Monday, February 7, 2011

The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia — 416 pgs

Book CoverIn this riveting historical mystery set in 16th century Prague during the Inquisition, Benyamin Ben-Akiva, the newly arrived shammes (religious leader), finds himself embroiled in the investigation of a murder that threatens to tear apart the Jewish community. It all begins when the body of a young Christian girl is found in the shop of Jacob Federn, a Jewish businessman. Despite his pleas of ignorance, the Christian sector of Prague, who already hate and lambast the Jews, believe Federn has killed the girl in order to use her bodily fluids for a blood ritual. This incenses the Christians, and soon Federn is in custody and the segregated Jewish ghetto is under lock-down. Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a newcomer to the town, immediately begins to investigate the strange case, but due to his status as a Jew, he must rely on a bevy of Jews and Christians alike to bring the girl's true killer to light. As he carefully uncovers clue after clue, he discovers the improbable status of Jews in his new homeland and gains insight into his own religion through the help of other like-minded rabbis who are also considered dangerous freethinkers. As the hours wind down and the Jews fate begins to look inescapable, Benyamin Ben-Akiva enlists the help of a group pf ragtag villagers, prostitutes, and a Christian girl with the heart and mind of a Jew, culminating in a shocking conclusion that will change the city of Prague, and Benyamin Ben-Akiva, forever.

When I initially started reading this book, I was worried that I had too little knowledge of Jewish history and culture to be able to fully appreciate what Wishnia was trying to do with this story. But from the moment that Benyamin Ben-Akiva hears the wailing cry of a mother looking for her daughter piercing the city's early morning tranquility, I knew this was going to be a story that not only moved me, but that kept me reading late into the night. Though this book dealt heavily with Judaism and particularly the academic side of it, it was at once enlightening and unfamiliar. Wishnia has a way of not only generously pouring out information, but of explaining it in a way that almost anyone could understand.

At the heart of this story is the conflict between the Jewish and Christian populations of Prague. During the 16th century, the Jews were segregated into their own community, and though they were allowed basic freedoms and protections under Emperor Rudolph, they were also harassed, reviled and often the scapegoats of the community when anything went amiss. The hatred eminating from the Christians was almost too hard to read about, and once again, I realized it was not only in Nazi Germany that the Jews had suffered at the hands of others who thought themselves superior to them. This book reminded me a little of The Mistress of the Art of Death in the way it related the plight of the Jews. In both books, the Jews were at the center of a controversy after a child was killed and the Christians believed the Jews had committed the murder in order to use the blood of the slain child as an ingredient in a ritual. In both books, the outrage and anger from the Christian sector was similar. It's interesting to note that this motive for the murder would be impossible, as the Jews as a whole look upon blood as unclean and would have been at great pains to avoid it, but the Christians use their influence and prejudice to ascribe monstrous qualities and intentions on these people.

Wishnia also reveals himself in this book as a superior scholar. A vast amount of the dialog and narrative revolves around quotes and ideas represented in the Talmud, the Torah, the Kabbalah and other Jewish writings. These sections of theological debate exist right alongside the story, and often, the two embrace and imbue the story with allegorical and symbolic meanings that further heighten the plight of the Jews, both in the immediate and historical sense. I felt these sections melded together beautifully, and though at first I was intimidated with all the knowledge that was being passed to me through the pages, I grew to trust what Wishnia was doing and what he would create. I can't adequately express how academically potent this book was to me, and not only was it extremely edifying, it also turned the story into a complex and astute work of art.

