16th century Historical Fiction

Angels in Iron

Book cover: 'Angels in Irons'
Author(s): 
Nicholas C Prata
Copyright: 
1997
Publisher: 
Evolution Publishing
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
313 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

Angels in Iron is the absorbing tale of the siege of Malta in 1564 between the Knights of St. John of the Hospital (a military religious order) and Suleiman's forces. Suleiman, the most famous sultan of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (who has at this point significantly expanded his empire) has grand plans to conquer the world - and that includes Malta, the new home of the Knights of St. John of the Hospital. The Grand Master of this order witnessed their surrender at Rhodes (their former home) when he was a young knight. Now he is determined to hold on to Malta to the bitter end. Will he succeed in defeating the Turks against incredible odds or will his stubborn pride be the ruin of his Order and cause the loss of many lives?

Prata brings this fascinating tale to life by giving the characters real personalities. They are not mere pawns used to further the plot of the story. Interesting subplots abound. Will the feuding Florentines, Di Corso and Rambaldi, succeed in killing one another before the enemy has a chance or will the grace of God intervene?

Because of a few "choice" words, very minor sexual references (nothing coarse or inappropriate), and extreme violence at times (bodies are getting hacked to pieces), this novel would be more appropriate for a mature high school student than younger children. While the violence is definitely graphic at times, especially in the heat of battle ("The decapitated body stumbled down the hill, neck spewing blood...") since war is hell, it is most realistically portrayed.

Why read a story of such blood and gore? The overwhelming theme is courage, honor, and the Catholic faith. The knights know what the loss of this island will mean. They are willing to die for their faith. There are also many touching moments regarding their Faith. Even though they are in the midst of war, the knights celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. A conversation tairkes place between a squire from Germany who wants to take up arms in defense of the Faith and a knight from Italy who advises, "All in good time, little brother. Youth must learn that service is more than death. We must strive to live for The Word before we can die for it."

This book is a real page-turner: Will the knights be able to hold on to the forts in the midst of wave after wave of bombardments and attacks? What really happened at the siege in Malta? Who is going to win the battle of wits and psychological stamina? And ultimately, will the knights be able to fearlessly defend Catholic Europe from the invasion of the scourge of Islam? Read Angels in Iron to find out.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
6-16-05
Reviewed by: 
Elizabeth Yank

By What Authority

Book cover: 'By What Authority'
Author(s): 
Robert Hugh Benson
Copyright: 
1904
Publisher: 
Lepanto Press
Binding: 
Sewn Hardcover
Number of pages: 
558 pages
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

It is early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Religion and politics are curiously mixed and confused. How will the people of England survive this tumultuous time and emerge as one of the great powers on the earth. This is the setting for By What Authority by Lord Robert Hugh Benson. It is the story of how two families, one Catholic and one Protestant, sort through the confusion and endure the suffering of finding and maintaining a religious identity.

The head of the Catholic family, Sir Nicholas Maxwell, is the Lord of a section in England just south of London. The Protestant family, Norris, lives next door and has a good rapport with the old Catholic family. The primarily Protestant village has great love for the Lord and his family and forgive them their superstitious religion. It is obvious that the younger Maxwell son is in love with Isabel Norris but the differences in their religions keep them apart -- for a time.

Isabel Norris is a Jane Austen -type character, full of virtue and feminine moderation. She is happily Protestant and deeply devoted to her beloved Jesus. Her father, sensing the Maxwell youth's love for her, and worried lest the Maxwell ladies should convert her daughter to Catholicism, sends her to a friend in the country who is STRICTLY Puritan. His hope is that she will be repelled by the strictness and return to his middle-of-the-road Church of England Protestantism. Isabel is indeed horrified at the fiery God portrayed in the Puritan church but the movements of her heart and religious sentiments foreshadow her as a Catholic at heart. While she is away her father dies and when she returns, Lady Maxwell's sister becomes her living companion. This sister is actually a nun who was sent away from her convent and so begins the slow conversion of Isabel. Sir Benson is masterful at describing the mental and spiritual movements of a soul and so the reader is brought through all the agitation and wonder of Isabel discovering, discarding and finally accepting the truth about the Catholic Faith. In the midst of her struggles, young Hubert Maxwell has stated his intentions toward her and begs her to wait for him, claiming that the religious issue will resolve itself somehow. He leaves to sail off with Sir Francis Drake on one of his first piratical voyages. When he returns, ready to embrace her AND proud to announce his conversion to her Protestant faith, he finds that she has very nearly converted to Catholicism. He is furious and offers to be whatever religion she wants. In saying that, he has lost her. To her, the Faith is something so intrinsic that it cannot merely be put on and off as is convenient. She maintains her love for him through the whole story but she knows that she cannot be his wife.

All the while Isabel is suffering and coming into the Catholic Faith, her brother Anthony has graduated from Cambridge and, full of patriotism and religious fervor, sets out to set himself up in the world. He goes to work for the Archbishop of Canterbury and so is thrust into the politics and religion of the times. He has an occasion to meet and debate with a Catholic man and feels his Protestant beliefs disturbed. He also witnesses Edmund Campion's so-called trial and his execution and is very much affected by it. Sir Benson spends a lot of time describing the trial and relating the arguments made on both sides. During this trial, Anthony is basically converted. He sees that ALL the religious questions boil down to who has the authority to interpret the Bible and speak for Christ. Protestantism taken to its extreme would have each person interpreting the Bible as he would and becoming his own authority. That in itself did not fit with scripture, he thought. He realizes that the Church of Rome has the greatest claim to that authority. He submits his resignation to the Archbishop and attends an Ignatian Retreat with Father Robert Persons. At the end of the retreat he goes to tell his sister, Isabel that he has converted only to find her in the same situation. They come into the Church together to the great joy of the Maxwells (excepting Hubert).

