Monday, March 07, 2005

gods and kings - by lynn austin

A package came in the mail a few weeks ago – books from Dave Long at faith*in*fiction. These were a prize of sorts for having the short story (My Messiah) chosen and posted on the faith*in*fiction blog the week after Christmas.

I’ve decided to post a review of each of these books as I read them. I finished the first one on the weekend. Here, then, is my review of Gods and Kings by Lynn Austin.



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Gods and Kings is Book 1 in the biblical fiction series "Chronicles of the King." It begins in the early years of Judah’s King Ahaz, just as Aram is about to lay siege to Jerusalem, and ends with the coronation of King Hezekiah.

The cast of characters follows the biblical account pretty closely. It includes King Ahaz, his wife Abijah, her father the priest Zechariah, the high priest Uriah, prince Hezekiah. Minor appearances are also made by Hezekiah’s wife Hephzibah, and the prophets Micah and Isaiah. Shebna, Hezekiah’s Egyptian teacher along with many other bit-players, are fictional.

Several elements worked together to make this book a worthwhile read for me.

One of them is in the area of plot, and Austin’s interpretation of how godly belief lines are preserved in ancient Israel. Often when reading the stories in Kings and Chronicles, I’ve been struck by how a God-fearing king is followed by one who is idolatrous. I’ve questioned how that could be. The fictionally expanded events of this story illustrate that possibility in a believable way.

A theme element I really appreciate is the analysis of compromise as shown through the character Uriah (Ahaz’s high priest). Promoted from priest to palace administrator, Uriah starts out with the intention of using his position to influence Ahaz away from idolatry. But a series of forces including his own lust for power, greed, and international pressure serve to make him, at the end, a promoter of idol worship instead of an opponent.

Finally I feel the book's setting is handled masterfully. This book succeeds in informing me about a different time and place – one of the reasons I enjoy reading historical fiction. The descriptions of the idol worship ceremonies are especially compelling, as is the description of the meeting of King Ahaz with the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser in the captured city of Damascus. Here is some of that section, to give you a flavor of the setting and Austin’s writing style:

"...they mounted his chariot riding in silence to the ruined city. Ahaz struggled to conceal his shock and horror as he saw evidence of the Assyrian’s atrocities. On either side of the road that led to the main gate, row after row of bodies hung from tall stakes.

"The emperor would like you to meet the chief elders of Damascus," Jephia said. "They were impaled alive and left to die, watching the destruction of their city."

Ahaz gazed straight ahead, holding a linen handkerchief over his mouth to keep from vomiting. A sign above the gate read: This is the fate of the enemies of Assyria..... (p. 141)

[...]Ahaz...followed Jephia to the top of the hill. Not one stone of the former temple remained upon another, and the paved courtyard was bare except for a massive bronze altar standing in the center. Pictures of Assyria’s gods decorated all four sides of it, but the central figure on each panel was the god Assur – a warrior armed with a bow and riding a winged sun.(p. 143)

[...]At last he walked forward, his knees threatening to buckle beneath him. "I am Ahaz Ben Jotham, king of Judah and Jerusalem – Your majesty’s humble servant and vassal." He fell before the king with his forehead pressed to the ground, as all the other kings had bowed. The dust of Damascus filled his nostrils and throat. When he felt the touch of the royal scepter, he rose again, resisting the urge to wipe the dirt from his forehead and robes. He understood what he was – a pathetic puppet king, sworn to serve the Assyrians for the rest of his life. And if he rebelled or failed to send tribute, his punishment would be the same as the tortured king’s had been. (p. 146)

If the book has a weakness, I feel it is in the development of character. In several places, the characters’ perceptions seem exaggerated to me – as if the author is putting thoughts in their minds, thus manipulating them to tell the story her way. One instance of this is where Uriah observes the expression on the face of Abijah, his former love interest, and in that look reads whole volumes of meaning: "He (Uriah) glanced at Abijah again and saw the depth of her grief in her unguarded expression. He knew then that her hovering concern for Ahaz was an act, just as his own conduct was. They were both playing parts in this drama....both pretending to be someone they weren’t." (p. 100)

In other places, the viewpoint character’s observations (the story is told through multiple points-of-view) seem inappropriate. When child (at most young-teen) Hezekiah meets his Egyptian tutor, we discover through his consciousness that "He (the tutor) appeared to be in his early thirties." (p. 182) From my knowledge of tweens, they don’t categorize adults with this specificity, but would say, instead, ‘he looked old.’

Finally, there is the odd anachronism. One that jumped out at me was when Abijah is observing her father, who has been freed from his thirst for wine, and has the thought, "He was no longer the pitiful alcoholic she’d known ..."(p.190) Somehow ‘alcoholic’ seems way too modern a word to use here.

Aside from these minor irritants, I found Gods and Kings an engaging and worthwhile read. It left me with the sense of how God was capable of working in the life of a nation, and in the lives of individuals. And Austin left just enough loose ends at the end of the book that I’ll be really tempted to buy Book 2 (Song of Redemption) when it’s due out at the end of May 2005.

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