In an epic novel filled with intrigue and passion from the first page to the last, Willocks has crafted an adventure, a romance and a history lesson, the 15th-century battle between the Christian Knights of St. John and the great Muslim warrior Suleiman for the island of Malta, a pivotal battle.
Central to the tale is Mattias, taken from the site of his family’s slaughter by mercenaries by a Muslim leader who becomes the twelve-year-old boy’s mentor and father figure. Embracing the great traditions of the warrior, Mattias, renamed Ibrahim, learns the ways of the soldier, becoming a janissary and later a mercenary, financing a tavern and a successful trade business with his two faithful partners, a Jewish merchant and a Christian soldier, Bors: “War was now his master and his trade.”
Mattias, who has taken the last name of Tannhauser, is content to avoid war, including the incipient battle at Malta. Should Turks conquer Malta, Europe will be exposed, but the great Suleiman’s greatest ambition is to exterminate the Knights of St. John, healers and monks so devout that they style themselves “the Religion.” While his Jewish partner stays behind to further their ambitions, Mattias and Bors are drawn into the fray when asked to aid a French countess, Carla La Penautier, who is seeking the twelve-year-old son taken from her at birth.
Tannhauser and Bors agree to accompany the woman and her companion, Amparo, straight into the mouth of hell. Larger-than-life, Tannhauser is thrown into a seething cauldron of fanaticism, faith and political intrigue, the clash of battle paling before the Machiavellian schemes of the father of Carla’s son, the Inquisitor Ludovico Ludovici. The Inquisitor is obsessed with his former lover, quickly embroiled in a clash of his own ambitions for Rome and his desire to reunite with the woman who rules his dreams.
Tannhauser and Ludovici match wits to the bitter, bloody end, Mattias using every skill and deception to survive, while Carla and Amparo await in devastated Malta, the eye of the storm. The difficult becomes nearly impossible, Mattias finding Carla’s son only to leave him behind, Ludovici’s machinations threatening at every turn.
All is awash in the gore of war and the stench of death, thousands of mutilated bodies, fatal wounds, blood flowing freely from the doomed: “We’re surrounded by the Called. They’re hacking each other to pieces as we speak.” Yet there are moments of beauty, in Carla’s and Amparo’s elegiac music, in the valor of the soldiers. Ludovico is a fascinating character, serving the God of War, a zealot in the name of religion, lust the beast that stalks him from within. Marked by this bifurcation, Ludovico has become a monster, a heartless murderer in the name of his Maker.
Willocks paints his gory portrait on this hellish canvas, religion versus religion, Malta the battleground of hell, mercenary and true believer facing the steady attrition of death, Mattias slashing his way through overwhelming odds and at a terrible price: “I come to Malta not for riches or honor, but to save my soul.” The Religion delivers a powerful message of God, war and redemption, the power of faith and the cost of honor: “Win? Time renders all such victories null, without exception.”