When a mysterious ship lands in Sicily in 1347 bearing a handsome yet strange man, the the townspeople are curious just who he is and where he has come from. But before they have time to act on their curiosity, they begin to fall ill. First the sickness affects only a handful, but by morning, most of the townspeople are dead and more have been infected. Soon the town begins to fall apart, the Church is overwhelmed and the wolves that lurk around the edges of the village are suddenly becoming more bold. Through the confusion a handful of people begin to galvanize themselves in response to this curious tragedy: the priest who has forsaken those he loves to teach his community the word of God, the local Baron who greedily lives off of the backs of the townspeople, the Baron's proud and spiteful daughter and the outcast healing woman who some think practices witchcraft. But beyond the world of those things that can be seen, the town is being watched and aided by unseen observers, an evil presence is thriving on the town's destruction, and an unwilling visitor from another time is silently watching events unfold. As the Black Plague begins to decimate the village, the fate of it's inhabitants will be determined by the sentinels who are concealed from their view. Both imaginative and suspenseful, In the Arms of Immortals tells an extremely unique version of the most terrifying and brutal epidemic in all of history.
I wasn't sure what I was getting with this book, but by the end of the story I was very surprised that the book had made such a strong impression on me and that I was led to feel so many contrasting emotions. Although I have read many books labeled as Christian fiction, this book was unlike any of them. Usually I find that Christian fiction tends to always have the same hallmarks: non-offensive characters and plots that are studded with heavy-handed messages that can sometimes seem alienating. Not so in this book. The first thing I noticed was that there were some really opinionated and unlikeable people populating the pages. These characters weren't only depicted to be subjects of a revelation. They were at times the center of the narrative, and it was really interesting to watch them function in their natural capacity and play off of the more benign characters in the story. In this respect, the character creation demonstrated that the author was willing to be a bit ambiguous in telling her tale, which is something I really liked. There was not the usual struggle taking place inside me when reading a book of this type, no worrying that the characters and their experiences would be too unreal for me to sympathize with or that they would espouse emotions that didn't ring true. The characterizations were much more realistic and gritty than any I have discovered in most Christian fiction.
Another thing I noticed was that the supernatural elements of this story were depicted very elegantly and with almost a mythical quality. The angels and demons that watched over the village were by turns wondrous and frightening. Up to this point I had never really considered that angels might act in these unfamiliar ways, or that they might not look like those visions of beauty with glowing wings that we have all come to expect. Nor had it occurred to me that demons could exist in so many forms and be so loathsome and revolting. The creatures created in this book were vibrant and startling, and I think the author showed incredible use of imagination in capturing these images in her story.
I also liked that the messages were not expressed in an elementary and basic structure. Yes, this book did have messages, but the way in which the characters grew to understand their predicaments and fates was very multi-dimensional and couldn't be expressed or understood from oft-used platitudes and simple homilies. Here too I was pleased, for the messages didn't come bluntly or with awkwardness. There was something much more complex in the author's revelations, something that I failed to understand until I was almost at the end of the book.
From what I made of it, what made this book so unique was the author's acceptance of the fact that there is a definitive evil in the world. Instead of creating an atmosphere where only goodness and innocence existed, this story explored the realm opposite of justice and light: the darkness and unfathomability that some Christian authors are afraid to examine. The important messages in the book relating to faith and forgiveness were written in a very natural way that fully meshed with the drama and the verisimilitude of the narrative. The story put forth the idea that there are many layers and shapes to faith and showed me that not all books of this genre are created equal.
Another plus for me was the authenticity of the sections relating to the plague. I have always enjoyed historical fiction that deals with the plague, and this book was no exception; it was mainly for this reason that I wanted so much to read this book, and it did not disappoint. I found the sections dealing with the village's descent into the illness fascinating and convincing, and I was pleased that this book did a great double as historical fiction. As an added bonus to this immersive story, I discovered what the plague's impact on Christian women truly was, and how the Church was fundamentally changed by the rapid spread of the Black Death.
This is the second book in a planned trilogy which explores the historical changes that women have wrought in the Christian faith. I already own the first book in the series and I am anxiously awaiting the last, which will deal with the role of women of witchcraft in the Christian community. I was very impressed with this book and thought it was an amazing read. Though I am usually pretty lukewarm about most Christian fiction and sometimes wary of recommending it, I feel very differently about this book. I urge readers of historical fiction to take a closer look at this series of books, this novel in particular. The writing was very fluid and moving, and the story was animated and enigmatic in a way that took me completely by surprise. An unexpectedly involving read. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.