Book Review of Ironfire by David Ball
When the Christian soldiers captured Jerusalem in 1099 during the first crusades, the city was protected by two orders of knights sworn to poverty and celibacy. The first of these were the Knights Templar, and the second was the Hospitaller Knights of St. John. Both military orders grew in strength and independence over time.
The Knights of St. John were often bequeathed parts of estates from crusader knights they healed in their hospital. When the Muslim armies recaptured Jerusalem in 1187, the Knights of St. John established different bases in the area and participated in subsequent crusades. By the 14th century, they acquired the island of Rhodes, which they ruled as an independent state. They used their eastern Mediterranean base to harass the merchant ships and navy of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, finally drove them from Rhodes in 1523. He allowed them to leave the island, sparing the local populace, in return for a promise to forever end their military operations against the Muslims. Seven years later, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave the knights the archipelago of Malta in return for one Maltese falcon a year. The Knights of St. John renewed their attacks against the Ottoman ships, further incurring the wrath of Suleiman, who, in 1565, sent a massive armada of ships, soldiers, and artillery to Malta to destroy the knights once and for all.
This is the historical background for David Ball’s novel, Ironfire, and what a wonderful story he tells. The story starts in 1552 with siblings Nico and Maria Borg searching for treasure in abandoned caves on the southern coast of the island that once housed some long-forgotten civilization. Barbary pirates, surreptitiously stopping to take on some water, spot them and capture Nico, knowing Christian children are a valuable commodity in North African slave markets.
As the pirate corsair sails away with her brother, Maria runs for help, but finds none coming. The Knights of St. John refuse to help, calling it folly to chase a ship they know they won’t catch or find. The fiery and fearless Maria, exhausting all appeals and incurring the wrath of her father, finally has to admit that her beloved Nico is gone. It leaves her with a disgust and hatred of the knights. Most of the Maltese despise the knights. They don’t speak the Maltese language, ignore the local government, and are answerable to nobody.
Nico is taken to Algiers, where he’s sold to a wealthy shipbuilder. Thrown into a household with its own intrigue among both the slaves and the wives, daily survival and sustenance are achieved only through wits and constant awareness of all the dangers present. Slaves caught trying to escape are subject to slow and painful deaths.
Slaves failing in their duty suffer only slightly less. Nico eventually makes his way to Istanbul, where his intelligence makes him a student in the court of the sultan Suleiman, destined to be one of the meritocracy that run the empire. He converts to Islam and is renamed Asha.
David Ball moves the story back and forth over the years between Maria’s life on Malta and Nico’s life in Algiers and Istanbul. In doing so, he presents a detailed portrait of 16th-century life as both a Christian and Muslim, and the effects of the constant battle between the two. Neither side has any compunction about sinking each other’s commercial vessels or enslaving those captured.
Whole cities are sometimes captured and forced into slavery, At one point a Barbary pirate captain tosses the children they captured overboard so they can lighten their load and outrun their pursuers. Life is cheap, especially among the peasants, and rape, pillage, and plunder are done in the name of God or Allah. Both the Catholic countries in Europe and the Sunni Muslims of the Ottoman Empire battle the heretics, Protestants and Shi’a respectively, within their own borders.
The story unfolds over the thirteen years between Nico’s capture and the historic siege of Malta by the Ottoman army and navy. In that time, Maria grows into a beautiful woman, still fiercely proud and independent, inspiring love or lust from different men.
Her best friend is Elena, a prostitute who shares Maria’s dreams of a free life somewhere far from Malta. Elena is Jewish, and lives with other Jews in hidden caves. They live in constant fear of being discovered as Jewish, which could bring certain death, especially once the Inquisition comes to the island.
Maria eventually shuns the house of her parents, her father illiterate and brutal and her mother weak and superstitious, and lives among the Jews. She learns to read and eventually runs her father’s masonry business for him.
Her archenemy is Father Giulio Salvago, who arrives on the island the same day his predecessor is burned at the stake for being a heretic. Salvago was once a hard-drinking, womanizing hedonist, but a near-fatal beating turned him to a life serving God.
His lust for Maria threatens to undo all that he has worked for as a priest, and he threatens the people in her life to keep her from exposing the truth about him. When he returns to the island as the Inquisitor, he holds a power that neither the Knights of St. John nor Maria can threaten.
