Tim Willocks’s first three novels were set in the American South during the late twentieth century. Though The Religion is similar to these earlier works in that it combines heroic deeds, graphic violence, and penetrating psychological analysis, unlike them it is a historical novel, epic in scope. The Religion is the first book in a projected series of three novels, the Tannhauser Trilogy, named for Mattias Tannhauser, who is introduced in The Religion and will be the epic hero of all three books.
Though the title of this novel is the specific term used by the Knights of Saint John on Malta to denote Christianity, in the minds of their Turkish enemies the only true “religion” is not Christianity, but Islam. Each group views the adherents of the other faith as heretics, destined to spend eternity in Hell. However, having lived both as a Muslim and as a Christian, Mattias Tannhauser knows that each side has both good and evil people. Thus, he is not committed to either religion. In fact, he loathes religious fanaticism, which he has seen used to justify horrific cruelty, and he distrusts all causes, religious or political, because in his experience they are merely means by which unscrupulous people seek wealth for themselves or power over others.
The Religion begins with a prologue, dated 1540, in which twelve-year-old Mattias has his first experience with religious fanatics. A band of Turks swoop down upon the Carpathian village where he lives and massacre all the members of his family except his blacksmith father, who is plying his trade elsewhere. Mattias himself is saved by the Turkish captain, Abbas bin Murad, the only humane person in the troop. It is later revealed that Abbas treated Mattias more like a son than a slave. The boy was trained as one of the select group of slaves called janissaries, and his heroism in the service of his sultan eventually earned him his freedom.
The narrative now moves ahead twenty-five years. “The World of Dreams,” the first of the five main sections into which the novel is divided, begins on Sunday, May 13, 1565, in the office of the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John, the warrior monks based on Malta who refer to themselves as “the Religion.” In planning his strategy for defending Malta against an imminent Turkish invasion, Grand Master of the Order Jean Parisot de La Valette has decided that the adventurer and arms dealer Mattias Tannhauser must be drawn to Malta, so that the Christian defenders of the island can make use of Mattias’s intimate knowledge of the tactics and thought processes of his former captors. The English monk, Fra Oliver Starkey, is sent to Messina, Sicily, to entice Mattias to join the Christians on Malta. Since Mattias is known to have a weakness for women, La Valette suggests that Starkey use Carla La Penautier as an inducement; the countess has been begging the Grand Master for permission to come to Malta to search for her long-lost illegitimate son. As Starkey leaves the Grand Master’s office, the merciless Ludovico Ludovici enters. Ludovico not only is the father of Carla’s son, Orlandu, but also will become Mattias’s archenemy and rival for Carla’s love.
Eight days later, Mattias and Carla are on Malta, along with Mattias’s friend, Bors of Carlisle, and Carla’s protégée, Amparo. The homeless boy Orlandu has made his appearance, though he has not yet been identified as Carla’s son. Moreover, Abbas bin Murad has appeared on the battlefield, determined to avenge the wrongs done to Muslim pilgrims and merchants over the last four decades.
Although Mattias intends to leave the island as soon as Carla locates her son, the chaotic conditions in the besieged city, along with the fact that she knows nothing about him except his age and parentage, makes the task of finding him more difficult than she anticipated. Throughout June, July, and August, Mattias and Bors take part in one bloody battle after another. From time to time, Mattias dons Turkish garb, slips off to the Muslim camp, and socializes with the soldiers there, picking up information that he relays to the Christians. At other times, he wanders through the Turkish market, trading for opium, which becomes one of his most useful tools. When he is with the Muslims, Mattias becomes once again the...
(The entire section is 1772 words.)