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The Religion: A Novel
Sarah Crichton Books, 2007
613 pp., $26.00
Tannhauser Rides Again
I couldn't find the book. It was one in a stack, briefly shuffled through some months ago. Encyclopedic and jacketed, it opened to a wood-cut of Muslims torturing Christian slaves. The wood-cut, the book explained, was propaganda to generate Christian support for the Crusades. Elsewhere on the page came something like: "Conflict between Islam and the West began with the Crusades and continued through centuries, not truly ending until successful U.S. action against the Barbary pirates."
The conflict between the West and Islam ended when the first U.S. Marines fought pirates along "the shores of Tripoli"? Not long ago, that would have seemed true. (As for when the conflict began, ask the dust where there used to be thriving Christian communities in North Africa and the Middle East, conquered in the first waves of Islamic expansion centuries before the Crusades.)
The Crusades failed. Expansionist Islam peaked with the great Turkish sultans in a conquered Byzantium, and Christendom, divided by nascent nationalism, weakened by corruption, and torn by the Reformation, was no match for it. But Islam nodded, lulled into complacency, until even North African piracy could be suppressed by a brand new and underpopulated democracy on the other side of the world.
That fateful decline, according to many, began at the siege of Malta in 1565, the bloody setting for Tim Willocks' The Religion. With Islam once again on an international up-swing, with the West at war, and with imaginations primed for the medieval by The Da Vinci Code and assorted knock-offs, Willocks is almost assured of an international bestseller. On top of that, he's working with nothing short of a fantastic setting. The siege of Malta is as unbelievable as it was important. A small Mediterranean rock became a crossroads in history as the struggle between Suleiman the Magnificent and the antiquated Knights of St. John the Baptist decided the Future of Europe (or at least played a role worthy of rescue from the forgettery). ...