Starred Review.Willocks, a novelist (Bad City Blues) and screenwriter (Sin), strikes gold with this epic account of the Turkish siege of Malta in 1565—the first of a planned trilogy featuring Mattias Tannhauser, the son of a Saxon blacksmith. Young … see full wiki
The mysterious Countess Carla La Penautier seeks passage to Malta, the land of her birth, in search of the boy she bore as a young girl out of wedlock, a babe spirited away from her even as she was sent off to an unhappy marriage in France to an old and declining nobleman. It's the eve of the impending Ottoman invasion of Malta to seize that small island south of Italy from the Knights of St. John, the Hospitallers of Crusader fame, who have established their own independent state in the Mediterranean. The knights, stalwart and fierce in battle, know they will be outnumbered by the Grand Turk's minions and desperately seek a means to augment their defenses and turn the odds in their own favor, even as the rest of Christian Europe looks on and Vatican intrigue and the excesses of the Inquisition divide the Hospitallers' potential saviors. Europe's greatest power, Hapsburg Spain, has turned its face from the coming contest, leaving the Hospitallers' Grand Master La Vallette to do what he must to save the seat of the Order's power.
Into this maelstrom of menace and uncertainty the soldier-adventurer Matthias Tannhauser is suddenly thrust as his path crosses, and not by his own design, with that of the Lady Carla. He is mesmerized by her allure -- and by the allure of her young ward and friend, the Spanish lass Amparo. Though Tannhauser has other plans he expects to pursue with his two closest friends and business partners, the machinations of the Hospitallers and the goals of a certain Fra Ludovico of the Inquisition ensure that all their paths will finally converge at the Siege of Malta where all men, and the women with them, will be sorely and bloodily tested.
This is a massive tale of the grinding pressure a war can exert on those called upon to fight it. It's sometimes overly long in description which, not infrequently, seems overblown in its reach for the poetic phrase. More the endlessness of the siege that at last arrives, with Tannhauser's small party it turns out, can be brutally deadening to read about. Tanhauser himself is soldier-of-fortune with few compunctions when it comes to killing an enemy but a heart of gold when it's needed. Nearly superhuman in his capacity for endurance and for fighting his way out of tough scrapes, and in the scope of his cleverness as he moves with apparent ease between Hospitaller and Turkish lines, Tannhauser, a former jannissary for the Sultan himself, is almost too accomplished to be believed. His survival, despite the deadliness and shrewdness of his enemies and the bloody environment in which he finds himself, is never in doubt. Nor is his capacity to discover and succour the Lady Carla's long lost son.
There are a great many coincidences here, perhaps too many to take seriously, but it is a novel and fiction after all, and so, because of the power of the author's imagery and the grudging commitment to the main characters the author successfully nurtures in his readers, we grow to care. I had moments where I wondered if I would continue to read about the interminable siege and its inhumanities and privations, but in the end I was won over by a desire to see how Tannhauser reconciles his passion for two women and how they reconcile theirs for him. And, of course, I wanted to see how the former Turkish Jannissary extricated himself from the web being spun by the Inquisitor Fra Ludovico. It was all fairly predictable but interesting nonetheless and the siege end and final confrontation did manage to surprise me in a satisfying way. I expected more from Ludovico and got less, which, in fact turned out to be even more than my original expectations in a moving denouement.
In sum this was worth reading and historically convincing if a little overwritten at times. And the characters, from La Vallette to Lady Carla to Starkey to Ludovico, and even to the lad over whom all the sturm und drang that brought our characters together was about, were interesting in their own right -- even if not entirely realistic at times. A good read, even if the ponderousness of it sometimes got the better of me.