Once again I feel incredibly indebted to my local public library for granting me the opportunity to discover yet another excellent book. Some of you might remember from last month’s “Library Loot” posting that one of the books I mentioned was Nigel Cliff’s Holy War: How Vasco de Gama’s Epic Voyage Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations. You might also remember that I said the book looked “epic” and I only hoped to get it read before someone put a hold on it. Well, I am happy to say I was right on both accounts. Yes, it’s an epic book but more importantly, I was able to finish Cliff’s rather lengthy book before it needed to be returned. Plus, to top it all off, I rather enjoyed it.
Published in 2011, Holy War is far more than just an entertaining and readable story of Vasco de Gama’s voyages to Africa and Asia. In his book Cliff puts the voyages in a much larger context, that being age-old rivalry between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. After setting the stage by discussing the rise of Islam, the Reconquista, the Crusades, the Fall of Constantinople and the international spice trade, heck, de Gama doesn’t even show up ’till almost 200 pages into the book. But when he does enter on stage the adventures that eventually do enfold surpass even those of the most daring and gifted Hollywood screenwriter. Cliff does a fine job portraying the admiral as cruel by today’s standards but also brave, intelligent and resourceful by the standards of any age.
Perhaps since Cliff is a journalist by trade, I thought his writing never felt boring or overly academic. While it wasn’t flashy, I was nevertheless entertained me from start to finish. I found his book Holy War well-written and well-edited. Despite being over 500 pages Holy War has the jaunty feel of a book half its length.
According to Goodreads, Holy War along with Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman and Sir Max Hastings’s Inferno: World at War, 1939-1945 made the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011. After enjoying Cliff’s book it’s hard for me to dispute or belittle this accolade in any way. It’s also inspired me to read two other books that deal, in one way or another, with the Age of Discovery. One, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen has been sitting unread in my personal library for over seven years and sorely needs to be read. The other, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles Mann I received for Christmas as one of my first ebooks and is currently loaded up and residing on my new Kindle. After reading and enjoying Holy War, right now I can’t wait to get started on either of them.