Sunday, August 23, 2009

Defenders of the Faith - James Reston Jr.

Defenders of the Faith
James Reston Jr.
Penguin Press
Copyright Date: 2009

The jacket description:
A bestselling historian recounts sixteen years that shook the world— the epic clash between Europe and the Ottoman Turks that ended the Renaissance and brought Islam to the gates of Vienna

In the bestselling Warriors of God and Dogs of God, James Reston, Jr., limned two epochal conflicts between Islam and Christendom. Here he examines the ultimate battle in that centuries-long war, which found Europe at its most vulnerable and Islam on the attack. This drama was propelled by two astonishing young sovereigns: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Turkish sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Though they represented two colliding worlds, they were remarkably similar. Each was a poet and cultured cosmopolitan; each was the most powerful man on his continent; each was called “Defender of the Faith”; and each faced strident religious rebellion in his domain. Charles was beset by the “heresy” of Martin Luther and his fervid adherents, even while tensions between him and the pope threatened to boil over, and the upstart French king Francis I harried Charles’s realm by land and sea. Suleyman was hardly more comfortable on his throne. He had earned his crown by avoiding the grim Ottoman tradition of royal fratricide. Shiites in the East were fighting off the Sunni Turks’ cruel repression of their “heresy.” The ferocity and skill of Suleyman’s Janissaries had expanded the Ottoman Empire to its greatest extent ever, but these slave soldiers became rebellious when foreign wars did not engage them.

With Europe newly hobbled and the Turks suffused with restless vigor, the stage was set for a drama that unfolded from Hungary to Rhodes and ultimately to Vienna itself, which both sides thought the Turks could win. If that happened, it was generally agreed that Europe would become Muslim as far west as the Rhine.

During these same years, Europe was roiled by constant internal tumult that saw, among other spectacles, the Diet of Worms, the Sack of Rome, and an actual wrestling match between the English and French monarchs in which Henry VIII’s pride was badly hurt. Would—could—this fractious continent be united to repulse a fearsome enemy?

This is the first book I was offered for review. That said... On with the review:

The sixteenth century isn't the time period I'm the most familiar with, but overall, that didn't affect my reading of Defenders of the Faith. In fact, it may have helped.

Overall, I found the book to be very readable. Although I put it down a few times to read another book, I found that I didn't lose the thread of the narrative at all. James Reston has done a very good job of making sense of a large period of time and events that crossed continents, tying them together.

James Reston has also managed to avoid focusing on one side of the conflict or the other, spending equal time on the European rulers, although focused on Charles V, as he does on the Ottomans, telling of events from both perspectives.

As an overview of those tumultuous years, I'd definitely recommend Defenders of the Faith. It reminded me very effectively that there was more going on than just the events around Tudor England and Henry VIII (which seems to have become a very popular period to write about right now, both fiction and not). I've never seen the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon referred to as a "side plot" before, the way Reston does in the Foreword. This was, though, apparently one of the author's goals.

For all the positives of reading this book, there are a few things I'd quibble with in Defenders of the Faith. The biggest is the lack of citations and footnotes or endnotes. Time and again, Reston quotes writers of the period, but doesn't give names or sources. For example he describes a quote as "wrote one humanist" on page 20. Written by whom? and where can the quote be found? This happens again and again, and it makes the book stand out from other histories, even those written for the "popular" market. Other writers include citations, so why not this book? I will admit though, this is something I know bothers me, and I've commented on it in other reviews. It may not be an issue for other readers. There is, however, a good bibliography included, with both primary and secondary sources, as well as journal articles.

The other thing that I found a bit disappointing in Defenders of the Faith is that the illustrations are all in black and white. While I can see this not being a problem for the engravings included, there are also reproductions of a number of paintings of the various rulers, which it would have been nice to see in color.

Overall though, I really enjoyed reading this book, and I feel like I learned a bit more about history, and about this period in our history especially. I'd recommend this as a good overview/introductory book about the years between 1520 and 1536. Defenders of the Faith is going to stay on my shelves as part of my "permanent" collection of books.

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