Fantasist & Futurist
- Nov 23, 2002
I picked up a review copy of this book with no idea of what it was about - other than it was historical fiction.
And I'm glad I didn't know its subject matter because that would have kicked off so many different presumptions - none of which would have been realised.
The story is about a simple iron smith named Noah, who falls foul of a power struggle that occurs in the court of Herod Antipater of Gallilee. On the one hand is Lord Eleazer, who wants to prevent any incursion of Roman authority from Judea - on the other is his assistant, the ambitious Caleb, who wants to force Antipater's hand in order to elevate him to his lord's position.
And the reason for Noah's involvement? He has a cousin who followed John the Baptist, who continues to preach about God's coming kingdom - one Joshua bar Joseph of Nazareth.
This is a story that tries to imagine Jesus as a fallible human in an historical context.
If I'd have known this I might not have picked up the book - I'm all too aware that to write about Jesus is to forward an agenda, and I've seen too much of that badly done.
However, the agenda for this is simple - to imagine Jesus as a fallible human, who laughs and cries, and is described in some form of historical context that separates the man from any later religious ascriptions.
And in that it does its job rather well.
The storytelling is excellent - the narrative starts off strong, has a good pace, and the various characters are all complex and sympathetically rounded. Even those characters who do the most terrible things are motivated by a sense of doing right, no matter how misguided we may ultimately think they are.
And although Jesus - as Joshua - forms a central part for the plot, the narrative is mainly focused on the trials and tribulations of Noah trying to rebuild his life while powerful political figures begin to interfere with it.
There is a clear - and apparently well-researched - focus on religion here. However, there's no spiritual message of salvation. Although Noah is a devout Jew, God is silent to him. And although Joshua feels driven by his faith, it remains as that of a Jew who follows the message of John the Baptist.
While there are elements of the Gospels that appear in the narrative, the Joshua described is all human, without any divine characteristics. This in itself gives the character of the story particular strength and sympathy.
Yet for all the - potentially flammable - themes that the story touches, it remains very much in the mould of a thriller, as Noah has to use his wits to try and protect his family from the conspiracy that aims to target it.
As a piece of historical fiction it is an excellent book, and the character building in this is truly superb.
However, for Christians, the story has the ability to either offend or enlighten, depending on that person's faith: the Jesus in this story is a man who makes jokes with his disciples, is broken by the death of his wife, struggles with his faith, and cannot reconcile himself with his father, Joseph.
For those of a more liberal disposition, this portrayal may be both enlightening or appealing - to know the pain of a man driven by faith and devotion to God. Those of a more conservative nature may struggle to take seriously any depiction lacking in supernatural attributes.
And yet, it needs making clear that while Jesus is a figure in this book, he is a secondary character. The historical setting, the political developments, the human struggles, and the characterisation, are all expertly written and developed.
Overall, this is a great piece of historical writing and a powerful story in its own right. It's almost a shame that any discussion of this novel will inevitably focus on the star secondary-character, when the primary characters are so interesting and well developed in themselves.
The Ironsmith is released in February 2016.