Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Spider and the Laurel review

    The Spider and the Laurel has some pretty hefty hurdles to overcome in its premise: it is a religiously-themed series about a militant anti-religious government having taken over the United States and yet has its hero be an atheist. The idea of such a government coming to pass in the not-so-distant-future is, itself, only slightly more plausible than North Korea taking over the USA in the Red Dawn remake.

    The United States is one of the most religious nations on Earth and certainly the most among Westernized ones. Such premises tend to be purely the province of alarmist fundamentalist fiction such as the Left Behind series. Yet, that's not what this book is about. As mentioned, The Spider and the Laurel has an atheist protagonist. This isn't just so he can have a "Paul on the Road to Damascus" moment so he can convert to Christianity. This isn't a Chick Track. No, instead, it is about an examination of faith and symbolism from an outsider's perspective.

    I don't know Michael Pogach's religious beliefs but the books reminds me of the often-deep analysis of faith done by George R.R. Martin and John Michael Straczynski despite their own lack of belief. The Spider and the Laurel is more half-DaVinchi Code, half-Equilibrium than anything by those two but it had some surprisingly deep ideas. Another work it reminded me of was Dragon Age: Inquisition and its dealing with how messiah myths comes to pass.

    The premise is Rafael Ward, Medieval history teacher, has been conscripted by the totalitarian government of the United States to help them authentic relics for destruction. Because this is a book rather than reality, Rafael is required to work in the field as a spy rather than having the relics brought to him. I never questioned this during my read of the book, though, because the author successfully captures the nervousness as well as paranoia Rafael feels when he's dispatched into missions by his superiors.

    One of the more interesting practices separating Catholicism from Protestant Christianity is the veneration of relics or items, particularly body parts, which relate to saints. We're all familiar with the Holy Grail and Spear of Destiny but there was an entire cottage industry related to bones as well as other items during the Middle Ages. Michael is both very good at his job and hates himself for it since, even if he doesn't believe in God, he finds the destruction of history despicable. After recovering what is most certainly not the Spear of Destiny but a convincing fake, he is sent on a mission to recover a much-more dangerous item. This, of course, puts him in contact with a beautiful Believer as well as a conspiracy which makes him question his commitment to the government even more than he already is.

    There's a lot to swallow in the book's premise but once I got past the initial premise, I really started to like it. As mentioned, there's a lot of really good questions about the role of faith as well as inspirational effects (good and bad) relating to how society's function. There's also a good examination of how oppressive governments must either suppress religion or co-opt it in order to guarantee their power. I actually was quite invested in the story by the end and rather disappointed it took a turn for the supernatural, even if that ended up confusing the issue of in-setting religious truth rather than confirming it either way.

    In conclusion, I recommend this book. I liked the characters, I thought the action was well-done despite the hero not being a action-y type, and the questions it raised were deep ones. I think I might have believed the premise a bit more had it been set in another country or with a longer alternate history, though.


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