Tuesday, September 19, 2006

book review - Among the Gods

Book: Among the Gods
Author: Lynn Austin
Publisher: Bethany House - August 2006
Genre: Historical fiction
ISBN: 9780764229930

Among the Gods, the fifth and final book in Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the King series, explores the reign of the biblical King Manasseh of Judah. The book opens with Joshua, the story’s fictional main character, in Egypt impatiently awaiting Pharaoh’s decision on whether the exiles Joshua has shepherded out of Jerusalem will find safe haven there.

Pharaoh’s consent takes the group to Elephantine Island on Egypt’s southern border. There, under the direction of the angry and conflicted Joshua, a Jewish enclave is established. Prince Amariah is persuaded to act as a royal figurehead, the people build a temple similar to the one in Jerusalem, but always there is the hope that someday soon Manasseh’s idolatrous reign will end, the danger to these priests and Levites will be past and they’ll be able to return home.

Austin ups the story’s tension by flipping us back and forth between Egypt and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem we watch the meeting between cocky Manasseh, his creepy aide Zerah and a traitor from Elephantine Island as they hatch a scheme to trap and kill the elusive Joshua. Later Manasseh’s confidence cracks when the mighty Assyrians threaten Judah’s autonomy. As national and international events take their toll in both places, we see characters change as they gain insight into their lives and God’s dealings with them, resist change as they cling to old patterns and prejudices, or descend ever further into dependence on occultic mentors, idols and omens.

Both settings, with their various landmarks, sounds and smells, seem authentic. I was interested to discover that actual Jewish temple remains had been found on Elephantine Island, giving credibility to this imaginative elaboration of the Bible account.

The story’s primary plot concern – Joshua’s desire to exact revenge against Manasseh for the death of his father – explores two of the book’s related main themes, vengeance and forgiveness. The theme of parenting is played out in the relationship between the brooding Joshua and his lippy step-son Nathan. Their clashes are especially painful, though believable. We watch as Joshua makes slow progress in learning to love this boy. That love is uniquely tested when community members insist that a guilty Nathan be punished to the letter of the law. Joshua’s growth in this area foreshadows the love of another Father for all His rebellious children. Idolatry, repentance, marital love and the relinquishment of personal plans to God are some other themes explored in the story.

The title, though bland, does double-duty as it brings to mind the god-riddled setting in both Judah and Egypt, and refers to Israel’s God, praised in the psalm quoted by the priest near the end of the book: “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord?”

Austin’s storytelling style is, as always, fast-paced. Her prose is lean and efficient. On top of that, without unduly stretching our credulity she does manage to keep us on the Joshua-versus-Manasseh hook till the end (though that end does not really surprise). I’m confident lovers of biblical fiction will find this book a satisfying, meaty read.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing a copy of the book for review.

Filed in Book Reviews - Adult Fiction

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