Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review of The Religion by Tim Willocks

What do you get when you make one of the most epic sieges in history the setting of a 21st century secular morality play? A truly bizarre literary artifact, that's what.

The Great Siege of Malta of 1565 pitted the all-conquering armies of the Turkish sultan Sulieman the Magnificent against a determined band of Christian defenders led by about 1,000 Knights of St. John. Captained by their gallant Grand Master, Jean Parisot de la Valette, the Christians were determined to fight to the last man for Malta. Though outnumbered more than five-to-one, the Knights and their Maltese allies held the Turkish host and their gigantic artillery pieces at bay for over three months in one of the most heroic displays of military valor since Thermopylae. I decided to read this book because the siege is an amazing moment in history, and the other fictionalized account of it which I read previously (Angels in Iron by Nicholas Prata) was a memorable work which vividly brings to life the Knights of Saint John as well as their Turkish antagonists.

The Religion by Tim Willocks, on the other hand, chooses this epochal siege as the grand setting for a tawdry tale that does violence to both history and good taste. The main protagonist (Tannhauser) is a former Christian, former Janissary and current new-agey libertine materialist with a penchant for wenching, opium, and extreme violence. All of the antagonists, without exception, are Roman Catholic priests and monks--including the shadowy figure of one Michele Ghislieri who would become Pope Saint Pius V. The "Black Legend" looms large in this novel, and the Inquisition (cue scary organ music), imagined as KGB-like spy network that engages in wanton extralegal brutality, plays a major role--at one point even conspiring to murder Grand Master La Valette himself.

I will give the author credit in that the novel is, for the most part, decently written and he has done enough research to get the basic facts and timeline of events correct. The Religion, however, suffers from the following flaws that made it almost unreadable in my opinion:
  • The fictional main character is a sort of deus ex machina responsible for all the defenders' winning stratagems. Rather than give La Valette and his knights credit for their amazing strategic and tactical vision as recorded by history, the author makes them hyper-violent pawns who put Tannhauser's brilliant ideas into practice. It's a good thing this fictional superman showed up, or else the battle would have gone quite differently. Sigh.
  • Unnecessary and ubiquitous sex scenes. If you can't stomach sex acts described in grotesque detail, skip this book because there are many such scenes. Way too many. And seriously tacky ones, too. And like a cheesy romance novel, the sex scenes often happen in wholly ludicrous circumstances. There is also a hideous rape scene. By page 100, the author has pretty much exhausted his catalog of terms for a woman's private parts.
  • Strange portrayal of women characters. As an unsurprising adjunct to the above, the main women characters in the book are basically two-dimensional sex-toys who both manage to fall for the hero at the same time and yet not despise each other. Given the author's understanding of "love" as little more than an answer to the urgent call of one's generative organs, this is perhaps not surprising
  • A slavish dedication to 21st century moral and political trends that made the plot predictable. For example, Catholicism is treated with a contempt that has become practically de rigueur for novelists these days. The author makes up atrocities out of whole cloth to sully the Catholic characters--particularly the Knights. The Catholic characters are all either bloodthirsty fanatics, ignorant barbarians, base hypocrites, scheming churchmen, or deluded simpletons who come to their senses thanks to the syncretist wisdom of Tannhauser. At the same time, Islam is handled with kid gloves. While the author moralizes endlessly about the warlike activities of the Christians, he offers no such condemnation of the fact that the Turks are waging an aggressive war of conquest in the first place. The process of "recruiting" Janissaries was glossed over. The term "bastinado" is mentioned but never explained. The few Turks who are given more than a cursory treatment are noble intellectuals or joyful, kind-hearted common folk. Once you understand that these views are built into the plot, the outcome of the tale will be unsurprising.
The Religion also should have been about 200 pages shorter. Much of the relationship navel-gazing could have been safely discarded, along with the backstory of several minor characters. The main character's backstory which is finally revealed toward the end is yet another tedious shot at the Catholic Church and includes the utterly discredited notion that those who pursued science were persecuted by the Church. Anyone who holds that view does so only out of profound and inexcusable historical ignorance. For more information on this subject, I would refer you to How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Tom Woods or to atheist Tim O'Neill's review of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science.

In summary, if you are a secular sort who enjoys historical fiction that's loaded with sex and takes plentiful cheap-shots at Catholicism, you'll no doubt love this book. If you'd prefer to read a novelization of the Great Siege which is dramatic, intense and close to the history without all the excess baggage, I would heartily recommend Angels in Iron as mentioned above.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

This day in Late Roman History (August 7): Happy Birthday, Constantius II

Today is the 1,696th birthday of the Roman emperor Constantius II. One of the sons of Constantine the Great, Constantius was the longest lived and arguably the most politically successful of Constantine's heirs. He was, however, a man of conflicts--rigorous, temperate, suspicious and cruel all at the same time. As a supporter of Arianism, he caused tumult within the Catholic Church and his reign ended abruptly when he died of sickness while on the way to grapple with his usurping nephew. His death in AD 361 left the Roman Empire in the hands of the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate.

Here is an excerpt of how the 4th century historian Ammianus Marcellinus eulogized him:
Always preserving the dignity of the imperial authority, Constantius proudly and magnanimously disdained popularity. In conferring the higher dignities he was very sparing, and allowed very few changes to be made in the administration of the finances. Nor did he ever encourage the arrogance of the soldiers...Nor under him was any general promoted to the title of most illustrious.

