Roger Crowley's background as a teacher and former resident of Istanbul adds up to a knack for keeping you turning the pages. And unlike so many doorstoppers of late, Crowley manages to cover a half-century -- 1521-71 -- in ripping style and get out in just under 300 pages.
This was a time when the Ottoman Empire, just recently having won Istanbul from the Christians, was flexing its muscles. And they did it on the prows of galleys, nasty warships that could poke in and out of harbors quickly, leaving destruction in their wake and hauling off the slow-footed to the thriving Mediterranean slave trade. Christendom was vulnerable, with the Pope presiding over what seemed to be more a herd of cats than heads of state.
Still, in the two battles detailed in the book -- the Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto -- the Christians won and kept the Ottomans in check. And what battles they were -- coming just after the printing press, they were recorded in amazing detail. (The Ottomans wrote everything down, too.) The Knights of St. John -- the last remnant of the Crusaders -- held off the invaders at Malta, and audacious seamanship under Don Juan of Austria sank the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto. That 1571 engagement stood as the deadliest battle on the planet for nearly the next 300 years. Crowley evokes the utter horror of these scenes in Boschian detail. It's unbridled savagery on both sides.
Despite the blood, Empires of the Sea is filled with indelible characters and reminds us that there was a time when Europe just narrowly avoided what could have quickly become widespread Ottoman rule.