History professor, USM graduate and former Mississippi Gulf Coast resident Robert E. Hirsch returns to rousing historical fiction with his sequel to “Promise of the Black Monks,” with the highly entertaining “Hammer of God: The Dark Ages Saga of Tristan de Saint-Germain.”
Hirsch weds a fictional story of an orphaned boy, Tristan, who rises from his status as a humble monk to become one of the leading men of his age, to the historical account of the Roman Catholic Church’s struggles with ecclesiastical reform, a rampaging Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich, and a divisive anti-Pope, Clement.
This 600-plus page opus is also two different stories of another kind, the first half involving Tristan’s affair with the lovely, headstrong Romani dancer, Mala, as he follows Cardinal Odo de Lagery’s summons to preserve the church with diplomacy and assassination.
The second part takes Tristan from monk to Papal Secretary and legate, as his father figure Odo rises to become Pope Urban II, the great reformer and initiator of the destructive Crusades against Islam.
Along the way Hirsch amazes the reader with his deep understanding of Dark Age political intrigue and military tactics and strategy. This is German versus Italian, Gregorian and Benedictine monks against anti-reformers, rogue emperors and corrupt kings.
He also makes a compelling argument that, despite the Church’s own corruption, licentiousness, hypocrisy and use of “filthy tactics” to survive attacks from fellow Christians and Muslins alike, the “one true church” prevents civilization from “sinking back into the morass, where nobles plunder the land at will, ravage the populace, pick the clergy,” and turn God’s veritable Garden of Eden into a “landscape of horror.”
The Church is also the only bulwark against invading Seljuk Turks who maim and enslave Christian children while torturing and slaughtering all who stand in their way of world domination.
The unfolding of Tristan and Mala’s romance against the backdrop of sweeping changes in 11th Century Western Europe and North Africa is buttressed by Hirsch’s population of the story with unforgettable characters, fictional and real.
Those characters include the eccentric Peter the Hermit, the bizarre Finnish sorceress Duxia, the chivalrous knight, Guillaume, the pompous aristocratic Italian general Lord Balducci, Orla the fearless Viking warrior, Countess Matilda, arguably the world’s first feminist and Handel the church’s “holy” assassin.
These characters are far from one-dimensional stock characters. For example, the dissembling sorceress Duxia interferes with Tristan and Mala’s romance with tragic consequences for all, yet denounces the crusades as the ultimate evil and “war of all wars”; while Handel goes about his assassin’s task with the sincerest possible righteous fervor.
Hirsch leads the reader through an engaging tutorial about Dark Age life, politics and religion, while keeping the intrigue, battles, sex, romance and sorcery coming at a thrill-a-minute pace.
You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll finish this lengthy tome, and deeply regret that the thrill of savoring it is gone. But don’t worry; Hirsch will return next year with the third of five books in this series: the crusade epic, Horde of Fools.
‘Hammer of God (The Dark Ages Saga of Tristan de Saint-Germain)’ (Volume 2)
Paperback: 624 pages; Publisher: W & B Publishers Inc. (August 27, 2016)