Review: Into the Unbounded Night

Into the Unbounded Night, Mitchell James Kaplan. Raleigh, NC: Regal House Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Historical fiction set in the mid-first century AD in the Roman Empire, spanning conquests from Albion (Britannia), Carthage, and Jerusalem, and the center of power in Rome.

Imagine a narrative that connects the characters of Vespasian, Roman general and future emperor, Saul of Tarsus, and Yohanan ben Zakkai, the rabbi who escaped rebellious Jerusalem and established a center that preserved Judaism after the fall of the temple and Jerusalem. Throw in cameos by Stephen the Martyr, Lucanus (Luke the physician), Caiaphas the high priest, and Josephus. Imagine a narrative that knits together the conquest of Britannia, the fires of Rome, Paul in prison, and the rebellion leading to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

This is that narrative.

What ties this together is a young woman of Albion, Aislin, mentored by the warrioress Muirgheal. When the Romans under Vespasian come, Aislin alone survives, raped and then discarded by Vespasian. Aislin vows revenge. With a soldier who chooses anonymous exile to death, she flees Britannia (Rome’s name for Albion) ending up in Rome. While in Rome, she survives on the streets, bears a mentally deficient but lovable son, and ends up in prison with the Apostle Paul for burning Rome. As the flames spread, she and Paul escape, she agrees to carry a special coin to the Christians in Jerusalem as Paul’s emissary, and meets up with Yohanan ben Zakkai, also traveling there. There she remains as Yohanan forms a rabbinic community while failing to temper the brewing rebellion that brings down the wrath of Rome

Somehow, Aislin survives it all.

The narrative offers a glimpse of how Roman, Jewish, and early Christian history interweave. And somehow, it works as the narrative moves back and forth between Aislin, Yohanan, Vespasian, and Paulus (as he is called in the narrative). The strangest part perhaps is the “Messenger” Azazel, rescuer of scapegoats and lost children. We gain a sense of the rival religions of the empire and the rival hopes and visions of the diverse peoples. We glimpse all these through Aislin as well, who never quite embraces anything besides the remnants of her own spirituality, yet is enriched and moves beyond revenge to love a strange child and a mystical rabbi. We also see the brutal exercise of Roman power in colonial conquest and political decadence. The account is bracketed by encounters between Aislin and Vespasian, who discovers that he can only conquer land, but not the human spirit.

I wasn’t sure this would all work, but strong and complex characters (even Vespasian), a first century world the author brings vividly alive and a plot that spans an empire all come together to spin a fascinating tale. Sometimes we find ourselves puzzling at cultures so different from our own. At others we forget that two millenia separate us from these all-too-human people.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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