The Religion by Tim Willocks
It took me a while to read this, but that is in no way a reflection on the book. It has been a while since, as a reader, I became fully immersed in a thick novel.
The Religion takes place mostly during the 1565 siege of Malta. ("The Religion" are better known to history as the Knights Hospitaller. ) The protagonist, Tannhauser, is a former janisssary who managed to escape his servitude with his head intact and now operates as an opium and arms merchant. The Religion conspire to bring him into the conflict, because his knowledge of the Turk will aide them. But, the conspiracy to bring him to Malta might be at the cost to his own head, as a vindictive member of the Inquisition has his own reasons for keeping him from Malta.
For me, this book was as excellent as I had heard. Tannhauser is a real brutal bastard when he has need to, but he is also a loyal friend when it counts. Like all great heroes, he moves by his own morals and honor. There are moments when I was reminded, strongly, of Karl E. Wagner's Kane, as if Tannhauser were what Kane might have been if Kane were purely historical. (yeah, maybe that makes no sense, but that's what I felt.) Kane with a good dose of Cornwell's Richard Sharpe, perhaps.
The other characters come to life just as fully. There are both small-scale action and sweeping battles scenes. Sex, love, and a world gone mad in perpetual combat.
This was a great read. It is as simple as that.
Some warning on the content. First, Tannhauser is a neutral. The wickedness--and occasional magnanimity--of both sides of the conflict are unabashedly explored. The fanatics, the corrupt, the madmen and the innocents.
The combat is unflinchingly gory, bloody, and septic.
I am fine with both those issues. War is hell. I can read whitewashed combat scenes elsewhere, where appropriate. This novels drops you in the front lines of a horrible conflict - it should be brutal.
So, if you're okay with that, and want a great combination of a sweeping epic historical and some down'n'dirty hard-hitting action, you need to put The Religion on your reading list.
I had originally heard about The Religion through folks at the Conan.com forums. I let it go a few years and finally bought the hardcover (cheap) at a remainders store while on vacation this year.
Although the story does tie up nicely, there are rumors of a planned trilogy.
Next time around, I don't think I can wait for the remainder rack - I'll be buying the second installment when it comes out. And I'll be getting the hardcover.