In taking care of the soldiers he was very cautious: an examiner into their merits, sometimes over-scrupulous, giving dignities about the palace as if with scales. Under him no one who was not well known to him, or who was favored merely by some sudden impulse, ever received any high appointment in the palace. But only such as had served ten years in some capacity or other could look for such appointments as master of the ceremonies or treasurer....

He was a diligent cultivator of learning, but, as his blunted talent was not suited to rhetoric, he devoted himself to versification; in which, however, he did nothing worth speaking of. In his way of life he was economical and temperate, and by moderation in eating and drinking he preserved such robust health that he was rarely ill, though when ill dangerously so....

He was contented with very little sleep, which he took when time and season allowed; and throughout his long life he was so extremely chaste that no suspicion was ever cast on him in this respect, though it is a charge which, even when it can find no ground, malignity is apt to fasten on princes.

In riding and throwing the javelin, in shooting with the bow, and in all the accomplishments of military exercises, he was admirably skilful. That he never blew his nose in public, never spat, never was seen to change countenance, and that he never in all his life ate any fruit I pass over, as what has been often related before.

Having now briefly enumerated his good qualities with which we have been able to become acquainted, let us now proceed to speak of his vices. In other respects he was equal to average princes, but if he had the slightest reason (even if founded on wholly false information) for suspecting any one of aiming at supreme power, he would at once institute the most rigorous inquiry, trampling down right and wrong alike, and outdo the cruelty of Caligula, Domitian, or Commodus, whose barbarity he rivaled at the very beginning of his reign, when he shamefully put to death his own connections and relations

And his cruelty and morose suspicions, which were directed against everything of the kind, were a cruel addition to the sufferings of the unhappy persons who were accused of sedition or treason....

In such cases he had a mortal hatred of justice, even though his great object was to be accounted just and merciful: and as sparks flying from a dry wood, by a mere breath of wind are sometimes carried on with unrestrained course to the danger of the country villages around, so he also from the most trivial causes kindled heaps of evils....And, as some right-thinking people are of opinion, it was rather an indication of great virtue in Constantius to have quelled the empire without shedding more blood, than to have revenged himself with such cruelty....

But as in his foreign wars this emperor was unsuccessful and unfortunate, on the other hand in his civil contests he was successful; and in all those domestic calamities he covered himself with the horrid blood of the enemies of the republic and of himself; and yielding to his elation at these triumphs in a way neither right nor usual, he erected at a vast expense triumphal arches in Gaul and the two Pannonias, to record his triumphs over his own provinces; engraving on them the titles of his exploits ... as long as they should last, to those who read the inscriptions.

He was preposterously addicted to listening to his wives, and to the thin voices of his eunuchs, and some of his courtiers, who applauded all his words, and watched everything he said, whether in approval or disapproval, in order to agree with it.

The misery of these times was further increased by the insatiable covetousness of his tax-collectors, who brought him more odium than money; and to many persons this seemed the more intolerable, because he never listened to any excuse, never took any measures for relief of the provinces when oppressed by the multiplicity of taxes and imposts; and in addition to all this he was very apt to take back any exemptions which he had granted.

He confused the Christian religion, which is plain and simple, with old women's superstitions; in investigating which he preferred perplexing himself to settling its questions with dignity, so that he excited much dissension; which he further encouraged by diffuse wordy explanations: he ruined the establishment of public conveyances by devoting them to the service of crowds of priests, who went to and fro to different synods, as they call the meetings at which they endeavor to settle everything according to their own fancy.

As to his personal appearance and stature, he was of a dark complexion with prominent eyes; of keen sight, soft hair, with his cheeks carefully shaved, and bright looking. From his waist to his neck he was rather long, his legs were very short and crooked, which made him a good leaper and runner.

Read the full account here:

Monday, August 05, 2013

Book Review: The Red Keep by Allen French

Here is a review I wrote in 2007 but for some reason, it never made it onto the blog. Having recommended this book to dozens of people since then who have reported back that the recommendation was a worthy one, I hereby present this review so that even more folks may enjoy this excellent book.

The cover art for this book always intrigued me, so at last I decided to pick it up and read it. I was not disappointed. The Red Keep is the story of the petty nobility of 12th century Burgundy that effortlessly places young readers within a historical setting much different from their own. With the political system of the province in a state of flux thanks to the minority of the Duke, one family, the Sauval, amasses power and wealth by robbing travelers and raiding neighboring baronies. The Red Keep is the stronghold of one such barony. It is raided by the Sauval and the Baron is put to the sword--only his daughter, Anne, is rescued by the noble Baron Roger and his men, among them a young page named Conan. In the aftermath of the attack, the damaged keep is left abandoned--the bone of contention around which the story revolves.

The main character, Conan, is immediately sympathetic. He is strong, brave, and chivalrous to a fault, but young man that he is, he makes occasional bone-headed decisions that nearly cost him his life. As the story progresses, Conan's youthful naivete transforms into savvy adulthood as he carefully plans a strategy to thwart the Sauval.

The character of Anne is also appealing. Though she is presented in fighting trim throughout the book, she is not given unrealistic strength or the ability to strike down fighting men twice her size--a common but ludicrous feature of much modern literature. Anne's true strength lies in her courage, her determination to regain her father's fief and her willingness to step outside of the expected female role, even in the face of difficult odds, for the sake of justice. In this, I thought she resembled St. Joan of Arc.

Overall, I loved The Red Keep. The main characters were good and solid, and the antagonists were suitably detestable. The story itself and the writing are also first rate. Add to this the great black and white illustrations by Andrew Wyeth throughout, and you've got a real winner of a book, perfectly suited for kids 10 and up, but easily read and enjoyed by adults as well.