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Friday, April 27, 2012

Biblical Drama Lacks ... Drama

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I try to review books right after I've read them—that way, the story's plot, character, tone, etc. remains fresh in my mind while I dissect it for your reading pleasure.  The longer I wait to write about a book, the more my memory seems to desert me.  Especially in the case of a novel like Marilyn Brown's Fires of Jerusalem, the details of which stand out in my mind not at all.  I remember slogging through the book, turning pages (well, scrolling through screens on my Kindle Fire) as quickly as I could so that I could move onto something more exciting.  So dull was this reading experience for me that I remember almost nothing about it.  Except that the story's chock-full of historical detail, while it skimps mightily on things like plot, character development, and engaging prose.

Since there's not a lot of plot to move the story along, it's going to be difficult to describe Fires of Jerusalem.  There's no jacket copy to help me along either.  Bother.  Well, here's my best attempt at a summary:

The story concerns Jeremiah, the Hebrew prophet who's credited with authoring the Old Testament books of Jeremiah, 1 Kings, 2 Kings and Lamentations.  It begins when Jeremiah is a young man, working in the Jerusalem's temple archives as an apprentice scribe.  The city around him has become a dangerous place, filled with violence, crime, poverty and despair.  Many who live there, and in surrounding lands, have turned away from God, choosing instead to indulge in drunkenness, whoring and idol worship.  As the son of a high priest and as a scribe whose job it is to preserve holy scripture, Jeremiah finds the situation troubling, but believes there is little he can do to change it.  

It's not until 14-year-old Jeremiah receives a vision from God that he realizes he not only can do something about the people's wickedness, but that he must.  He has been commanded to warn the people that they—and their great city of Jerusalem—will be destroyed if they do not turn away from lawlessness and sin.  Jeremiah accepts the assignment with great reluctance.  Ultimately, though, he spends decades preaching to the wicked, risking his future, his family, even his life, to cry repentance to a people who would rather imprison a prophet than listen to him.  Even though Jeremiah is not alone in his work (he gets a little help from people like Lehi, of Book of Mormon fame), he is ultimately on his own to save his people, his religion and himself.     

There's more than enough raw material here to make for a very entertaining historical novel, but Brown weighs down the story with so much detail that it plods along far too slowly.  The author's intense research is probably the most commendable thing about this book, it just isn't woven into a compelling plot, so Fires of Jerusalem reads more like a textbook than a novel.  Other reviewers have commended the author for using her artistic license to make a dull prophet more vivid and interesting—I'm not sure what they're talking about since, to me, Brown's version of Jeremiah still seems very flat and dull.  I think what the novel really lacks, above all, is dynamic storytelling.  Because, I'm telling you, I had to fight to stay awake through this one.  Now, I absolutely admit that I'm not a huge fan of fiction based on scripture and that I never would have picked up this book if it hadn't been chosen as a Whitney Award finalist, but still, the book had a whole lot of unrealized potential.  It could have been a riveting page-turner, it just...wasn't. 

(Readalikes:  I don't read much in this genre, so I'm drawing a blank here.  Any suggestions?)

Grade:  C

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG-13 for violence and mature subject matter 

To the FTC, with love:  I received a PDF of Fires of Jerusalem from the generous folks at Parables via the Whitney Award Committee.  Thank you!


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