Review – Kingdom of the Wicked by Helen Dale

Typically, when I review a series, I review each of the books separately.  For Kingdom of the Wicked, however, I’m going to review both of these books together.  This is largely because, even though the first one did come to a conclusion, they really are two parts of a larger work.

To address the technical issues first, although I didn’t have any trouble with perspective in these books, the tenses were not always consistent, which I found more annoying than confusing.

The other thing has to do with how alternate histories, or at least the ones I read, are usually written.  Typically, there is one event (a shard from an artwork carving out a six mile sphere of 2000 West Virginia and dumping it in 1631 Germany) and everything after follows logically (at least in the author’s mind) from that point.  These books, however, were specifically written to examine what how ancient Rome, with today’s technology but their legal system, would respond to a certain Yeshua Ben Yusuf (Jesus son of Joseph, or Jesus Christ).  It’s an interesting idea, and one that will work on my mind.

Although Roman sexual mores were much stricter than Dale portrays, I believe she is doing two things here.  First, she is positing what technology may have done to the sexual morals.  Second, I think she is comparing Rome and the Jews, with American and Muslim (or maybe just Middle Eastern) cultures today.

Certainly, her Rome is very concerned with law, and very concerned that the law be kept no matter what.  At the same time, they don’t believe that helping the poor or disabled helps anyone.  “Just giving to the poor encourages them to continue asking for help instead of making their way out of poverty,” seems to be the basic attitude.  Anyone who has been involved in a political debate about Medicaid and/or welfare in the U.S. will recognize the argument.  At the same time, the Jewish people are very concerned with taking care of the poor, even if that means some unworthy people get helped along the way.

The core of the story, though, is Jesus and his story.  Kingdom of the Wicked only focuses on the events of the “Holy Week”, from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt to the end of the trial.  It is in this examination that I most enjoyed these two books.  The main characters we know are here, although you do need to know a little about Hebrew and Aramaic to recognize the names, (Yehuda is Judas, Petros is Peter, the Virgin Mary is Miriam Bat Amram), although others are clear, such as Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea.  The familiar villains are here; some, like High Priest Caiaphas are much as expected although others, like Pontius Pilate, aren’t quite as villainous as might be expected.  (Much of that depends on what you know and what else you’ve read, as well.)

In this telling of the story, Jesus doesn’t come off quite as well as he does in the Gospels.  He’s more human, even as it’s obvious he’s trying to tell a story about God as Love, he’s more likely to make mistakes, lose his temper, and not treat people maybe as well as he should.  There are other stories from other traditions that Dale tells as well:  Yeshua Ben Yusuf’s father is a Roman soldier named Pantera, a story that was told in first and second century Jewish tradition.  Saul the tentmaker has an important role to play as well.

In the end, although there are many things I would quibble with, and although I would love to see an editor correct some of the technical shortcomings of these two books, this story of first century Jerusalem and Yeshua Ben Yusuf will stick with me.  I give it four stars.

 

Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book One: Rules.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book Two: Order.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

American Hippo is not one novel; it is a collection of two novellas and two short stories, all set in the same alternate universe.  The two novellas, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, are two complete stories that tell a larger story when combined.  The two short stories, “Nine and a Half” and “Worth Her Weight in Gold”, are vignettes that add color and additional detail to the novellas.  Finally, I gave a brief review of River of Teeth earlier, when I reviewed the finalists for the Nebula and Hugo awards.  It did not win the Nebula; the Hugo has not yet been announced.

I was pleased that I didn’t read River of Teeth before Taste of Marrow was published even if I didn’t read it right away.  Although River of Teeth tells a complete story, there are still stories left to tell about some of the characters.  Those stories, the most pressing at least, are told in Taste of Marrow.  The ending of that story wraps everything up, although there are still more stories that could be told in this universe.

The alternate universe in which American Hippo is set is one in which a plan debated in the U. S. Congress in the early twentieth century was actually carried out in 1857.  Hippos were imported and raised in the Louisiana bayous for meat.  Since horses aren’t well-designed for working in rivers and marshes, other hippos were raised and trained to herd the meat hippos.  Basically, instead of the Wild West, you have the Wild Mississippi or the Wild Bayous or the Wild Delta.

The stories are essentially Westerns set in that universe.  River of Teeth is a caper (“It’s not a caper; it’s an operation!  All legal and above-board!”) in which the feral hippos fenced in at the mouth of the Mississippi are to be released into the Gulf of Mexico.  This goes as well as you would expect, with deaths, and life-threatening injuries, to the main characters.  Taste of Marrow follows the survivors of the original crew through the aftermath, consequences, and the one mystery barely hinted at in the first story.

Finally, apparently one of the things that went right in this universe (hippos are just different) is that women and LGBTQ+ people are much more acceptable than they are in ours.  In a group of five highly talented and dangerous (admittedly criminal) people, two are women, one is nonbinary, and four are bi or gay.  Not something I expect would have been accepted in our Wild West.

All in all, these were delightful stories and I enjoyed them.  Highly recommended.

Gailey, Sarah.  American Hippo.  New York:  Tor.com Books, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Shtetl Days by Harry Turtledove

The novella Shtetl Days, by alternate history writer Harry Turtledove is set about a hundred years after the War of Retribution in which Nazi Germany won.  Veit Harlan and his wife Kristina are actors, portraying Jakub and Bertha Shlayfer in the village of Wawolnice, a Jewish reenactment village in Poland.

As actors who take pride in their work, they do their best to be as true to their roles as they can.  This involves studying the no-longer-practiced rites, rituals, customs and beliefs of a way of life that the Nazis worked hard to get rid of.  To the tourists, Wawolnice is an example of the dirty people that the Germans had to get rid of.  To the actors portraying the hated, hateful Jews, it’s … something else.

I enjoy Turtledove’s works, and this is one of my favorites.  A poignant reminder of “what might happen if …”

Turtledove, Harry.  Shtetl Days.  Tor.com, 2011.  Amazon.