Christien de Vries is the son of a count who was pledged to become a Knight of St. John at birth, and reluctantly accepted his vows of chastity and poverty as a member of the order. He would rather be a surgeon, considered a profession lowly enough only for commoners. Coming to Malta and meeting Maria challenges the lifelong vows he’s made to the order. His best friend from childhood, also a knight, is Bertrand Cuvier, “the hard-drinking, hard-fisted, hard-fornicating champion of Christ.”
Nico, as Asha, lives a life as a Muslim convert and page in the court of the sultan, where the slightest disobedience could literally cost him his head. The Ottoman empire regularly searched both within its borders and outside in the Christian world for talented boys it could groom to run its empire. While only the children of aristocrats could rise to positions of power in Europe, the Ottoman empire would only allow those with the intelligence and talent, regardless of birth, to lead their government and military.
For Christian children brought to Istanbul to be educated, instant death was the only option to a forced conversion to Islam. For a long time, Asha dreamt of escape and returning to Christianity. When a ship carrying the girl he loves is sunk by galley captained by a Knight of St. John’s, he vows his revenge. Asha becomes a captain in the Ottoman navy, learning from the legendary pirate, Dragut Rais.
When the sultan sends his armada to destroy the Knights of St. John and all the Maltese civilians who fight with them, Asha captains a ship destined to bring death and destruction to his homeland. His dear sister, Maria, is helping to build the defenses to repel his attack.
These are just the major characters in a story that spans three continents. One of the weaknesses that often plague sprawling sagas is that the characters get lost in the shuffle, often leaving the reader flipping back through the pages to figure out who each person is.
David Ball has done a masterful job of creating fully-fleshed, nuanced characters to populate his story. None of his characters are stereotyped, and they each struggle with their own inner demons and choices in life. Even those who appear to perpetrate evil often recognize their own weaknesses, limitations, and the rationalizations that the ends justify their means.
Looming large throughout Ironfire is the power of religion over the lives of every citizen of both the Muslim and Christian worlds. No greater glory could be found for a warrior of either faith than dying for God or Allah. Any action can be justified if it’s for the glory of one’s god or the destruction of infidels and their false religion.
Religion is also used to control the peasantry and as a tool for palace intrigue and the promotion of any aristocrat’s self-purpose. The Pope even grants indulgences that wipe away all sins for anyone who dies defending Malta from the Muslim horde.
Ironfire is almost 700 pages long, but the suspense never wanes. Each of the characters constantly faces one danger or another, whether from someone determined to bring them harm, or from the exposure of a lie or hidden truth that could undo their lives. David Ball brings all the different locales to life, easily transporting the reader to the 16th century.
The last section of the book is the siege of Malta, a horrific summer-long battle that reduced much of Malta to rubble and brings all the characters into a fight for their lives. The descriptions of the battle plans, the weapons of war, the moves, countermoves, and ruses that turned the tides of battle, the horrors suffered by the civilians who could find no shelter from the constant bombardment by the Ottoman artillery, which only fell silent when the their troops stormed the Maltese forts and cities by the thousands, all cause the pages to turn quickly as the outcome looms uncertain for both the Muslim and Christian sides.
If you’re unaware of the historical outcome of the battle for Malta, as I was, don’t look it up beforehand. Not knowing which side will prevail adds to the suspense as fortunes for both Christians and Muslims ebb and flow from day to day, and survival of any of the characters in the story isn’t certain.
In Ironfire, David Ball has given us a prime example of exemplary historical fiction. Not only is it a realistic depiction of a faraway time and place, but he’s populated his story with interesting and believable characters and keeps the suspense ratcheted in top gear all the way. Ironfire allows a peek into different worlds that coexisted at the same time with the hatred and fanaticism that rings true to this day. It’s easy to divide the world into good and evil and be appalled at the actions of those opposed to one’s religion or way of life.
Part of what David Ball has presented with this novel is the perspective from both sides that considers the other to be evil, and the justifications of their actions as being God’s or Allah’s way. In that sense, Ironfire also succeeds as precautionary tale for today with hope that we all learn from the lessons of history so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.