The Poet Prince by Kathleen McGowan – FIRST WildCard

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is: Kathleen McGowan
and her book: The Poet Prince The Magdalene Line #3
Touchstone (May 25, 2010)

About the Author:
Kathleen McGowan is the New York Times bestselling author of The Expected One, an international bestseller published in more than 30 languages. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three sons. (ISBN#9780743299985, 480pp, $25.99)

And Now…The First Chapter:

Prologue

Rome, AD 161

The Roman emperor Antoninus Pius was not a butcher.

A scholar and philosopher, Pius did not want to be remembered by history as one of Rome’s cruel and intolerant tyrants. Yet here he stood, literally up to his ankles in the blood of Christians. While alive, the four brothers had been exceptionally beautiful young men. But after their terrible deaths brought about by beatings and torture, they were unrecognizable masses of blood and flesh. The sight made him want to retch, but he could not appear to be weak before his citizens.

Pius was, for the most part, tolerant of the irksome minority who called themselves Christians. He even found it stimulating to participate in debates with those who were educated and reasonable. However odd he personally found their beliefs–about the single messiah who rose from the dead and would come again–their ideas did appear to be spreading at an unnervingly steady pace throughout Rome. A number of Roman nobles had converted to Christianity openly, and their participation in Christian rituals was tolerated by his government. This growing sect was also finding particular popularity with highborn females; women were included as equals in all its rites and ceremonies. They could even be priests in this strange new world of Christian thought and practice.

The Roman priests who held court in the temples of Jupiter and Saturn were up in arms that these Christians were allowed to offend the gods with their ridiculous concept of a single deity. Emperor Pius generally ignored the priests’ wailings, and thus life in Rome went on in relative peace during much of his reign. It was only when some aberration developed to endanger lives in the Roman republic, some tragedy or natural disaster, that the Christians found themselves mortally threatened. The Roman priests, and their followers, were quick to blame the Christians for any and all misfortunes that might befall Rome. Surely it was their monotheistic insult to the true gods of the republic that caused divine retribution to fall on the other innocent and obedient citizens?

Emperor Pius had himself discovered in his debates that there were two types of Christians: the wild-eyed fanatics who often seemed anxious to die to prove their great piety, and the truly reasonable and compassionate adherents who were more devoted to helping the poor and healing the sick than they were to preaching and converting. Pius definitely preferred the latter type; they were making a positive contribution to their communities and were valuable citizens. These Christians, whom he called the Compassionates, were fond of telling stories of their messiah and his great healing ability and of quoting his very wise words about the need for charity. Most often, they spoke passionately about the power of love and its many forms. Indeed there were even some Christians here in Rome who claimed direct descent from their messiah himself, through his children who had settled in Europe. These claimants were the same Compassionates who worked tirelessly to help the suffering and the poor. Their undisputed leader was a stunning and charismatic noblewoman called Lady Petronella. The flame-haired Petronella was beloved by the people of Rome, despite her openly Christian practices, as she was the daughter and heiress of one of Rome’s oldest families. She used her wealth generously for the highest good of the republic and preached only of the need for love and tolerance. If Petronella and her Compassionates, had been the only kind of Christian in Rome, this onslaught of terrible bloodshed would likely never have begun.

But the group of Christians that Pius referred to as the Fanatics were another story altogether. In contrast to the Compassionates, who spoke of their messiah in warm and devoted tones as the great teacher of a spiritual path they called the Way of Love, the Fanatics screeched of the one true God who would eliminate all others and bring about a reign of terror for the unbelievers at a time of final judgment. The Romans were deeply offended by this perspective, and the Fanatics compounded the offense by insisting that life on earth did not matter and that only the afterlife was of importance. Such a philosophy, such a craven disregard for the gift of life that the gods bestowed upon mortals, was absolute sacrilege to the Roman priests and their followers. It was incomprehensible to a culture of people who celebrated the experience of the physical senses in their countless spiritual and civic festivals. To most Romans, the Fanatics were an enigma born out of madness, a group to be shunned if not feared.

Thus it was the Fanatics who raised the ire of the Roman people, even when there were no natural disasters to contend with. But when a deadly influenza outbreak struck an affluent Roman suburb, the priests of Saturn began to cry for the blood of Christians to appease their god.

