British novelist Tim Willocks is good at evoking the unfamiliar, so perhaps it’s inevitable that he should turn eventually to historical fiction. His first novel, Green River Rising, won praise for the authenticity of its contemporary American prison setting and his latest gives an equally powerful, even pungent, account of 16th-century Malta under siege. Malta is the stronghold of the Knights Hospitaller of St John (‘The Religion’), who are preparing to resist the vast approaching army of Suleiman the Magnificent. The Knights want our German hero, Mattias Tannhauser, for his knowledge of their enemy. Mattias, you see, was kidnapped by Muslims as a boy, converted to Islam and served in the Janissaries, the Ottoman Empire’s most formidable soldiery. Eventually he escaped, and gave up fighting (and religion) to become a merchant in Italy. Reluctant to return to bloodshed, he is only persuaded by Carla, a beautiful, disgraced noblewoman who begs him to accompany her to Malta to find the bastard son taken from her at birth. But they haven’t reckoned with the sinister Inquisitor-monk Ludovico, who has his own reasons for keeping Carla from her son.
Thus the scene is set for a thrilling adventure of love and war – with added depth, for in choosing a backcloth of Christians versus Muslims, Willocks can scarcely avoid holding up a mirror to present-day conflicts. Mercifully, he doesn’t hit us over the head with it. Instead, he bludgeons us with cudgels-worth of Bad Sex and lashings of repulsively-detailed violence. One may, however, be confident that both are anatomically accurate, since the author is a qualified doctor. Although the settings are splendidly envisioned, the descriptive prose is sometimes over-purpled, while narrative and dialogue are an uneasy, occasionally risible, mix of the modern and the archaic.