Monday 17 June 2024

Book Review - Ash Fall: A Novel of the Knights of Malta (the Siege of Malta Book 3) by Marthese Fenech

Ash Fall

A Novel of the Knights of Malta
(the Siege of Malta Book 3) 
By Marthese Fenech

Publication Date: 8th September 2022
Publisher: BDL Publishing
Page Length: 660 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Fate meets fire. The world ignites.

1565. Malta stands on the precipice of one of the bloodiest battles in history. An elite Ottoman army, 50,000 strong, prepares to depart Istanbul, the seat of the Empire. Deeply conflicted, Demir must sail alongside the host determined to conquer his mother’s homeland and crush the Order of St John once and for all. Testing his loyalty is the knowledge that Angelica, the half-sister he has never met, dwells on the tiny island.

As the Maltese garrison braces for the incoming storm, knights and civilians stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the walls. Domenicus and Robert volunteer for the ramparts of Fort St Elmo, the most precarious position on Malta. Angelica finds herself locked outside the city gates and scrambles to a hilltop citadel, where she helps establish a makeshift infirmary. Katrina takes up a bow and stands a post, shielding her town as the Ottoman tide crashes against it.

For several blood-soaked months, Malta is the stage upon which fierce combat rages. Heads are fired from cannons, field hospitals set ablaze, knights crucified, and soldiers melted where they stand. As the land exhales swirling ash, and narrow streets choke on rubble, no one escapes the fiery currents of war unscathed. The body count surges. Hope scatters with the smoke. Outflanked and outnumbered, can the defence hold out until a much-delayed relief force arrives from Sicily?

Vastly outnumbered, the Knights of Malta, once again come face to face with their adversaries, the Ottoman Empire. Having already suffered the loss of Rhodes four decades earlier, following a lengthy six-month siege, they now find themselves confronted with the same impending danger. They are aware of their significant numerical disadvantage. But they had God on their side, although the question as to where He was at Rhodes they do not linger over.

Malta plays a crucial role in the Ottoman Empire’s strategic plans for European conquest. It is seen as an important link between Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples, enabling further territorial expansion. And after all, they have Allah on their side, like they did in Rhodes. Along with that, they have Dragut, the notorious Ottoman corsair and skilled naval commander with extensive experience battling Christian knights.

Marthese Fenech’s Ash Fall is the thrilling finale of her highly praised The Knights of Malta series.

The depiction of the siege preparation was skilfully done. While the knights order the evacuation of the old and infirm, the wealthy also take their chance to escape. This serves as a reminder of the class divide explored in previous books. The plight of those left behind made for a very sobering read.

Just like the previous novels in this series, Ash Fall has undergone meticulous research. From the clothes they wore to the weapons at their disposal, Fenech has brought the era back to life. Fenech has stayed true to the historical context and depicted it with her expected writing prowess. The siege’s brutality, the immense loss of lives, the torture, and the crucifixions make for a difficult read. The reader experiences the chaos and brutality of siege warfare, witnessing the complete disregard for both life and death. This book is dominated by intense battles, with no relief, as even when the reader is removed from the front line, the makeshift hospitals and the unbearable suffering of the injured and dying persist. 

There is a prevailing sense of fear among the general population, and the islanders are genuinely concerned about depleting their supplies, weapons, and manpower. Amongst all this chaos, all this bloodshed, there are the characters that have made the first two books so very memorable. In the first two books of the series, Augustine and Angelica, along with the rest, encounter immense hardships including slavery and persecution. However, in this instalment, there’s a chilling sense that they’re bound together and they would prefer death over separation. Consequently, this amplifies the significance of the narrative. As a reader, we can only hold our breath as the Ottoman Empire strikes at the very heart of the land that the protagonists call home.

Unlike the previous two novels, this book features a significantly larger cast of characters. Fenech has incorporated into her story, and rightly so, the leading historical figures associated with this siege. This gave the story a strong sense of realism. But for the most part, the story is centred around the novel's principal players, namely the Montesa family. The Montesa family are devoted to their homeland almost as much as they are devoted to each other. As a reader, I have come to know this family very well, and it was like witnessing old friends having to go through a seemingly unrelenting traumatic experience. As expected, their bravery matched their unwavering devotion to one another.

Several of the characters suffer life-changing injuries, which sometimes left me questioning the narrative. Even though Robert has a horrific injury, he loses an eye, and he briefly experiences psychosis from the pain, he recovers and resumes fighting rapidly. Remarkably, he was still the best marksman they had, despite the challenge of his one eye needing time to compensate for the loss of the other. I was left somewhat confused by this, and it momentarily disrupted my immersion in the story. Although I acknowledge the necessity of utilizing all available resources for defence, I question the feasibility of Robert’s quick recovery from a medical standpoint.

The concepts of duty and love were both brilliantly explored. At times it was difficult to tell the two apart. Not only are the main characters fighting for Malta, but they are also fighting for the people they hold dear, such as their family and friends. These two deep-rooted emotions are the most challenging for Demir. His reluctance to participate in a war against Malta stems from having family there, even if they are unaware of his existence. However, his obligation and loyalty to his sultan compel him to serve. He faces death several times, and yet always he is conflicted but what he has seen and what he knows. He frequently finds himself pondering over who holds more significance - an unknown sister or the country he was born to serve. As with the other novels, Demir continues to hold a special place in my heart. His depiction was truly wonderful.

The conclusion of Ash Falls can only be understood by those who have read the beginning of the series. There’s a sense of closure and fulfilment as if everything that occurred in the story was meant to culminate in this ending. The way this series concluded was beautifully portrayed. Marthese Fenech is an incredibly talented writer and one I do not hesitate to recommend, especially if you love quality historical fiction.

Pick up your copy of 
Ash Fall

Marthese Fenech

Marthese Fenech was born the youngest of five to Maltese parents in Toronto. She has traveled extensively across five continents, visiting sixty-five countries. Her research for her novels has taken her on numerous trips to Malta, Turkey, Italy, France, and Spain--a wealth of fascinating places that introduced her to her characters and their cultures in a most authentic way. She also spent time writing the trilogy while living in Singapore.

When she was twelve and on a six-month stay in Malta, she enrolled in an all-girls private school run by nuns. She lasted three days before getting kicked out for talking too much. Back in Toronto, she started her own business recording, editing, and selling bootleg heavy metal concerts. She later worked with special needs children and adults, where witnessing small miracles on a daily basis was part of the job.

A former kickboxing instructor, Marthese has a Masters in Education and currently teaches high school English and history. She speaks fluent Maltese and French. As part of her research for Eight-Pointed Cross, she took up archery, and ended up accidentally becoming a certified instructor. She has a passion for adventure, photography, running, snowboarding, surfing, scuba-diving, climbing, and yoga.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx