Book: Pilate’s Wife

This book is well out of the norm for my reading, but the topic caught my attention, as well as the dearth of information with which the author had to work. It is hard to write a good novel about a historical character when almost nothing is known about that character. It doesn’t really matter what you write, somebody is not going to like it.

The first thing to note about this book is the subtitle: A Novel of the Roman Empire. Those who are expected a Biblical novel, one primarily oriented toward Biblical characters, themes, and goals will be sorely disappointed. The setting is primarily Rome and Roman social life in the provinces; Palestine only plays a small role when Pilate is sent there. In a Christian novel, Biblically based, one might expect a great deal said about Jesus and other Biblical characters. That is not the case here.

Second, one should be aware this is written about a woman by a woman, and it focuses on the woman’s perspective. In historical novels of this period that is not all that usual, because it is hard to keep things interesting when men are running the show and all the chief characters are women. I got the annoying feeling that the lead characters spend their time largely being pushed around by other people, with only brief moments when they can be themselves. Of course, that feeling is probably an accurate reflection of what it was like to be a woman at that time.

For historical connections, the author uses a couple of less probable reconstructions about Jesus, but those elements are not impossible, merely not proven, so that can be forgiven. It does make for some added interest in the story.

I have to rate this book at 3, because I found it interesting but not exceptionally so. I must note, however, that this is not due to any weakness of the book, but rather to my limited interest in the subject matter. Within its necessary constraints it is a good book.

Book: Unashamed

My wife handed me this book because she has been trying to get me to read one of [tag]Francine Rivers[/tag]’ stories about various Bible characters. I’m generally a bit slow to pick up this sort of book because production of a good story is very difficult. On the one hand you can stick closely to the [tag]Bible story[/tag] and ignore any problems that may cause for your story. On the other you can ignore the facts and create a story, but for me that doesn’t work because it isn’t consistent. Why write a story about someone with the name of a Biblical character if you are not actually going to use the Biblical character?

My preference is that someone create a story about a person consistent with the characteristics of that person as claimed in the Biblical text. If one has to play with the facts a bit, that’s OK. What is invented to fill in the blanks is fine, as long as it stays consistent with the character.

Unashamed takes on the story of Rahab, and I consider that a daunting task. First, Rahab becomes an exception to the order to destroy all the Canaanites, and the explanation given in the Bible doesn’t cover it. The spies swear an oath, and thus the Israelites keep that oath. This is consistent, though they seem to do so ungrudgingly, quite unlike their response to the oath they swore to the Gibeonites, which was kept only with great reluctance.

Second, Rahab is a prostitute who becomes part of the genealogy of King David. That is an unusual thing and any proposed understanding requires some imagination.

Rivers doesn’t really try to deal with the oddity of allowing a Canaanite to become part of the congregation. What she does manage is provide believable story elements to explain the position [tag]Rahab[/tag] was in so as to hide the spies, and how she might succeed in that. I find Rahab’s attitude toward her own people just a little bit cold and bloody-minded. Simply because they don’t grab hold of the God of Israel as she has, she shows very little sorrow for their deaths. She truly goes over to the side of the enemy. While that kind of cold-blooded attitude is a bit hard for me to accept it is quite realistic. To survive and have her name remembered favorably on the Israelite side, Rahab must have truly turned with vigor to the Israelites.

I didn’t find the story overwhelmingly exciting. That is probably unavoidable in a story that connects to the Biblical story at all possible places. It’s hard to get into the tension of waiting in Rahab’s house while the Israelites march around the city when you know precisely what is going to happen! But that same characteristic makes this story an excellent example to use in studying the Biblical story. One of the procedures I suggest in the participatory Bible study method is to try to retell stories from different perspectives. People often find that hard to do with Bible stories. We are often afraid to let our imaginations work, but if you want to get the full benefit from a story, you need to think about that person’s attitudes and feelings, and that is going to require imagination. In my article Interpreting Stories, I try this process from the point of view of Ahab.

If you have a study group and would like to try working more effectively on Bible stories, and by this I mean learning from the stories and making them relevant to your life, this little book would be a valuable contribution. Read it, think, imagine, and imitate.

Book: A Ruinous Wind

I looked back at previous notes and found a brief note in this general post in which I am not too excited about Pilkington after reading a previous work, The Maiden Bell. I did indicate that I would probably read something else by the same author, but wasn’t in a hurry. Now I have, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I would call it a four, rather than the three I gave the previous book, and I can’t actually see the difference. I just must have been in a different mood when I read this one.

Thomas the Falconer is an interesting character, a very intelligent person stuck in a hierarchical society as a commoner. He manages to do well under those circumstances and he has a good, honest employer/lord who provides him with the freedom to do what he needs. He would prefer just taking care of the hawks, but he ends up spending a good deal of time solving mysteries.

