What became of the centurion who, at the crucifixion of Christ said, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39)? Such is the question at the heart of A.E. Smith’s Journey of the Pearl.
Journey, the first of three books, follows the life of Centurion Longinus, the man assigned to oversee the execution of Jesus. The story opens on that fateful day, with Smith doing an incredible job of relying the chaos, the various emotions and situations happening as three men lost their lives. She gives depth to the thief who believed and the other soldiers bartering for the men’s clothes. For Longinus, the moment changes the trajectory of his life.
Overlapping Longinus story is the narrative of Acts. Longinus interacts with key figures of the church as he becomes a committed believer and learns to forgive himself for murdering an innocent man. But things take a dramatic turn as Longinus is held responsible for Peter’s escape from prison (see Acts 12)!
Quest of the Sapphire (the second book in the trilogy) follows Longinus as he searchers for his son who ran away to “prove himself” by freeing a distant “relative” from slavery through the daftest plan imaginable. Longinus again interacts with Paul and others from the book of Acts, with the family ending up in Pompeii as the earthquakes intensify and the volcano starts to rumble.
Both books are incredibly well researched. The reader is immersed into the life of first century Rome. The small details help fill in the gaps and add to the context of the New Testament Church.
The issues for these books lie in the fact they are almost all dialogue. Smith sprinkles in transition paragraphs and then launches into pages of dialogue that remind me of a 90’s after school special. The characters are paper thin, wearing everything on their sleeves, living for the shallowest of motives. People relay their entire family history to a complete stranger to justify their revenge. The Longinus’ family are threatened by a myriad of villains with hollow motives, which leads to the family getting caught in truly trite situations that are entirely avoidable if people were not so shallow and offendable.
Smith relies on dialogue to tell everything. She does not imply someone wants revenge, or build tension through breadcrumbs, but simply states every intention through soup opera-like dialogue or cheesy statements like: Simon was not yet done with his quest for revenge! This translates into huge chunks of dialogue that kill the momentum.
The second pitfall is that nothing bad happens. If you are part of the Longinus family you can come to no evil. Because they are “good people” they will be spared any lasting pain, and any challenges they do face are neatly wrapped up in a bow as being “part of God’s plan.” In the end, even the nastiest of villains comes to faith in tedious scenes that bog the books down at the height of its action (thereby killing the momentum).
Real life is not ideal. Things don’t get wrapped up in neat bow. Bad things happen to good people with no rational explanation as to why. If Smith had allowed even one tragedy to truly befall Longinus it would have helped. But like any fairy tale, in the end it all works out for the good guys and the villains come to a realization their actions were ludicrous and repent.
I love the premise of the books, which is why I asked to read them. The incredible amount of research and ability to recreate first century Rome is quickly lost to pages of laborious dialogue and characters that lack any true depth.
I know the time it takes to write a book. I know the challenges of getting intention across, building tension, revealing backstory, etc. I also know it is worth the labor to do it right. I know the power of making characters real and letting bad things happen and not tying it all up in a neat bow for the protagonist and his loved ones.
Smith has an incredible idea. With the right copyeditor this could be a series any Christian publisher would be happy to take on. I might read the third book when it comes out to see what Smith does. Overall the strengths are lost to the tedium of the dialogue and melodramatic actions and outcomes.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.
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