Admirers of "By Fire, By Water," Mitchell James Kaplan's accomplished 2010 work of historical fiction, will find his second novel no less captivating. "Into the Unbounded Night" is set in first-century Rome, where, despite the tyrannical regime, Judeans fight, sometimes against each other, for freedom and on behalf of various strains of monotheism, even as early Christianity is unfolding. That's an ambitious and complex story to tell, but Kaplan has studied deep into history and relays it via six characters whose narratives eventually intertwine.
Aislin is a young woman from what is now Britain who has been brutalized by Roman soldiers and makes her way to Rome to seek revenge, accompanied by Septimus, a Roman army deserter who has befriended her. Vespasian is the Roman general who sacked her home and later rises to more power in his home city, and who will eventually attack Jerusalem, destroying its Second Temple. Paulus is an elderly early Christian whom Aislin encounters in prison (later to be known as the Christian apostle Paul), and Yohanan, whom she meets and marries later, is an early Jewish teacher who opposes Zealot violence and strives to shape a wise, compassionate monotheistic tradition.
Aislin's disabled son Faolan is also a key character, a child mocked by most of the world who becomes an almost mystical symbol of life and hope. And always, "Companions" and "Messengers" from several religious traditions whisper in the dark in a story that is continually exploring the nature of true holiness and redemption. "The sun may turn black but even in that muck, if you keep your eyes open, you will discern a glimmer," a seer in Aislin's native Albion tells her people. This is heavy stuff, but Kaplan is a gifted storyteller and approaches his story with reverence and nuance. The pursuit of meaning and hope in a dark time is an age-old theme, and yet ever fresh. "Into the Unbounded Night" is a perfect book to top our reading piles in the coming COVID winter.