In this story, he is thrust into a situation in which both he and his lord are in great danger. A very violent murderer is on the loose, and it is almost impossible to discover his motives or where he will strike next. I was surprised by the finish, which is one criteria I have for enjoying a novel. I don’t mind figuring out who the guilty party is early provided I feel clever when I do it. If it’s obvious and just falls into my lap it tends to annoy me.

In any case, the solution doesn’t come till the end and there are plenty of moments of action and suspense between. Reading A Ruinous Wind makes me more anxious to find more John Pilkington mysteries.

Book: Sherlock Holmes and the Kings’ Governess

Well, I’m a bit behind the times on this series, but I must admit that I have very little liking for continuations of various series by new authors. In this case, however, Barrie Roberts does a very good job of catching Arthur Conan Doyle’s style, and thus, of course, Dr. Watson’s.

We’re taken to London during Queen Victoria’s jubilee, and presented with a character who is almost instantly identifiable as the main character in The King and I. Sherlock Holmes finds himself more in the role of preventing a crime than in solving one, but he has plenty of mysteries on which to demonstrate his skills. I felt that a little less time was spent on the investigating a bit more on the action than I would expect if Doyle were the author, but overall the feel is pretty authentic.

The story itself is fun, but not “I can’t put this down” fascinating. I’ll rate this as a three, but you should regard it as a four if you really like the Holmes style mysteries. It’s just that I’m locked into my ratings, and a three shows where books in this series and by this author will be in my list.

Daniel and the Forgotten Prince

The moment Daniel had understood that he was called to serve his God by serving Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, he had known that there would be some difficult moments. Now here he stood as Belteshazzar, one of the king’s favorites, and he was being called upon to make a judgment. It was an unusual set of circumstances that had put him in this position, because there would normally be judges assigned to such a task. But the village that served the exiles here was under the king’s control, and the captain of the guards had asked him to intervene. His instructions were to intervene when a case might cause trouble, and this one could certainly do that.

On the one hand was a young man, no more than in his early twenties, and perhaps as young as his late teens, an exile from Judah. On the other an almost equally pitiful farmer, who was bowing low to the ground before the great noble lord. Belteshazzar wondered how they would feel if they realized that he also was an exile from Judah. But that didn’t matter any more. He was now an official of the king, and easily the highest ranked person within a day’s ride of this place. Even the officers of his guard outranked everyone present.

The young man was also bowing to the ground, but it was not out of respect. He’d been thrown there, and a soldier was holding his neck down with the haft of his spear. Before the guard had pushed him there, Belteshazaar had seen his look of angry defiance mixed with despair. The young man was certain that he was about to die, and he was trying to do so with some pride.

“Rise!” he ordered.

“Who brings charges against this man?”

“I do, my lord.” It was the farmer.

“Proceed.”

“My lord, I am Nabu-etir, and I had in my possession a silver goblet, precious, a gift from a soldier I served as a manservant. The goblet was stolen from my house, and was found in the possession of that man.” He pointed to the young man.

“What is your proof of ownership?”

“I have here the grant made to me by my master, whose life I saved.” He passed to a guard a clay tablet, who passed it on to Belteshazzar. Belteshazzar examined it carefully, and read the writing on the outside. It was a fairly standard tablet for such a purpose, clearly wrapped a second time with clay with a copy inscribed on the outer shell, thus guaranteeing against forgery. The outer shell could be broken and the text inside read and compared. As Belteshazzar read, however, he noticed something odd. There were a number of errors in writing on the tablet, as well as several signs which were unusual. It looked just a bit like a student exercise, in which one might spell out the syllables of a word or a god’s name when a single sign might normally be used.

“This soldier,” he said, reading the text, “WARDU-ILANI, granted you this cup as a reward for saving his life. Yet you live the life of a poor tenant farmer.”

“My lord, I am a simple man of the soil. Yet the object is precious to me.”

Belteshazzar addressed the guard. “Where is this cup?” A soldier came forward and handed it to him.

“What is the inscription on here?”

“A dedication to some barbaric god, my lord.” Belteshazzar read the simple inscription in Hebrew: “LYTM BN YHYKM.” Odd that. No such son of Jehoiakim (YHYKM) was known, but it was not impossible that there had been one, lost in the confusion. It was also possible that another YHYKM than the obvious one was meant Obviously nobody here realized that he would be able to read the inscription on the cup.

“So you do not know anything about this cup, other than that it was a gift?”

“My lord, it was part of the spoils of Canaan, but beyond that I know nothing. I faithfully served my lord Wardu-ilani, and he rewarded me.”

“He gave you a cup, and he provided you with a document of tranfer so that your claim could not be questioned.”

“Indeed it cannot, my lord. The claim and the description is clear.”

Well, it might well be clear, assuming this “Wardu-ilani” knew nothing of what he had taken from the spoils, and the scribe who had written the deed was only marginally literate, and assuming that Abed-ilanu actually existed. The name was not impossible, but was a touch generic for Belteshazzar’s taste, considering the man himself was not there to verify. “Servant of the gods” indeed! There was something else about that tablet that bothered him, but he wasn’t sure what. It would come to him in a moment.

