By Staff Writer
This powerful second novel from acclaimed Australian writer Rhys Hagan is an engaging and thought-provoking piece of historical fiction, set in Judea in the time of Jesus Christ.
The author, whose debut novel Hunting Taylor Brown received rave reviews on its release in 2016, has spoken publicly about his own experiences with a religious cult, and this carefully-plotted book takes a long hard look at the theme of corruption in organised religion.
It’s far from a dull trawl through religious history - Hagan, who clearly knows a good deal about some religious leaders’ ability to deceive and mislead their followers, immerses the reader in a world where these Biblical figures trade jokes and insults like modern day ‘banter’, and characters discuss Christianity from a marketing perspective: “Right. So, I think we should start considering how we’ll get in touch with the rest of the population. Make the movement exclusive—elite...as Egypt has its Egyptians, Christ should have his Christians.” Entering into a contract with the ruthless Pilate, Amphion sets out to exploit the religious ‘naivety’ of the locals. With ruthless cunning, he cons them into believing that the messiah is among them - and that he wants them to part with their cash. Wise to the numbers of people that gather to hear the words of Jesus of Nazareth, Amphion blackmails Jesus into declaring himself the Son of God, and convinces followers to donate to the ‘church’.
Against a backdrop of political and religious unrest and violence - rape, murder and torture are among the cruelties dealt out by some of the book’s more nefarious characters - Amphion enlists the help of his brother Marcus and good friend Dismas to stage ‘miracles’ for Jesus to publicly perform, and establish a new religious group, the ‘Christians’.
In a volatile political climate, these religious rumblings are noticed by Israel and Rome’s foremost scholars, leaders, and even underground assassins. Success comes at a huge personal price - as he counts his riches Amphion’s family are found complicit in conspiring against the Jewish religion and are consequently found guilty of inciting unrest in Judea. With his family and friends dead or estranged, and his enemies bearing over him, Amphion finds himself looking to Christ for words of wisdom, but the ‘Son of God’ is also set to meet the ultimate punishment.
Humanity’s capacity for self-deception is a key theme of the book, and as an author and religious cult survivor, Hagan raises some pertinent issues, highlighting the need to look out for ‘red flags’ in religious leaders looking to exploit vulnerable members of society for their own ends. While there’s no doubt that the central theme is a controversial one, this is not a book that sets out to be offensive or to poke fun at Christianity. Rather, it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking work of historical fiction that raises some important talking points.