Score: 95/100 (9.5 out of 10)
On one hand, it's very difficult to pinpoint what exactly makes David V. Mammina's fiction books so enjoyable; on another hand, it's actually quite simple: Mammina creates interesting characters and great tension-filled action. The stakes in a David Mammina book are always meaningful and/or high, and the characters always have something about them that makes you lean in and want to give them a hug (or punch them in the face). “Torn Asunder” is no different in these regards.
“Torn Asunder” takes the reader to the 1300s, following shortly after the last of the Crusades, one of the most dismal and depressing times in human history by our estimation: a time in which people who claimed to follow God's will did reprehensible things to each other including murder, torture, and cannibalism, ultimately for selfish & political rather than religious purposes. Both sides of the spectrum—both those who called themselves Christians and those who called themselves Muslim—were guilty of tremendous violence, cruelty, and acts of depravity in the midst of the Crusades. Thankfully, Mammina's book acknowledges that these events occurred while not depressing us with them. Actually, this book is heavily about different groups of believers—both Christian and Muslim—working together for the greater good, or at least to do the right thing in the midst of great human evil. It is actually a pretty heartwarming tale in that regard.
The book follows the last remaining members of the Knights Templar as they seek to continue to do God's will in the eastern Byzantine Empire, namely modern-day Turkey. The socio-political as well as the religious climate is tense, with many of the Muslim Ottoman Turks distrusting the Christian knights and many of the knights wary of them as well. The city of Nicaea has become a refuge. Conflict and skirmishes between the two factions is seen throughout until they are eventually forced to coexist to confront true evil. Hint: demons are real, and it's up to our heroes to face them.
So, let's look at the area in which Mammina consistently excels: the characters.
There are three main Templar knights: Algard, Touren, and Vashon (often called “Vash” as in “Vash the Stampede”). Algard and Touren are brothers with Algard being the eldest, and Vashon seems to look over the two of them like a father. The three, as well as the Knight's Templar as a whole, have seen better days, or at least more glorious ones. The feeling we get from them is that they're like the samurai or ronin during the Edo period in Japan. These are old warriors who've lost their powerful, prestigious, important place in society in the midst of a cultural/societal shift. They are wanderers, vagabonds. They are essentially mercenaries for hire. It is said they see “their old days in the crackling fire.” Those days are gone.
It's with this context in mind that these three old stooges and their amazing Turkish guide, Kursat, are hired on a fateful mission: an escort mission. But it's not just any escort mission. It's to escort a man's mysterious daughter with a price on her head, wanted by the Turks as part of a figurative (and somewhat literal) witch hunt. This mysterious girl's name is Parisa, and she is probably extremely hot. She is described as having olive skin and striking green eyes, likely similar to Sharbat Gula, the Afghan girl from the famous 1985 National Geographic cover, although Parisa—we're pretty sure—is supposed to be of marriageable age (please be 18 so this doesn't become weird). She's often called a "woman," so there's that. She probably has fiery red hair too just like all of the author's hot female protagonists.
Parisa never ceases to charm the reader as well as the other protagonists. She speaks multiple languages including French, which she uses to communicate and connect with the knights, and sings beautifully. She sings so beautifully, in fact, that she even lifts the spirits of Gerard, one of the more pessimistic and disgruntled of all the heroic characters. Parisa feels a deep sense of guilt over the number of people who are suffering or have died to get or protect her, even crying over it. She doesn't want to be a hindrance or a burden to everyone.
Parisa also says her prayers, takes her vitamins, brother, and probably does 100 push-ups and sit-ups every day.
She comes complete with a prayer mat, prayer beads, probably a prayer shoal, prayer rocks, prayer flowers, prayer journal, and everything with the word "prayer" attached to it. She is essentially Aerith from FFVII with a hint of Amara from Supernatural in her. We're told that she's like an angel, but also told that she's probably the most dangerous person in the book--even scaring the crap out of some full-grown wolves. And this isn't even her final form!
She fills the role of the mysterious, charming, likely-ill-fated damsel perfectly. Each of the protagonists seems to take a liking to her, but not in a creepy way. They seem to have adopted her as one of their own, almost like a daughter or little sister, and they're protective of her. This is very interesting because of the somewhat dire situation that the protagonists are in. Parisa, and also Kursat, believe differently from them. They are “the others”--members of the people the Crusaders fought hundreds of years against. Furthermore, they really could ditch or turn in Parisa at any time for the money. It would also save them from a lot of this fighting and the looming threat of death or harm. If they were terrible enough people, they probably would. But they don't. They don't because it would be wrong. It would be selfish and evil. Parisa, in the hands of the enemy, would not just face a grim future of possibly being forced to marry or outright violated, she might even be brutalized or killed. Our heroes, being true heroes, won't let that happen. They refuse to let that happen.
And that goes along with what we said in earlier reviews of Mammina's work: he understands that people really like to help and save people, even at the expense of or risk to themselves. There's a white knight—a knight in shining armor—a Templar knight in all of us.
Another character who really shines is Kursat, the Turkish guide who seems to take the reins of the journey a lot of the time. First of all, how cool is that name? Kursat sounds like “Cursed.” Kursat serves to give the audience a different perspective of “the other.” Despite being a Muslim and a Turk, he's not a villain. In fact, he's one of the more level-headed and helpful characters. He really pulls his weight in this story. Touren tells Algard with shame that he long saw Kursat as “a Turk, an infidel within our ranks.” Kursat opens Touren's eyes and makes him a better person. This is amazing considering how xenophobic Touren is.
Also amazing among the characters are the Risen Lion or Order of the Lion, a group of skilled mercenaries hired to capture Parisa. The Risen Lions, unlike the Detroit Lions, are a formidable force and more than a match for the knights. Furthermore, they're a great foil for the protagonist group, also employing both Christians and Muslims but choosing to go about their work with far less scruples.
This cast of characters may not be as enthralling as those found in “The Angels of Resistance”—the best fiction book we reviewed this winter—or “Redeem the Knight” (among the best fantasy series we've read this year) or “Of Freedom, Fear and Fantasy” (among the best short-story collection from this spring), but they are interesting nonetheless. It would be a lot to ask for an author to strike gold time and time again, but this author consistently does it. You could almost consider this cast of characters an ensemble cast. It's actually a little difficult narrowing it down to a main protagonist.
Writing-wise, this is also one of Mammina's more impressive works. Just read Gerard express how he feels about God in his “pain and love” speech after all they've suffered through. Just read what Touren says about Kursat.
There's also such great humor and charm in this book. First of all, there's a Black Knight in here, and we couldn't keep a straight face every time he was mentioned. The words “it's just a flesh wound” were uttered many times on our end. Touren, the grumpy older guy, is always swearing (including the one F-bomb in this book) and even insults Kursat for being even older than he is. Gerard is semi-obsessed with his donkey. People are always reminding Algard that he's late like he's Snake from Metal Gear Solid. The author introduces the plot device of the rose "of Jericho" and says that a character had awoken from a deep sleep. But were they all weak and living in the agony of defeat? The banter, the back-and-forth, and the dialogue between the characters is phenomenal.
All in all, this is a solid book. Check it out on Amazon!