“What is your name?” he said to the younger man.

“I am Yotham, son of Jehoiakim, a prince of Judah,” he answered, straightening his body. The translator for the soldiers assigned to guard this village proceeded to translate, stumbling and slow. Nonetheless, even though he understood both Babylonian and Hebrew better than the interpreter apparently did, Belteshazzar preferred to keep his history out of the picture. None of these people seemed to realize it, and he had no plans to enlighten them.

“And this goblet is yours?”

“Yes, my lord, it is mine. I brought it with me, the sole heirloom of my house, when I was brought her to Babylon in the exile of Zedekiah. I hid it and preserved it. It is mine!”

“Yet you have no document indicating your ownership.” Belteshazzar could see the triumphant smile on Nabu-etir’s face. Clearly he thought he had won his case. One had a document, one did not. Simple!

“I have the inscription on the cup. It says, ‘belonging to Yotham, son of Jehoiakim.’ I’m Yotham, son of Jehoiakim. The cup is mine.”

Either he was telling the truth, or he had concocted a rather fantastic lie. It would have been easier to claim to have been the son of a court official with the same name, than to claim actual kinship with the king.

“Yet how could he bring the cup all the way from Canaan without it being discovered?” asked Nabu-etir. “That would be impossible! Clearly he is lying, and what is more, I have my document!”

Belteshazzar could see that all the guards, except his inner circle, and the villagers, both Babylonian and Judean, were against the boy. Clearly he had made a big deal of his princely blood, and alienated many. But there was only one real consideration, not who was the better person, but who actually owned the cup.

Then he realized what was bothering him about the tablet. He thought he had felt a slight dampness, perhaps a slight give. But he couldn’t see any problem when he looked again. Perhaps it was one of those moments of divine wisdom that came to him from time to time. There was only one way to check.

“Bring me a hammer,” he told one of his servants.

When the tool was delivered, he took it and carefully broke the outer layer of clay to get to the inner text. He preserved most of the text, and quickly compared the two. Again, though there was no difference in meaning, there were differences in spelling and in the formation of the signs that suggested it had not been done by a professional scribe. But further, as he pressed his fingers on the inner tablet, he felt the outer layer give, and he brok through to wet clay inside. He pulled the tablet into several pieces and showed the wet clay to the assembled people.

“The clay cannot be wet on a deed that is dated ten years ago,” he said, looking at Nabu-etir.

The man’s expression fell in shock. Clearly he had not thought of this. Then Belteshazzar had an inspiration.

“In your youth, you attended a scribal school.”

The man simply nodded, dumbfounded.

“You failed and wound up slave to a soldier.”

He nodded again.

“You served him well, and were granted tenancy on some land, an improvement in your lifestyle, but not what such a goblet could have done. With it, you could have bought your way to wherever you wanted. So you prepared this tablet.”

The man said nothing at that point, but he knew he was finished.

“You have attempted to steal this cup from this young man by fraud. Your penalty should be 10 times its value to be paid to its rightful owner. Can you pay this?”

The man simply looked up helplessly.

Belteshazzar turned to the guards. “Take Nabu-etir to his lord, and tell him what has happened here. I expect that there will be no action taken against the exiles because of this embarassment. Whatever his lord chooses to do, that is acceptable.”

“Yotham, son of Jehoiakim, you will come with me. We will investigate this claim of yours, and if it is valid, you will receive provisions from the king. If not, you will suffer the penalties of lying to the court.”

And once again, Belteshazzar served his king and by doing so also served his God. “How long, Lord,” he prayed silently, “Must I carry this burden?”

Book Series: Lord Meren Mysteries

I recently re-read Eater of Souls by Lynda S. Robinson, and as a result remembered that I’d intended to read more. So I immediately found what I could at the local library and I’ve thus far gone backwards to read Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing. I’ve got a couple more sitting on my “to be read” shelf.

I’m not sure why I didn’t follow up on this series at the time I first read one of the books. Normally when I like a series I head straight to the library and/or bookstore, fill out the list and work right through it. It can’t have been because I didn’t like the books–I love them. With some knowledge of Egypt (I have a year of Middle Egyptian reading from graduate school), I’m able to really appreciate the feel Robinson gives to characters and culture. As she notes, many times she has to settle controversies, and I would assume also fill in gaps in our knowledge, but she has done so consistently and in such a way that the culture seems very realistic.

I especially like the way that Lord Meren searches for signs of magic and includes killing by magic as one of the possibilities for means in murder cases, as of course an ancient Egyptian would have. But many modern authors would have some difficulties keeping the viewpoint authentic. Robinson does so successfully in my view.

Family relationships, religion, culture, politics, and ancient warfare all combine to create the background for this exceptional series. The key characters of Lord Meren, his adopted son Kysen, and the remainder of his family would be interesting wherever they were placed, and the mysteries would be interesting no matter what the background.

This is truly an exceptionally enjoyable series of historical mysteries. I strongly recommend it.