Monday, June 8, 2015

Book Review: A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers

A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers
Mark of the Lion Book One
Tyndale House Publishers
1 October 2012
525 Pages
Christian Historical Fiction
5 Stars

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The first book in the bestselling Mark of the Lion series, A Voice in the Wind brings readers back to the first century and introduces them to a character they will never forget—Hadassah. Torn by her love for a handsome aristocrat, this young slave girl clings to her faith in the living God for deliverance from the forces of decadent Rome.

A friend of mine recently recommended this series to me, stating that she finished the trilogy in one week through several long sittings.  Even though she gushed about it, I was not immediately interested for several reasons.  One, it looked like a romance to me, and that genre is not one I enjoy very often.  Two, I had Francine Rivers categorized as an overly sentimental writer, and I tend to find that style of writing very cloying.  Lastly, I have had a few run-ins with average written Christian romance, and I had no idea of repeating the experience.  Thus, I put off the recommendation until she appeared before me with the first book, pressing it into my hands.  Had she not, I never would have read it, but I am really glad that she did because I liked it so much more than I would ever have expected.

I was enraptured by the story almost as soon as I started it, and I read the bulk of it in one long sitting.  Not only was I interested in the lives of the characters, but I was even more astounded at all the connections I was making between the historical setting of the novel and the world today.

The book begins at the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, and the main plot follows Hadassah, a Jewish girl who loses her family and becomes the slave of a prominent Roman family.  There are also subplots concerning the son of the family she serves and his search for money and pleasure, as well as a Germanic captive turned gladiator who longs for freedom.

The story is much more plot-driven than character-driven, and the pace is fairly fast without feeling rushed.  There are several varying plot lines, each requiring a shift in character point of view, but Rivers does an excellent job of bringing them all together in a sensible way.  Being able to switch character perspective added to the story, as well, because much more was revealed, which helped me to fully understand each character.  While much of the story plays out according to expectations, there are a few turns that I did not expect but wholly enjoyed.

The end, for example, was not what I anticipated.  In most ways, it is satisfying and brings things together very well while still setting up the next book.  However, there is one major point that requires the suspension of disbelief.  I think that my feelings about it will depend on how it plays out in the second book.

Hadassah is the perfect main character for a story like this.  She is young and innocent and pure, which struck a daring contrast to every other character, as well as the setting.  She wants to serve God, but is terrified of speaking about Jesus because of the Christian persecution at the time.  This fear paralyzes her throughout most of the book, causing her to often hold back.  Yet, her relationship with Christ sustains her through every trial and even compels her to love the family she is enslaved to.

Marcus is the opposite of Hadassah.  Whereas she is unspoilt, he knows far too much of the world.  She is selfless while he purposefully thinks only of himself.  She has an active, growing faith while he only grows in disbelief and skepticism.  Growing up during the rise of the Roman empire, Marcus values possessions and enjoyment, dismissing many traditional values in search of pleasure.  Yet, he doesn't completely believe in the empire that has given his family wealth and position.  Watching many of his young friends die has made him cynical, and though he recognizes the moral decay surrounding him, he doesn't allow himself to be overly bothered by it, instead seeking to profit from people's loose morals.

His sister, Julia, is the most tragic of the cast.  At the beginning of the book, she is a young girl at a crossroads.  She can choose between traditional values or Roman values, and in an effort to stay current with society, she dives deep into the corruption of the times.  Julia is a character who has no backbone and is instead driven by her passions, desires, and the manipulation of others.  Even more than Marcus, she demands gratification and will go to any lengths to satisfy herself.

Lastly, there is Atretes, the captured leader of a Germanic tribe who is sold as a gladiator in Rome.  Atretes is a warrior who prizes his family, his tribe, and his honor.  When he is first taken as a prisoner, he fights it without restraint.  All he thinks of is freedom and returning to his family.  Over time, however, his spirit is broken, and he gives up his self-respect for temporary pleasure.

Rivers brings each of these characters through unique journeys, and they all develop (or, in some cases, decay) throughout the novel.  None of them are stagnant, and by the end of the novel, they have either matured and learnt about themselves, or they have fallen and become baser versions of themselves.

Rome is almost a character on its own.  The world-building is so realistic, and each of my senses was engaged.  I could smell the waste being thrown from windows, hear the barking of merchants, feel the heat and the crowds, see the poor running through the streets.  Rivers' Rome feels authentic in every way.

While reading about Roman society and the decay of morality, I couldn't help but draw parallels to the world today, especially America.  The casting off of traditional morals in pursuit of new values and pleasures struck me the most.  It was almost frightening to see how closely the world resembles a culture that is now deemed hedonistic.  As a Christian, especially, it opened my eyes to the world around me and its spiritual state.

One of the main themes that this book explores is how the pursuit of pleasure can bring destruction.  Every character that prizes self-gratification above all else ultimately suffers, even when their economical or social situation should only bring joy.  Conversely, Hadassah, a slave, has peace and joy abounding even though, by the standards of others, she has nothing.

This book is also really well-written.  The dialogue was believable, and the descriptions were beautifully detailed.  Rivers' style isn't overly poetic but neither is it prosaic.  She's not bringing anything new to the world of literature, but her talent is above average.

Surprisingly, this is one of my favorite books so far this year.  It was entertaining, but it also made me think about the world and challenged my views on society.  I gave it 5 stars.