the full negative “not” or seen it used properly in the past tense—everything, without exception, is cut short: “he’d”, “I’d”, “wouldn’t” and “hadn’t.””

In the end, I managed to get around my distaste by laying the blame on lazy, slipshod and incompetent editing, and felt that I was not too far off the mark. But whatever the reason, the recurrent annoyance came very close to costing them this reader and this review, and call me a pedant if you will, but I know there are a lot of readers out there with reservations very like my own, who might well junk the piece prematurely for the same reason, without giving it another chance. To them I say, “Don’t.”

Otherwise, to my great surprise, the story proved excellent, well-written, thoroughly and meticulously researched, and stunning in the intensity of its detail. “The Religion” is the name given to themselves by the Knights of St. John The Baptist, known for centuries as the Knights Hospitaller. To the Muslim forces of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, however, they were the Hounds of Hell, and this novel tells the story of the Siege of Malta when, for one hundred and ten days in the summer of the year of Our Lord 1565, Suleiman’s armies fought a jihad to destroy the Knights and their headquarters on the Island of Malta. The Turks sailed to the island on the largest armada ever assembled, and mounted the greatest siege in recorded history. No one knows how many of them there really were, but they lost more than forty thousand during the siege and more than thirty thousand survived to sail away again after the siege was broken. They had been bested by a rag-tag army of adventurers and mercenaries less than two thousand strong, including approximately five hundred Knights of St. John under their Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Valette, and an unreported number of local Maltese citizens.

The book, at 627 pages, is quite possibly the most graphically violent novel I have ever read, but I found none of it gratuitous. On the contrary, I was convinced that the astonishing descriptions of hardships, privations and battle scenes throughout the book accurately depict the appalling brutality of what occurred, reminding me again of the atrocities that ordinary men are capable of inflicting upon each other in the name of righteousness. Willocks has an astounding and wonderful capacity for description, capturing gigantic scenes of carnage and mayhem time after time through a concatenation of visual fragments and graphically realistic cameos that keep the reader reeling, and the novel’s plot, intertwining with the events of the actual siege, is serpentine, complex, absorbing and believable, peopled by dynamic and utterly convincing characters, both real and fictional, whose humanity is authentic and unimpeachable. The Saxon hero and protagonist, Mattias Tannhauser, is a former Janissary, abducted from his childhood home by a raiding party of Muslims. Now honourably retired, he is a Rabelaisian adventurer, part time trader and soldier-turned-businessman, lured by two beautiful women into travelling with them to Malta mere days before the siege, to find the long lost, twelve-year-old son of one of them, and throughout all the swashbuckling, hair-raising adventures and tribulations of the siege, a three-cornered love story develops that is intense, credible, tragic and ultimately satisfying.

Perhaps predictably, the villain of the piece is a Dominican monk, a papal inquisitor as unremittingly evil as one might expect of the stereotype, but even he has redeeming characteristics that make him ultimately human, believable and in the end if not sympathetic, certainly understandable. I read the last page with real regret, aware that in spite of myself I am already looking forward to the next book in the trilogy, abbreviations and all.