In the center of this growing drama was a wealthy Roman widow, the Lady Felicita. Felicita had converted to Christianity when, overcome by grief following the sudden death of her noble and beloved husband, she had turned her back on the Roman gods. It was said that, left alone to raise seven sons without a father, she went mad with the anguish of her loss. Felicita was visited by Christians who offered her comfort in her mourning, and she ultimately found strength and solace in the Fanatics’ extreme perspective on the absolute importance of the afterlife. In this ideal, Felicita was consoled that her husband was in a better place where she would join him one day, and they would be together with their children as a family in heaven.

While Felicita burned with the passion of the newly converted, most of the nobles in her community were not overly upset by her behavior. Felicita would spend hours each day on her knees in prayer, but most felt that this was her own business. In addition, Felicita was charitable and generous, donating portions of her dead husband’s fortune to the building of a hospital and compelling her older sons to contribute physical labor to help the infirm. As a result, Felicita’s strong and beautiful children were very popular with the people of the Roman suburb in which they dwelled. The boys ranged in age from the golden-haired youngest, called Martial, who was in his seventh summer, to the tall and athletic eldest, Januarius, who was twenty years on earth.

The world in which Felicita and her sons lived remained relatively peaceful until the influenza swept into their town. It struck intermittently and at random, but those who were afflicted by it rarely survived the extreme fevers that accompanied the retching and convulsions. When the firstborn son of a Saturnian priest succumbed to the illness, the distraught man rallied the population to join him in accusing Felicita and her sons of bringing down the wrath of the gods upon them. Clearly, Saturn had punished his own priest to make his point clear: the Romans would need to be strong in their opposition to these Christian people who dared to regard their true gods as obsolete. The gods would not stand for it, and certainly not a god such as Saturn, who was the domineering and ruthless patriarch of the Roman pantheon. Hadn’t Saturn even devoured his own son when he found him to be disobedient?

Felicita and all seven of her children were subsequently brought before the regional magistrate, Publius. Because of Felicita’s noble status, they were not shackled by chains or tied but were allowed to enter the court of their own volition. Felicita was a handsome woman, tall and well built, with flowing dark hair and the walk of a queen. She stood straight and proud before the court, never wavering and showing no fear.

The proceedings began calmly and were carried out with due order. While Magistrate Publius was known to have a harsh streak when provoked, he was not as monstrous as some of the local jurists were known to be. He read out the charges against Felicita and her sons in measured tones.

“Lady Felicita, you and your children have been brought to this court today under suspicion. The citizens of Rome have grave concerns that you have angered our gods, most specifically, that you have offended Saturn, the great father of the gods. Saturn has taken vengeance upon your community, claiming the lives of a number of your neighbors, including innocent children, as a result. The laws of our people state that ‘refusal to accept the gods angers the gods and disrupts the forces of the universe. When the gods have been angered, those culprits who have caused their consternation must beg forgiveness by making sacrifices to them.’ Therefore you and your children are commanded to worship in the Temple of Saturn for eight days, making appropriate sacrifices as designated by the priests until the god has been appeased. Do you accept this as a fair and just sentence?”

Felicita stood mute before the court, her children standing in a line behind her, equally silent.

Publius repeated the question, adding,“You do understand that the alternative is death? Failure to appease the gods puts our entire nation at risk. Thus you will perform your sacrifices or you will die. The choice is yours.”

Publius’ exasperation grew as Felicita made him wait for what seemed an interminable amount of time. When it became clear that she did not have any intention of speaking, the magistrate eventually snapped. “You offend the authority of this court and the people of Rome with your silence. I demand your answer, or it will be beaten from you.”

Felicita raised her head to look directly at Publius. When she finally replied, it was with the fire of conviction in her eyes and in her words.

“Do not threaten me, heathen. The spirit of the One God is with me and will overcome every assault you make upon me and my family, as he can take us to a place where you will never go. I will not enter a pagan temple nor make sacrifices to your powerless gods. Nor will my children. Not ever. So do not waste your breath further with this request. If you would punish us, do so and be done with it. But I do not fear you, and my sons do not fear you. They are as strong in their conviction as I am, and will remain so.”

“Woman, do you dare to bring the lives of your children into jeopardy over your misguided ideals?”

Publius was dumbstruck by her response. The sentence he had passed upon this Christian family was unprecedented in its leniency by all Roman standards. He was certain she would breathe a sigh of relief and guide her brood of boys quietly to the temple to begin their shared penance. Was it possible that Felicita would risk the lives of her entire family over an eight-day temple requirement?