Anthony becomes a priest at a seminary on the Continent and returns with Isabel to England at the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. He eventually is captured and threatened with torture and death. He meets with the Queen herself and she offers to let him leave the country alive yet have it let out that he signed "the oath" which says that he acknowledges the Church of England. He, of course, refuses and the enraged Queen sends him off to the torturers. He dies on Easter morning as Isabel kneels at his bedside reading the Gospel of the day. She has decided to leave England and perhaps enter religious life.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is Benson's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth. She is fierce and unforgiving yet feminine and remorseful. He is very successful at describing the development of the awe in which her subjects hold her. She is awe inspiring. She is a formidable enemy and very moved by the loyalty of her people. She admires the gallantry and strength of the Catholic martyrs. She does not seem to be a deeply religious person herself and so cannot understand why these Catholics can't just accept things in order to live and have peace. He portrays her as having a certain goodness that is overshadowed by a multitude of forces, both within her and without.

The story would be excellent for upper high school level (and any interested adult). It might be interesting to read it along with a biography of St. Edmund Campion or Sir Francis Drake, and some history of the Spanish Armada. It is a compelling period in history and bears some deep thought as to its effect on today's world.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
1999

Stars of Fortune

Author(s): 
Cynthia Harnett
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

Set in England, mid 1500s, Catholic perpsective. As explained in the postscript, this book is the author's recreation of a legend surrounding the home belonging to the Washington family (who claims our first president as a descendent). According to the legend, Elizabeth I was once hidden in the house while fleeing pursuers. The story takes place during the tumultous reign of Mary I (eldest offspring of Henry VIII) at which time the "old religion" has been reinstated. (This is a rather subtle backdrop - one of the children notices that their housekeeper - who was a nun in hiding - cried for joy all through the Mass; their father is rebuilding parts of the house to which he secretly adds a small hiding place - presumably for priests in hiding.) Some of the older boys have "romantic" notions of trying to rescue the princess and all sorts of adventures ensue. An enjoyable story in itself, it provides much substance for discussion as well.

Review Date: 
1999
Reviewed by: 
Alicia Van Hecke

The Blood Red Crescent

Author(s): 
Henry Garnett
Copyright: 
1960
Publisher: 
Lepanto Press
Binding: 
Sewn Hardcover
Number of pages: 
188 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Review: 

The year is 1570. The Turkish Ottoman Empire has wrested control of the Mediterranean Seas, instilling fear in all who wish to sail there. They have been raiding the coastal towns of Italy, France and Spain, plundering and burning, and kidnapping Christians as slaves. On top of this, the Sultan has been rapidly increasing his fleet of galleys and Corsair pirates have been massacring more and more Christians or kidnapping them as slaves. With this heightened fear of invasion, the Pope issues a plea to form a Holy League (in the book it is called a Catholic League) to unite forces against the impending threat of Turkish forces.

But it is one thing to issue a plea for action and another to carry it out. The Holy League needs ships and men. Who can the Pope count on? Who will lead these forces? Christian Europe is feeling the ill effects of the Reformation and heresies. This takes Germany, France, and England out of the picture. In the end, Spain, Venice, Genoa, the Papal States, and others form a fleet. Here too petty jealousies, intemperance, and hot tempers cause dissension among the men from the various rival countries and republics. How can the Christians ever present a united front when they cannot even get along with one another? Only a miracle through prayer can bring about a victory.

As raids along the coast increase, the people of Venice fear the Turks will invade soon. Incensed at the cruelty of the Turks, Guido dreams of becoming a sailor someday and proving his bravery. His father, on the other hand, wishes to see him safe in a monastery far away and sends him there to learn his Latin. How can Guido change his father’s mind?

But, before Guido can even think of going into battle, he must first learn to use a crossbow and practice the skills he needs to defend himself. At the same time, Guido learns that heroics in battle are not enough. He needs to also learn to place his trust in God. His genuine devotion to the Blessed Mother at crucial points throughout the story is a helpful reminder to boys that praying to the Blessed Mother is not just something that pious, old women do.

The Blood Red Crescent is a fast-paced, swashbuckling drama of the battle of Lepanto that does not shy away from painting a realistic picture of the gruesome and tawdry aspects of war while at the same time highlighting the heroic moments of gallantry and chivalry.

While the story is accurately depicted and places an emphasis on the importance of prayer, confession and the mass, it does miss the important reference to the Pope calling on everyone to pray the rosary for victory. From the outset of forming the League, the Pope urged the faithful to pray and fast and especially pray the Rosary. In fact, “Each Christian in the League’s fleet had been given a rosary before the fleet sailed from Messina” (Chesterton, Lepanto, ed. Dale Ahlquist, Ignatius, 56). Initially the battle of Lepanto would be commemorated with the title of Our Lady of Victory in thanksgiving for God’s mercy in winning the battle, but later the feast was changed to Our Lady of the Rosary.

There is one glaring inconsistency in the book. At the very end of the book, one of the English characters talks about joining the ship of Francis Drake. You may want to discuss the fact that Francis Drake was a pirate and actually did not uphold the same values as the character who wishes to join his ship. This does not detract from the overall merit of the story.

If you would like to read more about the Battle of Lepanto, G. K. Chesterton has written the epic poem, Lepanto. The edition published by Ignatius includes commentaries, explanatory notes, and more.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Additional notes: 

This title is also available in softcover, published by Sophia Institute Press.

Review Date: 
5-21-2005
Reviewed by: 
Elizabeth Yank