Another thing that impressed me was the range of unusual characters that passed through the story. There were wise women and prostitutes, a giant mentally challenged man, and inspectors who had hidden hearts of gold. There were brave men and cowardly ones, stubborn and recalcitrant wives, and Christan girls with forbidden passions. All of these characters felt very well rounded and three dimensional and they were intrinsic to the value of this strange and wonderful tale. Though I liked all of the characters and felt varying degrees of attachment to them, it was Benyamin Ben-Akiva who was the star of the show. He was just so human and his impulses to disobey and follow his own path were constantly at war with his spiritual beliefs and leanings. There were times when he bent the prescribed law and times he played it by the book, but it was his vibrancy and his duty to the Jews of his newly arrived home that I found most interesting. Benyamin Ben-Akiva's altruism played dangerously with his selfishness, which to me was very human.

Though this was a rather intense and dense book, I thought Wishnia did an incredible job of not only telling his story, but backing it up with an undeniable atmosphere and flavor that not many historical novels can deliver. The book had the ability to be a fast paced page turner and a slow introspective read, which is also unusual. I think the scope of the story was impressive, and the fact that Wishnia never falters in his narrative makes this a book that a lot of reader will enjoy. I certainly did, and I look forward to plowing through it again, with an eye to disseminating some of the more theological aspects in greater detail. Highly recommended.

About Kenneth Wishnia

Kenneth Wishnia has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. His crime fiction has been nominated for the Edgar and Anthony awards. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, where he lives with his wife and children.

Find out more about Kenneth at his website.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, February 8th:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, February 9th:My Two Blessings
Thursday, February 10th:Coffee and a Book Chick
Monday, February 14th:Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Thursday, February 17th:Man of La Book
Friday, February 18th:Chaotic Compendiums
Wednesday, February 23rd:The Lost Entwife
Thursday, February 23rd:In the Next Room
Thursday, February 24th:Book Journey
Monday, February 28th:Wordsmithonia
Wednesday, March 2nd:Rundpinne

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


bermudaonion said...

While the subject matter does sound fascinating, I'm wondering if this book would be too dense for me, since I'm not as smart as you are.

Jenners said...

Sounds like it combines the best of both worlds ... good scholarship and good story. It isn't always easy to find both together.

Vasilly said...

This sounds like an amazing book! It's going on my tbr pile. If I hadn't read your wonderful review of this, I would probably have passed this book up.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Your review reminds me also of the Mistress of the Art of Death series. I'll probably try this - I'm liking this historically-set mysteries!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Wow...this sounds like a not to be missed read. Hope to get a copy. Thanks for getting me excited about this book.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Glad to read how much you enjoyed it! I'm nearing the end and it has picked up for me. I always love Jewish literature and history books, so these parts are the most pleasing for me.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I love that this book takes a murder mystery and makes it something unique...both with its cultural study and in its location. (And yes, it did sound a little like that series that Jill has been reviewing.) Initially, something like this might intimidate me, but it sounds like the author has made it accessible to everyone.

nomadreader said...

I started this one but had trouble getting into it. Perhaps it was just me, as I adore intellectual mysteries, and this one sounds lovely. I'm going to give it another try!

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I'm glad your lack of knowledge didn't hinder your experience. Sometimes that is my fear as well. This one does sound like a great read.

Trisha said...

It's nice to know the book is challenging and informative without being over the heads of the less knowledgeable of us. :)

Jenny said...

You always make me reconsider books that don't sound AT ALL like what I would normally go for. I'm not a big historical fiction person, and I know zero things about Jewish history, but this sounds excellent.

Robin M said...

I found the story fascinating as well. Slow reading, but intriguing.

Suko said...

Wonderful, thoughtful review! I am not surprised!

TheBookGirl said...

This one is going right on my TBR list (and near the top!). I love the fact that the theological debates are juxtaposed with the narrative, and the assortment of characters sounds wonderful.
Thanks so much for reviewing this one.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I love it when an author can fill his book with historical details without detracting from the story. I'm a huge fan of learning as I read so I think this book would be perfect for me. Thanks for being on the tour - I'm glad this book was a good fit for you.

Ana S. said...

I wasn't crazy about Mistress of the Art of Death, but I likes the premise enough that your comparison to it intrigues me!

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