An overstuffed, overheated adventure novel can be just the thing on long summer days, and they don't come much more overstuffed or overheated than The Religion, Tim Willocks' new historical adventure. But Willocks, a British doctor and filmmaker, makes length and histrionics into unexpected virtues with some nifty plotting and a darkly charismatic leading man. Even if his tale of the 16th-century Siege of Malta gets bogged down in dismembered bodies every so often, its epic scope and blood-and-thunder passion make it the perfect beach read, as long as there's room for its 600-page bulk in the tote bag.
Willocks opens with a grabber of a prologue: Mattias, the adolescent son of a blacksmith, watches the Turks massacre his family, but is spared because of his skill with the dagger he's just forged. He's raised by a captain in Suleiman Shah's army, but when pushed beyond his conscience, defects to the life of a trader and mercenary. As the Knights Of Saint John—the Religion of the novel's title—are about to make a last stand against the Grande Turke's army on the fortified Isle of Malta, a few hundred trained soldiers against 60,000 jihadists, they pin their hopes on Tannhauser, as Mattias styles himself. The notorious lone wolf shuns the fanaticism of both faiths, but is persuaded to join the papist cause by a noblewoman who asks him to find her long-lost son somewhere among the doomed armies.
Throw in some sticky sexual entanglements, a handful of daring escapes and spy missions, and the bricks of opium Tannhauser plans to smuggle out of the war for business purposes, and the pace of The Religion rarely lets up. And just when it seems that all the possible changes have been rung on the novel's rich premise, the evil Inquisitor springs his trap, torturing Tannhauser and his companions as the Turks scale the city walls. There are so many horrific battles to describe that Willocks runs out of gory superlatives before his war is done. But he seems to have a plot twist up each sleeve and both trouser legs, and before the immensely satisfying epilogue, no opportunity for thrills goes wanting. Tannhauser will ride again, according to the jacket blurb, and readers who saw him through to the end will want to hang on for the next wild ride.