What a terrific tale this is! 665 pages, yet still too short! David Ball
has written a great story about the siege of Malta by the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century. Malta
is a tiny island of strategic importance because it sits in the middle of the Mediterrean Sea, controlling
the shipping lanes between Africa and Europe. The Holy Order of the Knights of Saint John is charged with
defending the island. They are the last remnants of the crusading forces that once took Jerusalem - but in
the hundreds of years since, the forces of Islam have taken all the Middle East and North Africa, they have
taken Byzantium and the Balkans, and they threaten the rest of Western Europe with their mighty hordes. Europe
is consumed with Protestant vs Catholic rivalry, and so can't be bothered to unite to face their common foe.
That is the historical background for this story. Ball has done his homework on this
novel, the research shows every where, from descriptions of galleons, to the medevial weapons and battle tactics, to the amazing world of the
Sultan's court. But the research is unobtrusive, the details fit neatly into place within the context of the
story. These details bring the novel alive, making the story seem authentic (and the brutal siege almost unendurable.)
Ball does a good job of showing characters on boths sides, Turks and Christians. There characters are complex, the bad guys
have good sides, no cardboard characters here.
Ironfire is the story of a brother (Nico) and sister (Maria) born on the island of Malta. At the
opening of the novel, they have disobediently snuck away from chores to search for treasure amongst the ancient ruins of Malta.
But a Turkish corsair happens to have hidden his galley on that side of the island, making emergency repairs to his ship. A
couple of pirates are sent ashore to watch for patrols, and chance upon the two children. Nico is taken captive, and destined
for a life of slavery. From this point forward, the novel alternates between their two tales, each of which is absorbing and
perilous for our heroes. Other major characters are introduced: Christien de Vries, son of a French count, who is more interested in
the lowly profession of surgeon/healer rather than the esteemed role of warrior knight. Father Salvago, an ambitious man of the cloth
with some weaknesses in his character. Leonardus, a Venetian master shipbuilder who was captured as a slave an now must labor to build
ships for the enemy.
The novel advances the lives of these characters (and many more) until all the story threads come together at
the horrific siege of Malta. Much like Gates of Fire, Pressfield's novel about the battle of Thermoplyae, the description of warfare is overwhelmingly
brutal and savage. It seems incredible that anyone can survive (and most people don't) the repeated assaults. Of course, I know enough
about history to know the ultimate outcome, just as everyone knows who won the battle of Thermoplyae, but the doesn't diminish the
urgent tension of the story, as our heroes are repeated exposed to incredible danger and death all around. I kept reading and reading,
surely the sign of an engrossing book!
I definitely must look into Empires of Sand, Ball's first novel. Could his first attempt possibly
match Ironfire? I am eager to find out!