Reader Igor Shpudejko of Mahwah, N.J., was disappointed that our summer books issue included numerous genres but not historical fiction. He wrote, "As a voracious male reader, I find it difficult to find good clean historical fiction and am constantly disappointed by the lack of it. ... Can you recommend some great contemporary historical fiction writers?"
Yes, I can-but the search has not been an easy one. Some historical novelists fail to take sufficient account of original sin. Others produce more talk than action. And yet, just when I thought my Shpudejko mission would be a failure, books by two first-time, improbable novelists not only made it onto my pile by the treadmill, but kept me walking for a long time.
One of the debut novelists, Victor Davis Hanson, has received laud, honor, and a $250,000 Bradley Prize for terrific historical works of military history such as Carnage and Culture. Hanson also celebrates the martial virtues in articles for National Review and other conservative publications. His novel, The End of Sparta (Bloomsbury), recreates the 4th century B.C. Thebes vs. Sparta battles.
Hanson particularly focuses on the genius of Theban general Epaminondas, whose democratic vision of freeing Sparta's slaves won him the temporary allegiance of tens of thousands. Memorable characters such as Lichas, a Spartan so determined to kill others that he comes across as a human Terminator, and Melon, a farmer who does not allow his lameness to become weakness, provide human drama.
The End of Sparta is receiving some publicity, so I'd like to turn now to a trilogy by John K. Reed: The Coming Wrath, Mabbul, and Mystery of Lawlessness (2005-2010). The publishers are small ministries in Georgia and South Carolina, the author is a Ph.D. geologist and PCA ruling elder/young earth creationist, and the books are set in Noah's time, so it's not surprising that they received no publicity and no media mention that I've run across.
The Coming Wrath occurs in the decades immediately before the flood, and the main character is Madrazi, who (in this fictional account) marries Noah's son Shem. Reed makes first-time-novelist mistakes in pacing, but his vibrant passages pushed me toward Mabbul, which is gripping in its flood narrative, and Mystery of Lawlessness, which occurs in the years leading up to the building of the Tower of Babel.
That last book is the best, with action and well-etched characters mentioned in the Bible (Ham, Nimrod, Ashkenaz, others) or emerging from Reed's imagination (Korac, Noah's post-flood daughters Mariel and Jael). Nimrod is a super-villain but the others are not super-heroes or caricatures: Several rebel but eventually come to understand God's grace, through realistic (not heavy-handed) transitions.
I asked Reed how he developed the concept of Shem's wife Madrazi. He replied, "I was nervous about blending the Bible and fiction for fear of diluting or distorting God's word. ... I decided that the story should not use the people explicitly mentioned as my main characters and focused instead on those not mentioned, which meant a story about the wives of Noah's sons and people who died in the flood.
"Madrazi painfully changing allegiances from her father by blood to her father by marriage. I made her birth father a two-fisted all-American hero gathered from many stories, trying to show that type of character, no matter how good he comes off in the stories, is still under God's rule and wrath."
I also asked him about his portrayal of Ham in his third volume. Reed replied, "Ham definitely developed as I wrote. ... I have always been intrigued by the flawed people in Scripture: Jepthah, Samson, Saul. ... Ham was a flawed, broken man, just as we all are. ... But God delivers flawed, broken people into His kingdom, and so Ham for me personifies the hope that I have in Christ."