Thursday, June 14, 2012

Garden of Madness, by Tracy L. Higley


It's been seven years since Nebuchadnezzar lost his mind--though the royal family has carefully kept his madness a secret from the people.  His daughter, Tiamat, recent widow of a Jewish prince, would rather remain alone than enter into another loveless marriage.  But with her mother pressuring her to marry a Median prince in order to strengthen the family's political position, her mother in law hoping she'll wed her dead husband's brother and give him an heir according to Jewish law, and the mysterious young mage Amel-Marduk making eyes at her, Tiamat may not have as much say over her future as she would like.  And when one of the palace noblemen is essentially mauled to death, Tiamat begins to fear for her own life . . . and her father's.  Determined to solve the mystery and protect her father--and her family--from those who would seize the throne, Tiamat must recruit the assistance of an elderly Jew with a knack for interpreting dreams and a shockingly narrow-minded view of religion.

The genre of Biblical fiction is one I've tended to avoid--and for good reason.  There seem to be a lot of terrible books out there that fall into this category.  So I started this book with a bit of a skeptical eye.  And, heaven help me, I actually didn't hate it.  I know, I know.  I was surprised, too.

Higley creates a fairly plausible tale of the events that might have occurred while Nebuchadnezzar was unable to rule Babylon (on account of being a total nutball who thought he was an animal). The result is an interesting--if complex--plot that keeps the reader moving through the story.  The whole thing is chock full of political intrigue, dark 'magic', complex (and broken) family relationships, conflicting religious beliefs, deceit, and betrayal.  Oh, and romance.  There's a lot going on here, is what I am saying.  Which is good, because the characters are, well, rather flat, and the plot keeps them moving quickly enough to mask it . . . most of the time.

Pedaiah, brother of Tiamat's dead husband, is the righteous and judgmental Jew determined to keep himself pure in the midst of the corruptions of Babylon--including the lovely pagan princess Tiamat, to whom he is increasingly attracted (much to his consternation).  Tiamat herself is essentially a pretty face who loves her father and wants to be free from the machinations of her controlling mother.  Also, she is very naive--every time someone tells her that so-and-so is the bad guy, she is off and running with that idea, usually in very foolhardy and ineffective ways.  And when I say she's off and running, I lean that literally.  She runs.  A lot.  And works out constantly.  I have no idea whether there were women in ancient Babylon with a penchant for athletics, despite cultural pressure to stick to more 'feminine' activities.  But Tiamat feels like an extremely modern creation--an empowered young feminist who goes for long runs after a hard day and keeps her own personal (secret) gymnasium where she burns off steam. It was rather jarring, honestly.  Whether or not such behavior is actually anachronistic, it feels out of place here.  Amel-Marduk, the handsome young mage, is conveniently mysterious and attentive.  Tiamat's mother is controlling and conniving and heartless . . . except when she isn't.  And of course Nebuchadnezzar is an arrogant-king-turned-feral-wolf-man who lurks around the Hanging Gardens making animal noises and being suspected of murder.  None of them feel like real people.

I can't really speak to the historicity of the book.  Higley includes a brief glossary at the front of the book, but the terminology seems largely unnecessary--it's just a list of a dozen or so words that Higley wanted to include in the book, which may or may not be authentic, but seem to distract from the story rather than contribute to its historical authenticity.  And I simply don't know enough about ancient Babylon to judge the accuracy of her portrayal.

This being a Biblical story, there is, of course, plenty of religious content.  Tiamat is Babylonian, and she is mystified by Pedaiah's (and BelteshazzarDaniel) insistence that their God is the only true God.  Nebuchadnezzar's madness is the result of his overweening pride and his refusal to humble himself before God, and *SPOILER* his eventual cure is the result of his submission to and acknowledgement of God.  Tiamat is manipulated by those who serve the gods of Babylon, and *SPOILER, again* her conversion is what frees her to fight against the king's enemies (there is, understandably, a lot of spiritual warfare portrayed here).  Surprisingly, that conversion relies not upon Tiamat's acceptance of and obedience to moral laws, but her belief of the actual gospel. Daniel explains to Tiamat that a) God is sovereign over all, including her; b) God alone provides salvation and atonement; and c) the atoning love of God enables us to overcome (or endure) any hardship or opposition.  And when Tiamat finally believes, that belief is accompanied by repentance, submission, and grace.  At which point Pedaiah repents of thinking that God only meant to save the Jews, and realizes that God's plan all along was to save the world through the Jews.  Not too bad--or even too ham-handed--for a novel, even a "Christian" one.  At any rate, it was more than I expected.

All in all, it wasn't a bad book.  If Biblical fiction is your thing, you'll probably love it. And even those who tend to avoid the genre may find themselves pleasantly surprised by Higley's complex (yet plausible) plot and by-and-large theologically sound presentation of the gospel.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

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