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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Religion by Tim Willocks

The Religion by Tim Willocks. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-374-24865-9

I guess everyone's heard of “chick flicks” and the presumably related term “chick-lit,” meaning movies or literature designed to appeal to women. So is there an equivalent form for the opposite sex? Guy-lit? Macho-lit? Whatever the appropriate term might be, this book could be an exemplar of the genre. It's definitely an adventure written by a man for men, and designed to appeal to men.

The only non-sequitur is the title. It's not clear how a book with the title The Religion is supposed to appeal to men, but I guess you just have to get beyond the title somehow. Of course, “The Religion” in this case is how The Order of the Knights of St. John the Baptist, also known as the Hospitallers, refer to themselves. Some call them the Sea Knights, and the Turks refer to them as the Hounds of Hell.

In 1565, the Grande Turk, Suleiman Shah, having already conquered Hungary, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Transylvania, the Balkans, and most of North Africa, sets his sights on Malta, the last great bastion of the Knights. The Turks had defeated them in Rhodes some fifty years earlier, and are now determined to wipe them off the isle of Malta, sending the largest armada assembled since antiquity against them.

This is the backdrop against which this historical novel, said to be the first in a trilogy, is played. And although the novel does tell the story of the assault on Malta, like all good historical novels, that story is indeed only the backdrop of the real story, the plot, the tale that is told.

Which in this case involves a woman of nobility, returning to Malta in search of the illegitimate son of her youth. Guiding her is the hero of the tale, one Mattias Tannhauser, as he calls himself, although it is not quite the name he was born with, nor the name he previously bore as a Turkish janissary. It is a tale of love, of heroism, valor, gallantry, dark treachery, romance, and violence.

So why do I describe it as macho-lit? Because it begins with a scene of obscene violence. The Turks are invading Hungary, and their levies brutally slaughter the younger sisters, and rape the living, then dead mother of our young hero, when, at the age of 12, he is engaged in crafting a dagger in his father's blacksmithy. For the third and final quenching of the hot steel, he plunges it into the chest of the invading monster who has just slain his five-year old sister, in the middle of her song.

Because it is seemingly written to appeal to the blood lust and the physical lust so typically attractive to men. The battle scenes are described with the kind of detailed realism, redolent in blood, guts, and gore, which only a physician (as the author is) could probably manage so realistically. And the sex is generally portrayed from the man's point of view. Which isn't to say the book won't appeal to women too, but my guess is that men are more likely to relish it.

When next (after the opening scene) we encounter Mattias, it is 20 or more years later, and he has left the ranks of the janissaries, and has gone independent, a smuggler, a profiteer, a trader, a hedonist, enjoying life to the full, while trying to attain to at least a modicum of wealth. The Knights of St. John want his Turkish expertise and experience for their cause, and they use the previously mentioned woman as bait, tricking him into assisting them. It works, and it makes for a great story, as the uncommitted Tannhauser falls in love (or is it lust, at least at first?), and schemes to get himself and his charges off the island intact, and without loss of too much honor.

It may not be great literature, but it's definitely a great read. If you like historical fiction with plenty of blood, guts and gore, a little torture (not TOO much), plenty of suspense, good guys and bad guys, plus enthusiastic sex, and even a bit of music thrown in here and there, all set in a bona fide historical epic-making epoch, this book is for you. Recommended for guys (or gals) who want to revel in a goodly bit of macho lit.

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