“Man, you have got to read this book!” The words came in a breathless rush, from a friend whose opinion I trusted. “It’s better than Gates of Fire!” he said, thrusting a rather thick volume into my hands.
Now, most everyone who knows me understands that I have two literary idols, one dead and one living: Robert E. Howard and Steven Pressfield. They are the prophets of my personal pantheon; their words, their stories, have no equal. Thus, for him to come up to me and say he’d found a book better than Pressfield’s Gates of Fire was pure heresy, like taking a tinkle on the Bible. “Impossible!” I replied, holding the book away from my body as though its touch was enough to cause spiritual pollution.
“Read it! You’ll see!”
Color me skeptical . . . and more than a little eager to prove my friend wrong. I accepted his challenge and dug into it that very afternoon, expecting I’d call him up in an hour or so and curse him for taking Pressfield’s name in vain. But I couldn’t. That book had sucked me in.
It was called Ironfire: An Epic Novel of Love and War (Delacorte, 2003), and its author was one David Ball. To this day, it remains a favorite of mine—and an undiscovered classic.
Ironfire is a tale of the vicious Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565, as seen from the perspectives of four protagonists: Nico Borg, a Maltese boy captured years before by Algerian corsairs who is returning to Malta at the helm of an Ottoman warship; his sister, Maria, who seeks to escape a life of poverty and despair; Christien Luc de Vries, a reluctant Knight of St. John who would rather study medicine than butcher Muslims; and Father Giulio Salvago, an Inquisitor haunted by his past sins who is determined to stamp out heresy. Their lives intertwine as the massive armada of the Ottoman Sultan bears down upon the tiny island, and they are forever changed by the savagery and bloodshed that follows.
As a writer, Ball sits somewhere to the left of Robert E. Howard; his unflinching look at the horrors of 16th-century warfare hearken back to REH’s own tales of the Crusades, but Ball has the luxury of time—time to draw each character out in painstaking detail, time to weave descriptions rich in firsthand knowledge (indeed, Ball wrote portions of the book on Malta, within sight of the harbors and fortifications the people of the city died defending). I’ve heard some complain that this makes for a slow opening, a common refrain with Gates of Fire, as well, but such criticism vanishes once the battle is joined.
But, is it better than Gates of Fire? I don’t know that it’s better, but it is certainly it’s equal. And it’s well worth a “Man, you have got to read this book!”