Sword & Scimitar by Simon Scarrow ISBN 9780755358380
I’ll be honest, I would not ordinarily have picked up this book. Although I like historical fiction (in small doses), I don’t usually choose ‘sword and sandals’ epics; ‘crusades and crosses’ in this instance.
The story opens dramatically in 1545, on board The Swift Hind, as a battle starts to defeat an invasion at sea from the Muslim Turks, led by Sultan Suleiman. Our hero – Sir Thomas Barrett – is a young knight, sworn into the Order of St John to protect Christendom against ‘the infidels’. He is brave, skilful, wealthy and handsome. Just as a battle is waging against the enemy, both sides proclaiming God’s truth and protection, so there are subtle battles within the Order; for power, recognition and love.
Sir Thomas falls in love with a captive from the galley they ‘liberate’. As to be expected, Thomas and Maria’s affair is forbidden and they are forcibly separated. He is exiled from the order and spends the next twenty years looking after his Herefordshire estate. Although he never recovers from this separation, he keeps himself physically in shape, ready for action.
Thus, in 1565, Sir Thomas is summonsed to London to meet Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary, Walsingham. The ageing knight is to be welcomed back into the Order to rejoin the holy war. Why has Elizabeth’s ‘Spymaster’ recruited Sir Thomas? Why has he specifically appointed a new squire to accompany the knight on his quest to the island of Malta. Who is this talented youth? Why is he, Richard, so elusive?
The bulk of the novel details the Siege of Malta of 1565 (no, I hadn’t heard of it); the passions and pain felt by both sides in this bloody siege.
From the dramatic opening on board ship to battles on land and sea, this is a romp of a historical novel; you can see, smell and taste the hand-to-hand combat. I confess, I started to skip some of the battle scenes after about half-way through, but was interested enough to read to the end.
The prose is rich in detail; just enough to help you visualise the action and context. The main characters are well rounded and (just) avoid becoming cliches. Familiar tropes are used: brave, handsome young knight falls in love, they are separated, he always loves her, tries to find her, continues to battle against the enemy (both within and without the Order), reassesses his attitude to the enemy, finds both truth and love by the end.
To my surprise, I enjoyed this ‘males in mail’ romp. It was less cliche-ridden than I had anticipated; there was a balance between the action scenes and the more thoughtful, slower paced conversations and reflective scenes. There was some romance amongst the slaughter; a thread that held my interest, along with the slight mystery surrounding Richard the ‘squire’.
If you like Ken Follet; you’ll love this; if you like Phillipa Gregory, give this a try. It was interesting to read a novel such as this from a male perspective, with more action on the battlefield than in the bedroom.
A good choice for a holiday read, particularly somewhere like Malta, where most of this is set, or as an antidote against the vagaries of the British weather, curling up against the elements; pure escapist enjoyment.