Tim Willocks's new novel is set during the first great siege of Malta, when for three months in 1565 a garrison of Knights Hospitaller from the Order of St John held the island against the overwhelming might of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Surfing the consequent tide of blood, shit, piss, vomit and severed limbs comes Willocks's hero, Matthias Tannhauser, a German adventurer raised by Muslims whose knowledge of the enemy is as valuable to the besieged Hospitallers as it is to Carla, a Maltese noblewoman determined to return to the island and retrieve her bastard child. Also bound for Malta is Ludovico Ludovici, fanatical Inquisitor, sworn enemy of Tannhauser and the father of Carla's son. So much for the trailer. In the ensuing battle, you can almost hear the gravelly voiceover saying that each person's loyalties to Gaard and Mayun will be tested... to the limit.
Willocks had been working in Hollywood for nearly ten years before he wrote The Religion, and by golly, does it show: every brick in this edifice of psychopathic dismemberment-porn and woolly theological speculation bears the unmistakable stamp of studio thinking. Cumbersome catchphrase dialogue? Check. Owlish pondering over whether the Divine is "the creation of men alone"? Check. Walk-on part for a token black slave at the end? Yup, it's all there, and interleaved with enough torture, bloodletting, weapon specifications, misogyny, racism and bed-hopping to keep the black-T-shirt-and-body-odour brigade happily twitching well into the summer.
Connoisseurs of bad sex in fiction will love The Religion, a book that never lets the beacon of its hero's gigantic todger slip below the horizon for more than a few pages. Tannhauser is the kind of man who has to "shift in the saddle to give his member room", and he is periodically gripped with a farcical bemusement at the sight of "his fast-engorging privities". At one point he is even "afflicted... by a burgeoning tumescence that nothing in Creation could forfend"; and if this sounds like the kind of thing that sends lesser men scurrying to their doctors, spare a thought for Ludovico, whose "yard... pants and strains like a hell dog on a gossamer leash". The girls, predictably, love it. Carla conceals a longing to "moan in the night beneath Tannhauser's brawn", while with her friend Amparo Tannhauser enjoys a tumble worthy of the great Ken Follett (whose novels saw erotic congress as a period of quasi-geometric interaction between "his prick" and something called "her triangle"). Here, Tannhauser "guides the tip of his organ between the folds of her matrix", a process referred to passim by Willocks as "slaking one's lust".
That's the Bad Sex Award in the bag. Unfortunately, The Religion waltzes off with the Bad Violence Award as well. Barely a chapter goes by without someone "loudly befouling themselves" before having their face cleaved in two, their arms lopped off, their tongue cut out, being disembowelled, vomiting, pleading, weeping, pissing or some novel combination of two or more. At such points Willocks seems torn between the mathematical pleasure of explaining exactly who's doing what to whom and the sheer hell-yeah that the whole thing engenders in him, so you end up with such sentences as "he vomited a torrent of gall and phlegm in the dying man's screaming face", at which even a seasoned practitioner like Bret Easton Ellis might turn up his immaculately exfoliated nose.
When not slaking his lusts, Willocks contents himself with mounting an assault on the English language that puts the Ottoman hordes to shame. The narrative voice in The Religion is prevailingly that of the pulp historical romance - babes are "given suck", people wave "damask blades", women "sashay", men "swive" - but it can occasionally rise to the kind of Basic English that Kingsley Amis used to write as a joke, especially when speaking of the great imponderables of manhood and existence. "This was what it was to be a man," intones Willocks, "this, and not some thing other than this." No epic, of course, would be complete without a nod to the Iliad, but the reference to "the wine-blue sea" rather messes the nest for that particular parallel.
The Religion is almost certain to be filmed, and barring a screenwriting miracle the best thing to be said for it will be that it's quicker than reading the book. After ploughing through 600 pages of this stuff one actually finds oneself identifying with Tannhauser, who, sloping back from the fray, sums up book and battle both. "One would," he says disconsolately, "have thought such suffering beyond the design of men."