by Mesu Andrews
Release Date: February 18, 2020
Reviewed by Hellie
At eight years old, Shulle has known only life in a small village with her loving but peculiar father. When Uncle Shebna offers shelter in Jerusalem in exchange for Shulle's help tutoring King Manasseh, Judah's five-year-old co-regent who displays the same peculiarities as her father, she's eager to experience the royal court. But Shulle soon realizes the limits of her father's strict adherence to Yahweh's Law when Uncle Shebna teaches her of the starry hosts and their power.
Convinced Judah must be freed from Yahweh's chains, she begins the subtle swaying of young Manasseh, using her charm and skills on the boy no one else understands. When King Hezekiah dies, twelve-year-old Manasseh is thrust onto Judah's throne, bitter at Yahweh and eager to marry the girl he adores. Assyria's crown prince favors Manasseh and twists his brilliant mind toward cruelty, beginning Shulle's long and harrowing journey to discover the Yahweh she'd never known, guided with loving wisdom by Manasseh's mother: Isaiah's daughter, the heartbroken Hephzibah. Amid Judah's dark days, a desperate remnant emerges, claiming the Lord's promise, "Though we're helpless now, we're never hopeless--because we serve El Shaddai." Shulle is among them, a girl who becomes a queen through Isaiah's legacy.
Mesu Andrews had her work cut out for this story. As she tells the reader prior to the start of the story: “Manessah became Judah’s wickedest king and destroyed everything his father rebuilt.” Manessah (Nessah) is more villain than anti-hero, though Mesu does an admirable job of creating flawed but nuanced characters who persevere and eventually triumph, and shows God never gives up on a human heart.
If you are interested in historical fiction (and/or Christian fiction), this book will tick all the boxes, even though at times it is a hard read. Nessah, after all, does really awful things for most of the book, including sacrificing his own children to other gods. In addition to Nessah, there is Shulle’s uncle Shebna--who I think is even more wicked than Nessah--who forces Shulle into a relationship with the child-king and manipulates her in order to gain more power. Then there are the Assyrian kings, Sennacherib, then his son Esarhaddon, and his grandson Ashurbanipal, each seemingly more terrifying than the last. Still, with all its gritty historical detail and darkness, this book is one of hope, which shows itself through Queen Zibah (Nessah’s mother) and the holy prophets who try to touch Nessah’s heart.
As a plot point (of sorts), Nessah is portrayed as being autistic (as was Shulle’s father, which is how she becomes a tutor to Nessah.) While I believe this was handled carefully and I value diversity and reality (after all, autism isn’t a “new” thing), I think some readers might be taken aback at Nessah being on the spectrum--and being so evil for so long. I don’t know. Again, the author does address this concern in her author’s note; and this may just be my personal discomfort since I have not read many books with autistic characters, nor have I personally known many people on the spectrum (at least that I’m aware of). The author was walking a lot of tight ropes here--and I do think she handled it as gracefully as possible. I think my only “issue” with the character being autistic is that his family and those he interacted with were a lot more understanding and/or careful with him than I think we have treated people who think/look differently, in the past. In this way, this story was a bit “wish fulfillment” to me, but I know that is one of the struggles in writing historical fiction: how do you write about certain things that would have definitely had different attitudes during that period--and not alienate the readership you’re trying to immerse in this time/culture.
My last bit of contention is how the author treats any religion or belief system other than Judaism (which I understand, obviously.) Fictionally I understand having your characters who believe in God--the only God--to be dismissive and to hate the “false gods.” This is a Christian book, so the underlying theme is that there is only one true God. However, in the author’s note, she makes mention of the dogs who feature in the book and she indicates the violence of the dogs wasn’t meant to offend, but to “show the depravity of this ancient culture.” Pitting one culture against another in a framework of good and bad is why we do not have peace or understanding. While I commend the author on her ability to write a historical story like this with sensitivity and clarity, I was put off by this personal attitude that created division rather than understanding.