Fearful Symmetry

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The Religion by Tim Willocks

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The Religion by Tim Willocks

The Religion by Tim Willocks

Tim Willocks has been one of my favourite writers from when I first read Green River Rising in one sitting back when it came out in paperback. Unfortunately he’s been a bit quiet of late spending the last few years contributing to some rather duff films in Hollywood. Green River Rising depicted a brutal prison riot in America and his other novels were deep-fried southern gothic novels of crime and redemption. But now he’s back with something a bit different, a historical novel – but one that still deals with the same essential concerns of his previous novels.

The Religion is set in late medieval Europe, the events occurring mostly during one of the greatest battles in history – the siege of Malta. The title has multiple meanings; The Order of St John who hold the island consider themselves so devout they call themselves The Religion but there is also the Muslim religion of the invaders. Although we have a clash of civilisations at the heart of the novel Willocks shows that to the common man it does not really matter who is charge; everyone involved suffer for their leaders ambitions. In fact the personal obsessions of the main characters are so deep-seated that they are almost religions on there own.

The novel’s flawed hero straddles both of the religions. Mattias Tannhauser was born a Christian in the Germanic area of Europe but in the prologue was captured by Muslim invaders as a child and raised as a warrior for Islam. At the beginning of the novel he’s left behind both factions and is more interested in business ventures. But the Knights of Saint John enlist him to help with the siege by persuading a beautiful woman to beg hin to help him find her son who is lost somewhere in Malta. Close on his heels is a Grand Inquisitor after his blood.

There is no black and white characterisation here – everyone has shades of grey. Tannhauser does not hesitate to kill if he needs to and his upbringing allows him to move from Christian to Muslim camps helping and hindering them as his personal needs dictate. The villain is dark but believable, so trapped into his situation that you have sympathy for him

We are thrown into a rollicking wide-screen adventurer. In fact too wide screen at some points – if Willocks has a fault it is in handling the wide scale geography of the siege. For once a map would have helped. The violence is extreme, probably over the top for some, and nothing is spared during the battle scenes where men literally hack each other to death; blood, guts and shit spewing everywhere. Even during the pauses in the battle we are not spared as the plot takes us into the infirmary and we see the surprisingly sophisticated, but gruelling, medieval battlefield surgery. It’s obvious Willocks medical background – he was previously a doctor specialising in the treatment of drug addiction – helps him here. This knowledge also helps him understand the psychology of the characters and especially the reasons why someone could grow to love war; to be able to loose themselves in the lust for glory.

The bloody action is run through with a subplot of romantic love that contrasts well, as Tannahuser and the Inquisitor duel for the lady’s love.

The Religion builds up to a powerful climax where a number of events left me breathless, and having to stop reading. Willocks really shows his literary chops and the book ends both in a way unexpected and yet exactly in a way that is needed.

Perhaps the meaty prose can go over the top at times. However, if you can cope with this, and all the gore – which some of the lit crits have turned their noses up at – then I’d recommend The Religion as one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I just hope I don’t have to wait ten years for Willocks’ next one.

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Written by Fearful Symmetry

June 24, 2009 at 3:38 pm

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