Davis Bunn writes a historically informed work of fiction concerning the Helena, mother of Constantine. At times, the book seems hagiographic, but Bunn makes clear that Helena never thought of herself that way. In fact, nearly all of the characters are floundering in doubt and brokenness, with only the details ranging.
The book is built on the philosophy that God uses people to encourage faith; such an undercurrent is carried by the main theme of calling individuals to faithful obedience while supplying their needs; and subthemes include community and healing/restoration. The plot flow is one of journey/pilgrimage set in Roman-ruled Judea C.E.(but I will not give a plot synopsis here). Bunn is clearly writing to Christians for Christians, and I think it is this reality which allows this book to succeed in its purpose: Bunn is writing to people who already convinced of the story at a macro-level, and so seeing it in the micro encourages the readers. There is little challenge of thought or ideas. The good guys are clearly good, and the bad are clearly bad. The reader already knows what is going to happen even if they are unfamiliar with the history. The characters are essentially two-dimensional, except for a few who are one: e.g. the primary antagonist, Severus. But it is to the historically-interested Christian subculture that Bunn writes, and so this is relatively unproblematic.
From a historical standpoint, it seems a bit too contemporary in certain plot elements (i.e. “someone at that time wouldn’t have said/done that!”), and some of the Christian elements seem anachronistic (e.g. there are phrases or behaviors that seem like American Evangelical rather than 4th century Christianity). And yet it is historically informed. Geographically and socio-politically it rings true. Oftentimes the dialogue flows in the very way 4thC Latin would have… it ‘sounds’ ancient—just enough for you to remember this is historical, but not so much that you think the author is being dramatic.
From a literary standpoint I find that there is much that could have been improved upon. Again the characters are too flat, so a few layers would have been helpful—take creative liberties!—we already know it’s historical fiction, so make the history come alive… and include a few notes on the relationship between the history and the narrative. The chapters and scenes seemed a bit disjointed (like fast-forwarding), and the dialogue seemed a bit forced. The ‘great mysteries’(in character & plot) were overplayed, and un-affective (i.e. we didn’t feel the suspense or shame). A few characters were introduced and described as if they would be significant players, only to disappear for chapters at a time. If I were to summarize my literary critiques I might say: I didn’t feel the need to invest in the story.
And yet… I have given it 3/5 stars. Why so? Well, really I give it 5/10, but rounding down to 2/5 seems unnecessary… and of course, I have to keep in mind the target audience and the reason for which it was written. It appears to have been written to offer an introduction to St. Helena, mother of Constantine, and to be an encouragement to believers enduring doubt or shame. And with just such purposes it succeeds. I wouldn’t actively recommend this book to very many people, but the type of person I would recommend it to is clear: for Christians who are broken, recovering from guilt or doubt, or for Christians who want an introduction to Helena.
I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from the Publisher in exchange for my honest review.
This review is crosslisted on Amazon and Goodreads.