I was recently introduced to the novels of Tracy Higley by a comment on one of my recent posts. The library didn’t have the book he mentioned, perhaps because The Incense Road was just published last year (it is a collection of novellas, individually available only on Kindle as far as I can tell).
But one of the libraries in the system did have Palace of Darkness: A Novel of Petra, and I just finished reading it yesterday. As historical fiction it is an absorbing read. It begins in Rome for Julian, in Damascus for Cassia, and as a result of the death of someone important in each of their lives, they both flee to Petra, where of course they meet.
It is a time of rising persecution for Christians, though until now they have lived at peace in Petra. They are hated by Queen Hagiru, who welcomes control by her chosen god Dushara, and hates the Christians who represent a threat to her power (because they have the only other power strong enough to challenge her).
Queen Hagiru is so evil that for most of the novel, she seems almost closer to a caricature than a real person. Towards the end, there are hints of her own troubled past, deep hurts that drove her to desire power at all costs. But there is little room for sympathy for her at that point, or hope that she will actually turn away from evil and accept redemption. It doesn’t seem like it would fit the way the story arc is developing, anyway. And she doesn’t.
Spiritual power is a prominent theme in the novel. Gods speak clearly to their worshipers, at least sometimes, and visions reveal the spiritual realities that remain unseen by most people. For the Christians, the spiritual lessons are largely about trusting God rather than trying to control people or circumstances.
There also seems to be a recurring motif of people trying to find love and approval from other people. (The book also provides the first chapter of The Queen’s Handmaid, and this motif appears there also.) Trusting in God is framed in terms of finding the love one is looking for in Him rather than primarily from other people.
I have mixed feelings about the way this is presented. Yes, I’m sure for many people that is an issue, not least for myself. But is it that way for most people? And does this make it seem as though the reason to seek God is to satisfy those unsatisfied feelings? Will a relationship started that way continue to have one feeling satisfied by God’s love, or will feelings change over time and threaten the basis of that relationship?
I can’t help comparing this book with the one I just read by Adrian Plass. In Plass’ book there is far less drama (though it is hardly lacking there either), and God speaks much more subtly, usually through other people (and sometimes, it seems, in spite of themselves). Yet I can relate far better to Plass’ characters.
Is it because they are modern people, with similar kinds of lives and issues to my own? Or because their spiritual battles happen much more quietly, and Christians’ problems are as often with other Christians as with non-Christians?
They are both good books, in their own way. But while I was entertained by Higley’s book, I found more spiritual encouragement in Plass’ Sacred Diary.