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Sunday, January 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sweeping saga of holy wars of the 16th century

Special to The Seattle Times

"Ironfire: A Novel of the Knights of Malta and the Last Battle of the Crusades"


by David Ball
Delacorte, $24.95

Just when the blockbuster historical novel seemed an endangered species, "Ironfire" weighs in. Subtitled "A Novel of the Knights of Malta and the Last Battle of the Crusades," David Ball's 667 pages of swashbuckle and romance bring to life the siege of Malta in 1565 — a pivotal event in the recurring clashes between Christians and Muslims. Ball's solid historical research not only illuminates the political realities of the 16th century, it lends perspective to present-day incarnations of the same feud.

In the best traditions of the genre, Ball shows us history from multiple and opposing points of view. In "Ironfire," Islam emerges looking more equitable and more enlightened than the Crusaders in its policies of educating and promoting peasants and slaves to positions of authority.

The story begins in Malta with the kidnapping of Nico, a young peasant boy, then moves to Algeria, and on to Istanbul, the most magnificent city on Earth when much of Europe was mired in the Middle Ages. Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman empire, was ruled by Suleiman, Possessor of Men's Necks, who wrote poetry and prayed in his tent during a notable battle, while outside, his Janissaries built an avenue of pyramids from the heads of 10,000 enemy knights. After his prayers Suleiman wrote to his mother to tell her the day's news: "It rained."

Nico, abducted by slavers, is sold to an Algerian shipbuilder who dallies with handsome boys. Nico's prodigious memory earns him an apprenticeship with a master shipwright. He escapes Algeria, only to be picked up by an Ottoman corsair and carried to Istanbul, where he is given the option of becoming a galley slave or converting to Islam and studying to rise in the Sultan's court.

Ball alternates Nico's story with that of his sister Maria, who tries unsuccessfully to rouse the resident Knights of St. John to recover her kidnapped brother. Later, she is raped by the parish priest, whom she has persuaded to teach her to read. She takes up residence in the hidden caves of a band of Jews eluding the Inquisition then being revived in Malta.

When Nico returns to Malta, it is as a captain in the Ottoman invasion fleet. He must decide whether to remain true to his vows to Suleiman and kill his former countrymen or defect to defend the island of his birth, a place that never did nor ever would have offered him any prospects beyond poverty and hunger. Like most native Maltese of that period, he was not fond of the Knights of St. John, an order made up of imperious sons of the most illustrious noble houses of five nations, who had been "given" Malta by the pope. Only one thing in Malta remains precious to Nico. He searches for Maria, hoping to save her.

The last quarter of "Ironfire" is devoted to the relentless siege, in precise, bloody detail. Suleiman sent 40,000 of the best-trained warriors in the world against untrained peasants and the resident Knights of St. John, with a force of 9,000. Malta seemed sure to fall within a month. For four months, while bickering European heads of state sent excuses in place of reinforcements, Malta withstood the siege.

Ball's account of the sallies and counter-moves is unflinching in its detail. Fire was Malta's chief weapon, hurled down by children as young as 5, on attackers dressed in silk robes and turbans.

Malta ultimately prevailed, killing nearly 30,000 Ottoman troops. In the best tradition of historical novels, love also triumphs. This is a novel with Major Motion Picture written all over it.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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