OK, I write Biblical historical fiction. And in fact, Terri Fivash and I have the same publisher. But Terri Fivash makes me feel like an absolute amateur in our common field. Dahveed is my favourite of her three books so far.
Fivash does the kind of hard-core historical research that makes you feel like she has a time machine and has gone back and lived in Israel, circa 1000 BCE. She’s taken classes in Blbical Hebrew, for crying out loud – and it shows. But not in the bad way, the “Look at my research!” way. She’s created a great story with believable characters in a fully realized world that seems real because of the groundwork she’s done.
King David is a complex character even in the Bible itself, never mind all the various interpretations that have been attached to him over the centuries. Fivash manages to make the young David likable, flawed, but a strong enough character to carry the weight of destiny that’s being placed on his shoulders.
Even more compelling, perhaps, are the characters of King Shaul and his son Jonathan. The Biblical stories in which they feature are fleshed out into a well-rounded portrait of life in a royal family that’s barely royal and well aware of their precarious status – more like war chieftains trying to figure out what kingship might mean.
Fivash’s portrait of Israel at this time in its history is far more realistic, historically, than many of the Bible-story images we have. It was by no means a united and cohesive nation; the tribes and their “heathen” neighbours lived side by side in a complicated world where alliances – to other people, as well as to gods – were constantly shifting, and honour was the most important value.
Fivash also shows a refreshingly realistic attitude towards her Biblical source material – never departing from it in any shocking or iconoclastic ways, but recognizing that the Bible is a human document as well as God’s word. She chooses, for example, to rely on an early manuscript of 1 Samuel that gives Goliath’s height as being closer to seven feet rather than the traditional nine, on the grounds that seven feet is much more believable and later scribes probably exaggerated his height to make David’s accomplishment more impressive. Her meticulous research, exhaustive knowledge of her subject matter, and excellent characterization make this a novel not to be missed. It’s the first of a planned series on David, and I’m looking forward eagerly to the rest.