on 8 August 2010
If one were to take the story of the crucifixion and combine it with vampires, you would most likely get one of the most clichéd stories imaginable. I've read quite a few tales regarding this very setup - all in short story format, mind you - and they all were variations on a few different plots. Either Jesus himself is a vampire, hence his rising from the dead, or he becomes Jesus Christ Action Star, staking those pesky vamps left and right. These are unimaginative stories. They either don't do anything new with the characters or they pervert them to where they're no longer viable. And also, there tends to be a trend towards using these stories as a promotion or criticism of Christianity. Never have I seen a story that took the setting of Christ's last days and used them as a framework. In other words, taking the setting and telling a story around that setting to create a complete, comprehensive, and entertaining work.
Never, that is, until I read 33 A.D. This was a book that I loved so much that I can come to only one conclusion about its author:
I have seen the new face of horror, and it resides beneath the glossy, waxed dome of David McAfee.
Mr. McAfee has done the (virtually) impossible. He's taken an iconic figure and backdrop, stayed true to their roots in legend, and layered a very human tale that deals with the supernatural over it. This book is bloody, brutal, depressing, and also moral...however, that morality doesn't overwhelm the reader, as ethical writing is wont to do. Instead it makes us think, both about what we feel about our own past misdeeds and the power each of us holds within us to forgive ourselves.
The two most important characters in 33 A.D. are Theron, a vampire assassin who's lived for more than nine-hundred years, and Taras, a golden-haired Roman Legionary (think a primitive version of the Secret Service) whose greatest desire is to skip out of Jerusalem with Mary, his forbidden Jewish lover, and start a family. Although there are many other characters (including Marcus, the Centurion, whose nobility and strength are measured against his weak willpower, making him a fantastic creation), this is ostensibly their story.
Theron, after killing a renegade vampire at the beginning of the novel, is saddled with the task of executing Jesus, as the Nazarene and his ability to heighten the faith of those around him is dangerous to the Bachiyr (Vampiric) Council of 13. This proves to be an arduous undertaking becaue Theron, as a vampire, cannot get close enough to a man with such strong beliefs. Because of this, he goes about framing the supposed prophet, for all intents and purposes setting in motion the events that lead to Jesus' demise.
Taras, on the other hand, is a loyal and capable soldier. He is strong, both in beliefs and in physicality. He, as well as every other Roman, is turned against the Nazarene due to Theron's actions.
And this is where the meat of the novel lies. Theron and Taras are different characters, and yet they are virtual mirror images of each other. One could imagine that Theron, when he was still human oh so long ago, might have been virtually identical to the Roman he now calls adversary. It's a brilliant piece of writing, and I think the similarity of their names is meant for the reader to realize that, when you cut down to the core, they aren't as different as they think they are. In this way, the entire book is about the choices and the aforementioned need to forgive oneself. Theron cannot. He's been around too long, deviated too much, to will a change, even though he can. No matter how much strength he possesses, he will always be weak. Likewise Taras, towards the end, when confronted with a decision that will define the rest of his life, is similarly frail. This speaks to the humanity in both of them. Even Theron, though immortal, is inexorably human, and it is that human frailty that leads to his ultimate descent into madness. And when Jesus "rises" from the grave, that event is mirrored by the rebirths, in different ways, of the two main characters. In other words, you can draw a parallel between all three, the monster, the hero, and the prophet, and come out on the other side thinking they're all quite analogous. In writing it this way, the author is telling us that at our core we're all the same, all fallible, and it's up to us - and ONLY us - to change.
The subject of religion, when used in fiction, is a slippery slope to climb. It can come off as preachy or ostentatious, and while a core Christian might find that intriguing, my guess is that the majority of readers in no way want to be sermonized to. This is yet another way that McAfee did an unbelievable job. He succeeded in taking the base values of the sermons of Jesus - his theories of love, forgiveness, and togetherness - and took away the devout fanaticism that can curtail lesser works. In this novel Jesus is a loveable, though ethereally strong, hippie. The scenes in which he is involved are tastefully done, subtle, and sublime. He is not a man of action, but one of introspection, tenderness, and amnesty. He never gives up hope for those he runs across, and in the reflection of that faith in others lays the refraction of his words. It causes those not ready to hear them to back away.
I'm sure some, especially those who aren't Christian, may look upon this book and think it distasteful. It is not. I, myself, am strictly anti-religious. Whereas I do have faith, I understand the dangers of dogmatic belief and have no desire to pursue it. However, and this is important, McAfee does NOT preach. He uses the beliefs of New Testament Christianity as a tool, not a be-all-end-all, because I think most would admit that the idea of love, community, and mercy are something to strive for. In other words, much like in AA, he takes what works and leaves the rest. You will find no heavy-handedness here.
Okay, one last thing. Because I'm anal and certain facts never escape my attention, I have to mention the only problem I had with this book. In one scene, a character is described as "short, only five-and-a-half feet tall." The problem is, the average height of a Roman at that time was barely five feet even. Not a huge gaffe, but one that I noticed, and I wouldn't be pretentious old me if I didn't point it out.
That being said, it's a tiny little issue that doesn't take away the fact that this is a fantastic and beautifully written novel. There is death and rebirth, betrayal and loyalty, hope and despair, and ultimately sorrow. We see where the characters end up, and we feel sorry for them. It's well worth the read, and I have to admit that I did cry more than once while sitting on the beach reading it. For me, it is the best vampire novel to come out since "The Vampire Lestat" hit the shelves a quarter century ago. And I LOVED that book.
You get a heartfelt recommendation from me, people. Go get it. Make David McAfee a success. We should all want to read more of what he has to offer.