I usually make it my job to read the winner of the ABC Fiction Award winner each year. It’s a great competition for unpublished manuscripts that is still relatively unheard of, even though both past winners have been excellent books. Hopefully as it matures, it throws up some books that give it the coverage it deserves.
In the early years of the first century CE, a young woman named Judith has been trained to act as assassin for the Roman Empire. Having been taken as a child, her training sees her kill people who claim to be gods – in order to protect the legitimacy of the Roman religion. When her senior, Septimus, tells her to go to Nazareth to kill a young man claiming to be the Messiah of the Jews, she is torn between loyalty to her boss, and her personal feelings – for the young man in question is her childhood friend, Joshua.
I guess the biggest question that this novel raises, is whether or not Jesus was an historical figure or not. Joshua is a very, very thinly disguised Christ figure, who follows the last days of Jesus – from his miracle making, right to his crucifixion. What Massin does, though, turns these chain of events into political machinations that see the death of Joshua as vital to maintaining peace in the Roman province of Nazareth. Herod and Pilate hate each other, and do all they can to make each other’s lives a misery – and if this means killing an innocent man, that is what they will do. Neither of them care about any kind of supernatural powers that he may have, but his political power is everything. And so Judith, who is doing everything she can to stop his capture and death, becomes an unwilling pawn in his eventual downfall.
There’s no reason, though, for Judith to want to save Joshua. Sure, there’s the flimsy idea that the two of them were childhood sweethearts, but that’s not revealed until the middle of the novel, in a flimsy (and very badly placed) flashback, that is predictable to the last. And, because this book is pretty short, there’s no internal struggle against what she has been taught to do and what she does not want to do – right from the start, Judith has decided she is going to save Joshua (for she knows from the beginning who she must kill), despite the audience not properly understanding the relationship between the two. This is what the focus of the book should have been – this struggle. Instead, though, the denouement turns into a magical realist feast, complete with angels in the temple, and the Devil himself running around wreaking havoc.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Massin is an excellent writer who, despite this being only his first novel, shows great promise. His style is short and easy to get through (sometimes too much so – there are some problems in scene changes, where you are not sure what has just happened), and his use of contemporary dialogue with these historical characters is a pleasant change from people trying to sound like historical figures, and instead sounding like pompous idiots.
This review may not show it, but I did like this novel. There are certainly parts you can complain about but, at the end of the day, this is a manuscript that won a prize, so it probably has to fit certain guidelines. I think it would really have benefited from really fleshing out the relationship between Judith and Joshua, to make that struggle that Massin wants this novel to be about. Instead, he gets caught up in the all the hoo-hah about the crucifixion, that really, we don’t need to hear again. We all know what happens.