Reviewed by Shannon Hopkins

We all learned in school that during the Age of Discovery, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama sailed under the Spanish and Portuguese flags in search of the elusive Indies. We read that Columbus discovered the land we know as the Americas, while Gama’s voyage took him around the southern tip of Africa and over to India.

The truth is more complicated, and the consequences of Gama’s travels in particular have reverberated across time and civilizations. In Holy War, Nigel Cliff explores the expansion of Portuguese naval exploration as a function of holy crusade as well as an attempt at global commercial domination.

Following a brief introduction, Holy War begins the story of Portugal’s quest centuries before, at the birth of Islam. As Muslim leaders gained traction in the Middle East and throughout Europe, Christians dragged themselves out of the Dark Ages and engaged in bitter conflicts to push back the “Moorish threat” to Christendom. Successive leaders of European states embarked on crusades to take back Jerusalem, rid their territories of Muslims (as well as Jews), and gain glory from the Pope; eventually, crusading and exploration joined hands in the otherworldly ambitions of the Portuguese dynasty.

Cliff’s non-fiction narrative pulls the reader into the Dark Ages and to fifteenth-century Portugal as well as any novel. His wordplay brings to life the sights and sounds of epic voyages, the tension of battle and conquest, and the great Eastern treasures Gama and his men sought over decades. He also humanizes the horrors of Gama’s voyages – the dangers of seafaring, piracy, skirmishes with African and Indian kings, and the slaughter of thousands of Muslims – stories not normally heard in the average classroom.

By Gama’s death on Christmas Eve 1524, Portugal was firmly entrenched as the colonial power in the Indian Ocean. However, the story continues briefly to underscore the issues of corruption and collusion that ultimately drove the Portuguese colonies to ruin.

In a moving epilogue, Cliff deftly ties the past to the present. A brief explanation of British and Dutch colonization in the Indies transitions to the present-day: ruins mark the seats of Portuguese colonial power, and modern religious conflicts eerily echo the crusades of the past. In the end, the Age of Discovery opened up new avenues of trade…and new fronts in a holy war that have stretched over centuries.

There is a comprehensive notes section and a long selected bibliography at the end of the book, to further enhance the reading experience and guide readers who want to know more. Holy War is definitely not a light read; the subject matter is intriguing and provides great insights into the ongoing conflict between Christians and Muslims, but the narrative is quite dense with detail. It is well worth the effort for anybody interested in understanding the history of Christian-Muslim relations and the development of naval exploration and warfare, as well as for the reader who likes being rewarded for their effort with a great story, nonfiction or otherwise.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Shannon lives in Cleveland, Ohio with her fiancé and a room full of books that she peruses when she isn’t trolling Apartment Therapy for new decorating ideas. In her free time she enjoys maintaining her blog, The Writer’s Closet, planning her wedding, and baking tasty gluten-free treats.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.