Friday, July 21, 2017

The Blood of the Lamb: The Expected One By Mark E. Rogers

The Blood of the Lamb: The Expected One
By Mark E. Rogers

I'm a book nerd and my chosen poisons tend towards fantasy and science fiction. I've defended both genres from critics as a whole repeatedly both in this review series and in other venues. I do feel, however that there are problems at times. One of the great strengths that both of the genres have is the ability to get us to look at a problem or an issue without raising our defenses by changing things enough to allow us look at it in a new light. This is often done with political or social issues in fantasy or science fiction, you see this books ranging from Harry Potter to the Goblin Emperor for example. The execution varies from masterful to anvil droppingly awful but one thing modern fantasy seems to shy away from is theology.  I don't just mean the theology of modern religions but even most fantasy religions are fairly shallow. There are plenty of religious allegories in modern fiction, Harry Potter died for the sins of the Wizarding World and rose 3 minutes later not that long ago. Man of Steel was fairly happy to use religious symbolism. I think this is because most people aren't very learned in theology.

In recent history, religion in the United States has become politically charged with the Christian Fundamentalist Churches all but demanding sovereignty over these questions. Their own very sparse and harsh theology has produced people who are in my experience often unaware that there are other works out there to read beyond the Bible.  If you're wondering I honestly recommend starting with The City of God by Augustine, as that's where a lot of western theology starts. You can never go wrong by starting at the beginning.  Speaking as a pastor's son, many of the lay people could stand to actually read the Bible.  This is not exclusive to Fundamentalist Churches to be fair, nor is a problem exclusive to Christianity. There are deeper levels you can go to, questions that theologians have been dueling over for thousands of years and it's there that we rarely go. Now some do go there, Scott Baker has staked out some interesting ground in his own series which is one of the reasons why despite so many people being outright horrified by that series, they keep reading it. I was bemoaning this to a friend, when he suggested an old series called Blood of the Lamb and that's what we're here to talk about today.

Today’s author Mark E. Rogers, was born in 1952 in New Jersey and wrote his first book while a high school student, The Runestone that would eventually become a movie in 1991. Mr. Rogers would graduate the University of Delaware in 1974 as Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors of the Arts Degree. Mr. Rogers would come to be known primarily for two things, the Samurai Cat series, a parody work featuring a Samurai cat on a mission to avenge its master's death, and his artwork. However, when you peek beyond that you see a long list of novels, many of them dark, that grapple with moral and theological themes and pull no punches in doing so. The Expected One is honestly the first work of his that I've ever read but I find myself looking at the others as well. Sadly Mr. Rogers is no longer with us, having passed away in a heart attack in 2014 while hiking in California. He is survived by his wife and his 4 children. He is also fondly remembered by a number of friends who have written moving tributes of a man they considered to be thoughtful and intelligent. I want to say he is also survived by the work he left behind but if amazon is any indication his work is slowly disappearing. It is a sad and simple fact that only tiny amount of fiction writers will continue to have their work published after death, as publishers will prefer to devote time and energy to new writers who can produce more work. This is a sad and terrible thing in my mind but I honestly lack a solution to this. To get away from that subject, however, I think it's time we actually start talking about the book we're here to review.

This series takes place on a fantasy world that is similar but at the same time very different from our own. On this world is a group of people who are called the Kadjafim, an ethnic group united by it's shared religious belief in a single God and their waiting for a foretold Messiah. The religion of the Kadjafim is kept by an order of wizard priests known as the Sharajnaghim. They maintain the doctrine and rituals of the religion and are the final authority of the religion. However they are not sovereign, 20 years before the story begins the great Silver Horde of Batu Khan swept over the lands and conquered all before them. While he demands yearly tribute from the Sharajnaghim, Batu Khan is fairly hands off towards them, perhaps in gratitude for their aid against the Black Anarites, worshipers of a being that the Kadjafim consider a demon. The people of the Kadjafim are not content under the fist of Batu Khan however and rebellion seethes under the surface, even if it is punished quickly and brutally. However in addition to mere secular rebellion has come over the years an increasing number of men claiming to be the Expected One, the awaited Messiah of the Kadjafim. The Khan declaring that he is not a religious authority and would not wish to offend God, has given the Sharajnaghim the responsibility of ferreting out and trying these heretics. If the Sharajnaghim declare you to be a false Messiah, you are handed over to the Khan and executed.

