Wednesday 14 September 2016

#bookreview: Giant Slayers by Jeff Altabef

Giant SlayersGiant Slayers by Jeff Altabef
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

To be fair, as fiction, Giant Slayers isn't half bad. It's got all the ingredients of a really exciting story. There's young David, a shepherd boy who's fallen in love with a Princess. There's King Saul, afflicted by demons that he doesn't dare tell anyone about for the sake of keeping his kingdom. And there's Michal, headstrong young princess, who's not content with just accepting the status quo. On the enemy's side, the Witch of Endor is calling on dark powers to assist her in getting revenge against the hated Israelite King. And there's Goliath - strong and beautiful - who is challenging the armies of God.

... I actually did like the characterisations of the Witch (I'm too lazy to look up how to spell her name now) and Goliath, and how the tension is built between the dark power of Molech and the power of God. It's a pretty good story-telling technique, fleshing out the "evil" characters which usually get passing mention. (Well, the Witch is an invention, so obviously she doesn't get ANY mention.)

[NOTE THE REST OF THIS REVIEW IS A THEOLOGICAL/RELIGIOUS RANT, SO IF YOU'RE NOT A CHRISTIAN/NOT INTERESTED IN THEOLOGY, YOU CAN STOP READING HERE. If, however, you are interested in accuracy and canon whilst retelling religious-based stories, do read on.]

Where it fails is as a Biblical retelling. Making God's power overly magical and mystical? Meh, not a favourite of mine but it's been done, not a big issue. Adding in a forbidden romance? Sure, why not? It's canon anyway. I don't know if it started then (it's mentioned only much later), but it could have. Random access to the Ark of the Covenant at King Saul's palace AND King Saul being able to plate it with "tainted gold"? What? Did you not do research? Saul would already be dead. You're not supposed to touch that thing! Painting Samuel the Prophet as an outcast/rebel? Um, well, I suppose it's within the bounds of plausibility; Samuel did not ever see Saul again after rejecting Saul as king, apparently. But recasting David's motivation for facing Goliath as being just to win Michal's hand is pure character assassination. And then forcing him to choose between saving the kingdom or being with the girl of his dreams in some magical time-stopping event?? Eh. No. Just no.

And that's my main gripe.
Biblically, God has rejected Saul as King because he's disobedient to God. There's that whole bit in 1 Samuel 15:22-23 where prophet Samuel scolds Saul:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has rejected you as king.”

David was anointed to replace Saul, because "the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). He's described in 1 Samuel 16:18 as "...a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him." Which basically means that David is a fervent believer. He's not one of those I'm-just-doing-this-culturally Israelites. If you want to put it in modern terms, he's a practicing Jew. Or, if contextualised, a born-again, church-going, tongue-speaking Christian. He's chosen and anointed because he knows who his God is.

In this story, David has no concept of who God is from the very start. He fights the lion and the bear to save his sister and is "magically" saved by some bizarre white flash of light whose source is unknown. If he were to build that "coming to know God" into the story as it unfolds, fine. Shaky, but fine. Instead, David is crazily impressed WITH HIS OWN SELF AND HIS OWN LUTE PLAYING which summons "birds of light" to fight the "dark snakes" plaguing King Saul. AGAIN, with no concept of God, except something along the vague lines of... "maybe it's God? But I don't know. There's some strange power thing that happens when I play" and "I'm special. Some higher power is saving me for something. Oh wait, yes, that random tatty seer who looks like Samuel says I'm going to be king."

Oh, but randomly, before the battle, he is able to spout stuff about fighting for God and God saving them, even though when he goes to Saul to insist he should fight Goliath, the only thing that's on his mind is "I must do this so I can marry Michal." God wasn't even a consideration. Which is so totally off course, because David's true reaction is one that's more towards righteous anger: "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?"
And making him steal a horse?? And lie through his teeth?

I usually don't mind minor variations or little tweaks for the story's sake, because that makes a retelling all that more interesting. (There were quite a few of those which I haven't mentioned because eh, who cares.) Humanising Biblical characters with a little bit of doubt and wavering and adding romance is fine. There's room enough in the stories for you to add those, especially when it hasn't been said/inferred/spelled out in any way because you don't know ANY of their thoughts anyway. All you know are their actions and words as written. But changing a fundamental principle of the story? Total character assassination of the main character himself? No. Just no.

Other annoying bit - not so very much theological - is the fact that David, as a shepherd boy, has no fighting skills whatsoever. He literally can't use a sling or a staff to defend himself... which doesn't make sense because he has to protect his flock. This story makes it seem like the one lion and one bear that attacked him was a fluke, and it has never happened before. Yet he boasts of never having lost a sheep. Uh, right. Besides wild animals, there are raiders and bandits and such. I'm sure that even as a shepherd boy he should already have developed some defensive skills, even if he's not depicted as a soldier with sword and armour. (Also note "warrior" description above.)

Ah. I should stop here. To summarise, eh, needs more research.

Note: I received a free digital ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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