21 June, 2012

Gifts are Good

Robert Liparulo

Stephanie sent me this urging me to read it; that alone naturally disposes me towards liking it, as recommended books always find me prepared to be biased towards them. And so i have expected to enjoy it. And so, for the most part, i have. I do have to say, “for the most part”, though, because it was not complete or unadulterated enjoyment which i experienced. Let me tease out, then, the points which come to mind and try to separate those i liked from those i did not.

First of all, and this may not be the best of confessions to make, but i tend not to like “Christian books” as a genre. Novels, good novels, which happen to have Christians as protagonists, that's a different matter, usually, but all too frequently Christian authors seem to feel that they have to focus on the message and then leave the medium to a secondary place. The most usual ~ no, maybe not “most”, but a very common ~ manifestation of this is the book with some form of The Sinner's Prayer at some point in it. This is not always the kiss of death: I remember reviewing NoSafe Haven for Early Reviewers and reporting that i enjoyed it despite the presence of overt preaching and The Prayer; generally though, they are signs of poor writing in the cause of an ulterior motive.

Second, a positive point, i love the development of the idea, a group of people immortal ~ or almost ~ because God has changed something about their biology, and the struggles they have in trying to understand and repair the damage they have done to their relationship with God in order to be allowed to die. I do not actually like the mechanics of the premise ~ that this group of forty or so people were those of the Children of Israel who not only worshipped the Golden Calf but tasted the blood of a child sacrificed to it ~ which seemed clunky and rather less well worked out than other points of the plot; mechanics aside, and this is what i like, the thought that this group of people feel cursed and desperate to work their way back into God's good favour is clever and well done.

Third, i found the book surprisingly difficult to get into, despite the opening action scene, because there seemed to be a lot more exposition than events, and i wasn't buying it. In addition, perhaps a further problem, but i'll list it in this paragraph as it increased my difficulty in starting the novel, the main character, Jagger (and what kind of a weird, i'm-so-hip name is that?), was not at all appealing, at least at the beginning; it almost seemed as though Liparulo was writing purposely to make him repellent rather than attractive. Fortunately he picks up a bit further into the book, but he and his situation really were not a reason for me to carry on reading; while we're at it, talking about reasons to struggle while finding a way into the novel, the complete archaeology set-up was somewhat of a problem for me: I found myself unable to buy into the premise, the situation at St. Catherine's; although i know the monastery exists it just wasn't working for me.

Fourth, and this clearly shows how picky i can be, the title annoys me. I understand it; i understand the reasons for it; i understand the history, theology, and Biblical interpretation behind it. But it is still wrong. Jacob, aka Israel, had twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes; except for Joseph, who became father of two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, making thirteen already, so any further division such as Liparulo has invented at the foot of Sinai would clearly make a fourteenth. Clearly for the authors of the Bible twelve was an important, magical number; they got around the problem in two different ways. First, by dropping one or other of the tribes from the lists, usually Levi, justified because they became the priests and so were excluded from land distribution, or, on one or two occasions i believe, Simeon is dropped, because they were combined with Judah quite early on. Second, Joseph's two tribes are usually listed together, and many commentators or interpreters (i don't think the term appears in the Bible itself, though i am open to correction) call them “half-tribes”, thus keeping the count at twelve. By any honest method, however, there were thirteen tribes when Moses came down from Sinai, so any addition should be called a fourteenth.

Fifth, while trying not to give away the secrets, the plot twists are good and well done. Well, the main one, anyway. I had already worked out two, regarding the doctor with whom Jagger teams up in his battle against the evil forces, and felt relatively proud of myself for that; when, then, the other kicked in, kicked is exactly how i felt. An excellent surprise, hidden, timed, properly revealed. There are more points i could make, but they would really tend to reveal more plot points than would be responsible.

On balance, then, i have to conclude that, negative points taken into account, i did enjoy the book. I might or might not read another of Liparulo's based on this one, but i certainly wouldn't rule it out; qualified success, then.