Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Book Review: Centurion
I have conflicting thoughts on Ryan Casey Waller's novel, Centurion. On the one hand, it is a dystopian novel set in the American South at the turn of the next century--2099. On the other hand, it is a retelling of the gospel of Mark. The novel is an attempt to blend the dystopian-futuristic genre with biblical fiction. This blending gets messy in places. I won't deny that there are scenes in this novel that do work or function. But I can't pretend that the mess doesn't exist either.
The protagonist of Centurion is Deacon Larsen. His parents sent him to the West to escape some of the hardships of the South. The South is definitely more under the dominion of the Kingdom--led by King Charles. There are not opportunities for success or happiness…not like in other parts of the country. Deacon returns home with a specific mission in mind: do as much damage to the Kingdom as possible, die for the cause, but get revenge and use all the anger you've been building up. What he didn't expect was to fall in love with a woman named Maria who follows the Teacher. The more time he spends with Maria and her Teacher, the more confused he becomes. There are small moments here and there where he "sees the light" and decides that maybe just maybe he shouldn't live for anger and be willing to die for revenge. But the moments where he "gets it" are very outweighed by those other moments. Let's just say that Maria isn't his only influence. Jude has plans for Deacon, and, he did meet him first.
The world-building was messy. For a dystopian novel to truly work, it has to make some sense and be somewhat believable. Here is the background we're given: The era of Great Uncertainty finally had come to an end when the English squashed the Chinese uprising and seized governmental power in this country once and for all. It had been a full decade since any single authority had ruled the vast land that was once the USA. The incredibly evil kingdom is British. It is ruled by a King Charles. King Charles has centurion soldiers. He rules over--cruelly and unjustly--at least part of the former states. I don't think his dominion is over the western states. But it isn't just this new kingdom that requires readers to suspend their disbelief. (Why would the British hang people on crosses?!) There are the religious details too. The religious side is in a way extremely, annoyingly vague. He is "the Teacher." The religion doesn't have a name, no origin is given. No background or context is given. Readers are told that the Kingdom essentially pays little to no attention to religious people because they don't see the religion as being threatening. There are supposedly--again no real background or context being given--religious leaders and/or institutions in place that may govern over religious followers. There is a Holy City. (Which Southern city of the U.S. is supposed to be THE Holy City???) There is a religious festival involving animal sacrifice at a Holy Temple. (It is never identified as Passover, of course, because that would prevent this religion from being vague and nameless.)
This novel works best when it is focused on the Teacher. When readers see the Teacher teaching or preaching or performing miracles. These scenes are largely lifted from Scripture. Readers are part of the crowd, they are seeing and hearing for themselves.
The novel is also mostly successful in illustrating why the crowds--the masses--wanted deliverance from oppression and an actual revolution or uprising. They wanted freedom from the kingdom that oppressed them--literal freedom. Not freedom from sin or thoughts or attitudes.
The two genres being combined are so very different that the blending process is uneven at best. A dystopian retelling of the gospel could work if the focus was clearer and some of the details worked out better. Is the foundation of the dystopian a big what-if, what if Jesus did not come when he did--during the first century, Roman Empire? What would the world have been like if it was still waiting for a Savior or Messiah to come? What would the world have been like if Jesus had never come? What would countries and governments have been like? How would people be treated? More rights? Less rights? More problems? Less problems? About the same? What about cultures? What about developments and progress? Would people have still clung to the God of the Old Testament? Would people still believe in God as revealed in Holy Scripture? Would animal sacrifices still be occurring as part of that religion in 2099? How would the history of the world been changed? Would anything be the same? How dramatically different would the world be? A dystopian retelling of the gospel demands a lot of thought and world-building. It would not be easy to make it convincing and believable. Biblical fiction--keeping the setting the same as the Bible--would have been an easier task perhaps. And one could have still kept it relevant and personal and from the same perspective. The protagonist still could have been an angry, bitter young man who wanted to be part of an uprising or rebellion. He could have wanted WAR and blood to be spilled and not have to have a gun and travel by taxi. It's not in the making it contemporary or futuristic that makes it relevant to modern readers. One could just as easily sell the reader on the idea of ROMAN oppression.
© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible