Sunday, January 5, 2014

Book Review: The Anvil of God by J. Boyce Gleason

 It is 741. After subduing the pagan religions in the east, halting the march of Islam in the west, and conquering the continent for the Merovingian kings, mayor of the palace Charles the Hammer has one final ambition-the throne. Only one thing stands in his way-he is dying.

Charles cobbles together a plan to divide the kingdom among his three sons, betroth his daughter to a Lombard prince to secure his southern border, and keep the Church unified behind them through his friend Bishop Boniface. Despite his best efforts, the only thing to reign after Charles's death is chaos. His daughter has no intention of marrying anyone, let alone a Lombard prince. His two eldest sons question the rights of their younger pagan stepbrother, and the Church demands a steep price for their support. Son battles son, Christianity battles paganism, and Charles's daughter flees his court for an enemy's love.

Based on a true story, Anvil of God is a whirlwind of love, honor, sacrifice, and betrayal that follows a bereaved family's relentless quest for power and destiny.

*          *          *

Literary expectations can be tricky.  I thought I would like this one—I really did. Being that it is the first book in a series, I even hoped to continue on to the anticipated sequel.  The above teaser promised quite an exciting journey, with Christianity (which is my own faith) striving against paganism. There would be a bit of romance and a plot that would keep my attention for over 400 pages. Then there was the added bonus of the tale being based on a true story. This is no fairy tale-- there is much historical truth to it.

In many respects, author J. Boyce Gleason delivers in all of these areas.  There is plenty of action, political jousting and some romantic story lines. Christians do indeed battle against the pagans on many fronts.  It is no surprise to know that Gleason earned an A.B. in history from the esteemed Dartmouth College.  His knowledge of this time period, down to the minutest detail is quite impressive.  The prose is well written, easily transporting the reader to the 800th century. At times I could almost smell the scented air in each scene, whether the bouquet was the incense from religious ritual or the stench from the foul effects of battle. 

Surprisingly, these elements did not come together to create an enjoyable novel for me.  I read every page, every word, always hoping for a “turn” that might come, when I would find myself enjoying the tale.  The storyline of Charles’ betrothed daughter Trudi came very close to this, as I found her journey and love story to be interesting at times.  However more often than not, I was repulsed by the events in her life, whether it was her participation in religious ceremonies or her great ability to defend herself in battle.  Her skills were lethal, and she used them well. I admired her spirit, but too much of her life was too gritty for my taste.

Much of the novel centered around the political wrangling that occurred after Charles the Hammer’s death.  Even with a character family tree and chart, I had a difficult time keeping up with each role in the plot.  Large amounts of time were spent either discussing how battle would be done, or describing in graphic detail the challenges of war. Some of the Christians’ beliefs and behaviors were given the spotlight, but paganism was focused on quite a bit.  Most of the Christians were not those I would admire. Indeed, they predominantly seemed to be power-hungry or warped in some way.  Pagans were not necessarily deemed to be superior to the Christians in their quest for land and political strength, but the favorable emphasis seemed to be with them.

I understand that most of what Gleason was writing about is based on truth.  His meticulous study of the period is quite clear, as evidenced by his notes and character descriptions at the conclusion of the book.  War is a dirty, horrific business with carnage and violence everywhere. My hope as I began the book was that there would be less detail than was given for these brutal scenes. In addition, this Christian found the Pagans’ rituals perplexing and filled with sexual elements that while realistic, were still disturbing.  Truly, this is not your standard history book by any means, and would not be appropriate for younger readers, the few who might take interest in such an adult genre.

As a second title is planned, not all of the novel’s storylines are tied up neatly at the conclusion.  The last pages seemed more like the end of a chapter than a whole volume. I was glad to see that certain characters triumphed in some of their struggles, but the final words were merely preparation for the books to come.  As I’ve looked around at other reviews of Anvil of God, I notice many positive opinions and affirming critiques.  These assessments are not necessarily off-base, they are simply written by those who make a good audience for this material.  As Gleason’s work is well written and thoroughly researched, I can understand the glowing reviews.  However in my case, we weren’t such a good match.

About the Author

With an AB in history from Dartmouth College, J. Boyce Gleason brings a strong understanding of what events shaped history. He says he writes historical-fiction to discover why. Gleason lives in Virginia with his wife Mary Margaret. They have three sons.

Connect with J. Boyce Gleason

(Belated Posting. Thanks to HFVBT for the reviewing opportunity.)


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