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The Religion    by Tim Willocks order for
by Tim Willocks
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, CD
* * *   Reviewed by Martina Bexte

Unrestrained curiosity more than any sense of duty brings retired mercenary and arms dealer, Matthias Tannhauser, to the summer residence of widowed French countess, Carla La Penautier. From the moment the lady's free-spirited companion Amparo delivers the countess's summons to the instant Tannhauser meets the darkly beautiful widow, he realizes that both enchanting women will forever change his life. The countess wastes little time in striking her bargain: if Tannhauser escorts her to Malta and helps her search for the illegitimate son stolen from her at birth twelve years before, she will not only become his wife but also bestow upon him her considerable wealth and titles. The fact that the Ottoman Empire has launched a massive invasion against Malta does not sway her - she means to rescue her son before he falls into the brutal hands of the Infidels.

Tannhauser sympathizes with the countess's determination to locate her son; he himself had been taken by Muslim raiders as a young boy and forced to become a holy warrior. God only knows what trials her child had already endured or whether he still lived; a bastard child's life was worth very little in these brutal times. Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds however, Tannhauser accepts the bargain. Within weeks of reaching Malta's shores, he has installed Carla and Amparo safely within the walls of the Knights of Saint John the Baptist's massive stronghold as caregivers to the many wounded. In the meantime, Tannhauser (a former Janissary with intimate knowledge of the Muslim war machine) finds himself walking a precarious balance as military advisor to the Religion, while at the same time carrying out his own clever machinations to ensure not only his continued survival, but that of the two women he's come to care for equally. And then, inevitably, bargaining for the life of an irrepressible young boy named Orlandu - all this set against the backdrop of what will become the most brutal and spectacular siege in military history.

The Religion is the first in the projected Tannhauser Trilogy and one of those big, sprawling historical epics that comes along all too seldom. Tim Willocks combines his extensive film background, his love of the time period, masterful style and prose, and unique characters and situations, to create a stunningly visual story that's rife with political and religious intrigue, shifting loyalties, and unrestrained brutality. He also paints a unique romantic situation as Tannhauser falls under the spell of two rare women. Fair warning for the squeamish - there are protracted and intensely realistic battle scenes and the prose is so incredibly vivid that you'll feel like you're walking right alongside Tannhauser as he cuts a bloody swath through enemy ranks. These passages are as riveting as they are appalling and will leave you questioning the brutality of medieval warfare (and perhaps any and all warfare) particularly when fought in the name of religion - which may be what Willocks had in mind when he wrote them through the war weary and increasingly cynical viewpoint of Mattias Tannhauser.

Not since Dorothy Dunnet's Lymond Chronicles have I found myself so completely swept away. The Religion is an intelligent, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and vastly entertaining historical adventure, and Matthias Tannhauser ranks among the most memorable of heroes - I look forward to his continued adventures in the next installment.

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