The Twelve Children of Paris is, depending on your outlook, either everything that's wrong with Willocks, all turned up to eleven, or his best book evar. Everything he's ever written is ludicrously violent and festooned with wildly overblown descriptions; he's the beating-folks-up equivalent of Stephen Donaldson, a man so addicted to using words no-one else uses that there's an on-line game called "Clench-racing", just to hurt Donaldson's feelings.
Twelve Children is a sequel of sorts to The Religion, a pretty good book he wrote about the Siege of Malta. Mattias Tannhauser is back, I thought to myself; that will be cool. Hmm, hanging out at the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. That might not be quite so cool. So it proved.
A little bit of background wouldn't hurt. Willocks' first book was Bad City Blues, in which a doctor got improbably in over his head with rampaging criminal corruption in New Orleans. In the red corner, the doctor, who was insanely bad ass for a psychiatrist, and in the blue corner, the massively corrupt chief of police; there was all kinds of florid language and beat-downs, and the two of them came back for a sequel, Blood-stained Kings which was actually the first Willocks book I read. Blood-stained Kings is probably the most fun you can have at a Willock-ing, because plausibility was taken up in an aeroplane and crashed headlong through a window factory about ten pages in, removing any need to hold back from just chucking stuff at the page purely for the sake of being awesome. It's ridiculous, but it's boldly ridiculous, full of grotesque villains and indestructible heroes battling themselves, each other, and plots which Thomas Harris would have discarded as unnecessarily gothic (it climaxes in a punch up in a vast barn built specifically to hold a shack as part of a revenge plot which Koreans would have thought excessive, and the hero arrives at the punch up by crashing a plane into the barn….). The chief of police actually got shot to death in the first book, but hangs on all the way through the sequel by virtue of a) being too fat to die immediately and b) the rule of cool, which underlines a thing which Willocks comes back to all the time; huge villains who are too cool to die of wounds which would kill anyone normal.
In between those two books, Willocks wrote Green River Rising, a pretty scary account of a prison riot gone wrong, full of horrible violence and naturally featuring an improbably bad-ass doctor. No-one had really noticed Bad City Blues, which is well-written but not a particularly good book, but Green River somehow took off, and that was Willocks sorted. So I was figuring that the next thing out of the bag would be another big piece of modern violence, but instead Willocks took a ton of time off (spending part of it writing a screenplay for Madonna, of all unlikely things), and emerged some years later with a historical novel about the Siege of Malta. The Religion is pretty hard going in places, partly because Willocks' style gets more and more overblown with time, partly because the 1400s gives him far too much violence and squalor to be playing with, and finally because he DOES like to hurt his characters.
For all that, I liked it well enough that I was hoping Willocks would get around to delivering on the threatened trilogy of books about Tannhauser, who at least wasn't a bad-ass doctor (if it's not already obvious, Willocks is a doctor and martial arts nut in real life). But so long went by that I had almost forgotten the possibility existed until I saw a huge pile of hardbacks in the supermarket, and realised that Willocks had delivered himself of the sequel and that his publisher had decided to go big with it.
So, what's it like? Well, it's hard going. Willocks hasn't got any less florid, and the dialogue would make Fenimore Cooper cringe in places. There is an enormous anti-hero. There are children in peril all over the place. There's Tannhauser, killing everything he meets. There's Mrs Tannhauser, exerting a hypnotic spell over everyone she meets. There are oracular fortune telling women. There's a massacre. Actually, there's two. On the one hand, you've got the Catholic militias massacring Huguenots right and left, as they historically did; on the other hand, you've got Tannhauser running a one man murder machine all over Paris; I lost count of how many people he killed - all of them basically, as horribly as possible. Twelve Children will meet and exceed all your horrible butchery needs for this and several other years. There's a famous line from Godard to the effect that you can't possibly make a real anti-war movie, because war will always look too cool on the screen to show its true horror. With a book, of course, you don't have that problem; what winds up on the page is exactly what you wanted to say, even if you shouldn't have said it in the first place. Twelve Children doesn't feel like a book that's arguing against violence; it feels more like a book that's arguing for special status for people who are good at it. The depressing thing is that the through-line of the book - save the damsel, rescue the children, get out of town before the massacre catches up with everyone - could have worked perfectly well with a whole lot less violence. Willocks is still a good writer and can throw together a compelling character with magnificent briskness. But instead he spends too much time wallowing in endless violence or - worse - half-baked mysticism. If only he'd had an editor with Tannhauser's talent for merciless cutting.