This is going to be a long review, at least in part because I’m sorting out exactly what rubbed me the wrong way about Haunt of Jackals, as I write, and when I go stream-of-consciousness that way, I ramble.
I haven’t read the first volume of this series, so I’m coming in once again at a handicap which may have affected my perception. Book 2 of a trilogy is always problematical–its a transitional story that is very rarely able to stand alone because it relies on the backstory established in Book 1 but can’t reach the (hopefully) satisfying resolution to come in Book 3.
Wilson weaves a complex backdrop for this series from a variety of Biblical references (not all of which are connected in context), Talmudic lore, and even current events (the excellent interview he gave to C.E. Moore discloses that the seminal event of the series, the unearthing of the ancient burial ground beneath the Field of Blood, is based on an actual excavation, down to the names on the sarcophagi).
It’s a creepy, cool concept, but I think it suffers from the weight of its complexity, and right out of the gate, it undermined my willing suspension of disbelief–that unspoken contract between author and reader in which I agree not to fuss about holes in the story’s credulity if the author shows me a good time and doesn’t presume on our relationship by offering something so far outside the box that I can’t ignore it and still call myself a rational human being.
Judas was one of the Twelve, the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, until he betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin for thirty pieces of silver and subsequently hanged himself in a place known colloquially as The Field of Blood. A central plot point of Haunt of Jackals, and the other books in this series, is that Judas’ blood has a malign power sufficient to raise the dead buried a couple of layers down in the Field of Blood and render them immortal, to be animated and motivated by evil spirits–“Collectors.” These undead feed on human blood, passing a nasty parasitic disease in the process that consumes both body and soul. Collectors can possess both human and animal hosts, frequently jumping among hosts when tactically advantageous. No sparkly vampires here. These things are utterly, irredeemably evil, and I like the fact that Wilson doesn’t sugarcoat evil as something that isn’t so bad if we could only understand it better.
However, and it’s a big however…
Judas’ blood acting as the catalyst for reanimating corpses and creating a species of immortal vampires didn’t ring true to me from the outset. The implication in Haunt of Jackals is that Judas was a literal anti-Christ, with a resurrecting power latent in his corpse on a par with Jesus. If you try to brush it off by saying, “Well, it’s really Satan’s power at work here,” you’re still left with an image of equivalence in power between Satan and God, if not in quality of outcome. One creates good immortals, the other creates evil immortals. As a Christian, I couldn’t buy it. It was a show-stopper, even for a work of fiction.
Now, enter the Good Guys. When Jesus announced, “It is finished,” and gave up the ghost, the Bible records several notable events that happened at the same time: a massive earthquake, the tearing of the Temple veil in two, and the opening of a number of graves, with resurrection of the occupants. Wilson posits a secret meeting between the resurrected Jesus and these individuals, the Nistarim, in which he grants them physical immortality and assigns them a special mission. The fate of these people is not revealed in the Bible, making it one monster of a Christian fiction opportunity, and I admire Wilson for diving into it.
However, and it’s a big however…
I thought the way Jesus’ blood was used to sustain the Nistarim’s immortality was confusing. It created a sort of parallel Holy Communion that I think would be offensive to most Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox Christians who stopped to think about it a bit.
If you’re a Protestant who sees Communion as primarily symbolic, you have a situation where the “real thing” is offered only to a select few, the Nistarim and their successors. It makes a symbolic Communion ring hollow, like a cheap consolation prize. If you’re Catholic or Orthodox, you’re asked to accept an image that either denies the Real Presence in the elements of Communion as offered in the traditional fashion, or posits a two-tiered system where the efficacy of the immortals’ form is clearly superior to that partaken by the common man. The Nistarim literally get “the Medicine of Immortality.” Some of the other uses of Jesus’ blood, such as saturating a cloth with it and jamming it into a vampire’s gullet (an action which, interestingly, didn’t kill the vampire, even though we were told repeatedly that ingestion was fatal), furthered the impression of the blood as a magical tool rather than something inherently sacred. The handling seemed a little too cavalier to me.
Using a vampire story to illustrate spiritual warfare and the ongoing battle over our bodies and souls is an interesting idea, but sometimes the truth and folklore are mingled in this story, to the detriment of both.
Overall, this is a well-written book that is very suspenseful, populated with interesting characters, and contains a lot of nice, affectionate travelogue of Romania, Israel, and Oregon. Mr. Wilson is a bestselling author with lots of fans in and out of the industry, and you don’t get to that stage without solid writing chops. Haunt of Jackals is a pulse-elevating adventure story, and can be thoroughly enjoyed on that level. It’s a creative, intelligent, original take on the vampire trope, and, if my experience is any indication, it will provide readers with lots of opportunity for thought and discussion, maybe over a pleasant meal at a nice restaurant.
Just don’t drink the wine. Any wine. I’m telling you, don’t do it. It’s a really bad idea. If you don’t believe me, read the book.
But if you’re thirsty, drink deeply of the wisdom contained in the commentary of these other fine sites on the CSFF Blog Tour:
Wayne Thomas Batson
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
Todd Michael Greene
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Rachel Starr Thomson
>>This review is based upon a copy of the book provided to me free of charge by the publisher, a courtesy I appreciate, but which does not guarantee my recommendation. I strive to evaluate every book I review purely on its intrinsic merits.<<