It is in this setting that word arrives that a man known as Essaj Ben Yussef has been preaching in the backwater regions and performing miracles while referring to himself as the Son of Man. Despite the disquiet in the order in performing a role as the Khan's appointed hatchet men, 3 young members are dispatched to investigate Essaj and his claims to prove his miracles and to test his preaching to find fraud and heresy. Let's talk about these 3 young men a bit, first up we have Sharif, a handsome young man who is well gifted in magic and physical combat. Sharif is brave, earnest, devoted to the order and honestly not very good at intellectual pursuits. That's okay though, because he's mostly on this trip to bodyguard our other two characters. The first off is Erim, who while not as physically capable as Sharif is frighteningly intelligent and an expert in doctrine. His job on this adventure is to test Essaj's religious arguments and preaching and see if he can expose any heresy or weak points. Erim does have a weakness, however, when it comes to good food, good wine or good women, which I'll circle back to in a bit. Our last member of the trio, Nawhar stands opposite to Sharif and Erim in many ways. Nawhar's body is wracked with bad joints and skin that constantly itches, Nawhar has turned to religion for solace in the face of this and has become something of a zealot. He's a genius zealot however with a high skill in sussing out false miracles and trickery. As the confrontation between them and Essaj leaves them unable to disprove his miracles, miracles which seem to become increasingly unbelievable the longer they stay in his presence and attempts to discredit his theology founder, we see cracks in the friendship of these 3 young men. Erim begins to doubt that Essaj is a false prophet. Sharif finds himself rocked to the core and fearful of the future.

However there's also the question of whether or not the Sharajnaghim can really claim the authority to make these decisions anymore. Generations of wealth and authority have brought corruption, politicking and those more concerned with material gains than religious duty. Mr. Rogers shines here in showing this very subtly and not hitting us over the head with it. We see the members of the Sharajnaghim have grown disdainful of manual labor, we see that they grown lack in enforcing proper behavior in ceremonies (allowing a student to drink wine and celebrate in between tests for promotions when he's suppose to be meditating and praying for example) and have breaking their vows, such as vowing to be chaste but having mistresses and wives. The corruption is further shown realistically in that these aren't necessarily bad or faithless people, most of them even those who break their vows still have very real faith and belief in what they're doing and create rationalizations and excuses for their oath breaking. This is how corruption works in the real world, it doesn't turn everyone into a cackling super villain, even good people will indulge in it if encouraged by people they respect and if it's made the norm. That's how even the best of us can be caught up in it and it can bring down even those who aren't part of it. Nawhar for example sticks to his vows to the very letter but in doing so lets pride and anger cloud the reason for those vows in the first place, placing him in jeopardy of destroying the very thing he would protect through sheer narrow minded pigheadedness.

This isn't the only story line in the novel however, back in the home temple of of the Sharajnaghim someone has unleashed a Demon to hunt down and kill masters of the order. This plants seeds of doubt between the masters as it raises the real possibility that the demon that is hunting them in their very homes was summoned by a Master of the Sharajnaghim. Meanwhile they also have to contend with the possibility that the Black Anarites have sent this Demon to destroy them and end their long war. I have to note another thing I enjoyed here was the use of Demons, a lot of fantasy series turn Demons into basically another monster to fight and conquer. This kind of drains the horror from the concept and can leave one thinking that there's not much difference between a Demon and an Orc expect ability. In this book series however, the theological weight of Demons is restored. Demons are objects of horror, tormenting their victims physically and mentally. Displaying knowledge about them that you would think it would be impossible to have and using it to prey on people's mental and emotional weaknesses. The Demons in this book are elevated from a monster to figures of terror and secrets and that is a lot closer to the core idea of a what a demon is for me.

As I'm sure a lot of you have guessed by now, this is an alternate retelling of the gospels. Set on another world where the Biblical fall didn't happen until the 2nd generation of mankind, this means that mankind has access to more gifts than in our world. In this case being magic. This isn't a straightforward one to one transfer of the gospel to a different world however, the geography and history of this world is very different. For one thing there are no Romans, but there are Mongols who set up a massive empire. Essaj is of course the stand in for our Lord Christ and Jesus' teachings remain fairly intact if not engaged in-depth in this book.  The theology of the Sharajnaghim is given more time and space in this book, given that is important for the trial that Essaj is going to find himself on, I'm okay with it. Most of the miracles are taken straight out of the gospels, I won't spoil which ones but the context in which they occur and and the order they're traditionally in is changed. Very little time is spent on the disciples which I found to be a shame, since they're fairly big parts of Jesus' story. The book is fairly unflattering to them, showing them as very focused on their status and on who Essaj favors more. This is honestly kinda accurate to how they were before the Death and Resurrection so I shouldn't nitpick too much here.

The book was an excellent change of pace for me, while there was plenty of action and daring deeds, there was also space for debate on religious beliefs and discussion on just where the space between doing your duty and being a hide bound fanatic lie. That said, the book is also rather thin to my taste given the subject matter being a mere 230 pages, still Mr. Rogers’s sense of plotting and pacing allow him to cover a lot of ground in a few pages, something that modern writers could use a little bit more of, even if I think the book could have used another 20 or 30 pages. Still this is the first book in a series, so I suppose I can't fault it too much for leaving room for the next book. I am going to penalize it for not completing the stories told in this book, however. While entertaining and interesting to read, none of the plot lines are brought to completion so I can't say I read a complete story here. Still despite that, I am giving The Expected One by Mark E Rogers an A-.

Next time, we take a peek at one of the longest running science fiction comics out there when I review Valerian. Keep reading!   

This review edited by Cameron Johnson

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