When you were a kid, did your mom ever make you watch history documentaries? You know the ones; maybe they were about the Civil War, or the Aztecs, or uncovering the secrets of Ancient Egyptians (seems as if new mummies are discovered every day). There was a deep voiced narrator who had perfected the art of sounding ominous, and interviews with at least one old guy who appeared to spend too much time locked away in a dusty museum basement. But the best parts of the film were when they would use actors to reenact historical moments in the background. You could watch Pharaoh so-and-so yell at underlings, lounge by the Nile, order a pizza, and ultimately die at the hands of some angry conspiring family member (okay, I made up the pizza part). If you’re like me, you ultimately found yourself surprisingly entertained. Fifteen years later, it’s not what you’d pick for movie night, but you still remember enjoying the learning process.
I finished a book a while ago that reminded me of one of those films– King’s Shadow by Angela Hunt. Based on the events just before Christ, the story revolves around King Herod’s sister Salome and her fictionalized handmaid Zara. Since much of the unfolding drama in the book is drawn from true history of the time, the plot meanders around like ordinary life does. Real people rarely have stories that fit perfectly into the plot-writing standards you learned in high school English, with orderly climaxes and obvious overarching themes. For those reasons, I think Angela’s hands were tied, (pen and all) and the story tends to lack direction.
That said, King’s Shadow still did an amazing job breathing life into the years just before and up to Messiah’s birth. Christian fiction centered on the years of Jesus’ life are commonplace, but the time period for this book was unique–and set the stage in a way that helped me to better understand the cultural and political backdrop that followed. It documents Herod’s life through the eyes of a sister who is fiercely loyal, even as he slowly degenerates into the baby-killing monster we read about every Christmas. If you enjoy political intrigue, there is plenty of it here, even (or especially) within the royal family. Handmaid Zara is a quiet presence throughout, lending the viewpoint of a God-fearing and humble Jew.
Of course, I made the mistake of reading what turned out to be the fourth book in a series (!)– oops. Do I regret it? No. This book solidified my opinion that Angela Hunt’s best work is her historical fiction. Her research and rich writing style shine here, while the constraints of the timeline help her keep her characterizations and stories more believable (something I think she struggles with in some of her contemporary fiction, such as an earlier work, The Canopy). Not unlike those documentaries, I walked away feeling as if I knew the time period and the motivations of its main players better, but lacking deep emotional attachment to the story or practical application to my own life. For those pros and cons, I gave the book 3/5 stars.
Do you like documentaries? Who are your historical inspirations? As always, I love hearing from you.