Publius continued, less measured now. His shock and growing irritation crept into his voice.“Beware before you speak again, as this court has the power to see all of you punished most severely for your crimes.”

Felicita very nearly spat her reply. “I said, do not threaten me, foul pagan. Your words are empty. You cannot punish me in any way that will change my mind, so spare your breath. If this means you must put me to death, then do so and be quick about it so that I may reach my God and be reunited with my husband. If my children must die with me, they will do so gladly, as they know what awaits them in the afterlife is far greater than anything you can imagine on this terrible earth.”

Publius was now utterly outraged. It was unnatural, even monstrous, for any mother to offer up her children for sacrifice. What twisted god was this that the Christians worshipped who would require the lives of seven children to appease his bloodlust?

The magistrate’s voice boomed through the court. “Unhappy woman, if you wish to die, so then die, but do not destroy your children in the process! Send them to the temple so that they may live.”

Felicita’s reply was a scream that shook the stones of the courtroom. “My children will live forever no matter what you do to them! You have no power over them or over me.”

Publius spluttered at her audacity before ordering Felicita to be placed in chains and sent into a holding cell. As she was dragged out of the court, she shouted to her sons, “My children, look up to heaven where Jesus Christ awaits you with the only true God. Be faithful and courageous so that we may all be united in heaven. If one of you falters, all is lost! Do not fail me!”

Once their mother had been removed, the magistrate spoke to the children. The youngest two were in tears but trying hard to keep them in check, chins buried in their chests and little bodies nearly convulsing with sobs. Publius, himself a father of boys, felt pity for these small ones, innocent victims of their mother’s madness. He addressed Fe-licita’s children as a group.

“Your mother is a misguided woman who would threaten the lives and security of all Rome with her offenses. You do not have to follow her terrible example. This court recognizes each of you individually and promises leniency and pardon to you. All you must do is renounce these words of your mother and agree to accompany the priests to the Temple of Saturn and make appropriate reparations to that god for having offended him. This will restore peace to the land and abolish the plague that has killed your innocent neighbors.”

He watched the silent seven, the younger ones all with eyes downcast, and addressed the final question to the elder four. “Do you not wish to see the end of suffering in your community? For this is in your power. Your actions have brought plague and death to your neighbors. You now have the opportunity to correct that and set things to right.”

The eldest son, Januarius, answered for all of them. He was the image of his mother both physically and spiritually. Januarius replied with her same fervor. He stated, voice steady and strong, that he would gladly die before entering a pagan temple and that he would take his brothers with him to heaven rather than see them corrupted by heathens. Further, he defended the honor of his pious mother, punctuating his last sentence by spitting on the shoes of the magistrate.

That final act of disrespect turned the heart of Publius to stone. He made his deadly decision in that moment. If Januarius was intent upon dying for his mother and her monster god, then he would be given the opportunity to do just that. Perhaps if Felicita was made to witness the gruesome death of her own firstborn son, she would recant and save the others.

This kind of flagrant disobedience to the Republic and its gods could not be allowed to go unpunished, particularly as it had been witnessed in a public forum. A bloody spectacle to warn other Christians against such crimes was most assuredly warranted and in the best interest of the peace and prosperity of Rome.

o

Januarius was dragged into the public forum and shackled to a whipping post. His mother and three older brothers were given seats near enough to be splattered by his blood with every blow that split his flesh. The younger children, still seen as victims by Publius and the other magistrates of the court, were held in custody away from the execution.

The first executioner was a huge man whose arm muscles bulged as he brought the whip down with all his strength across the prisoner’s back, over and over again. At intervals during this flogging of Januarius, the magistrates ordered the executioner to pause. They first asked the condemned if he would like to recant and accept his punishment–and live. Januarius spit on them the first three times. The fourth time he was closer to death than to life and was unable to respond. Thus the final appeal went out to his mother.

“Woman, this is your oldest child, the blood of your union with your husband. How can you watch his torment and not recant? If you accept your penance, he may still live and you will save your other children.”

Felicita refused to acknowledge the magistrates. She spoke only to Januarius, but her voice was loud and sure. “My son, embrace your father for me, for all of us, as he awaits you at the gates of heaven. Think no more about this earthly life which means nothing. Go to where God awaits, my child!”

It did not take many more lashes to end the life of Januarius. His blood seeped away into congealing pools as the lashes tore open what was left of his body. When he was declared dead, the executioner unshackled the corpse and dragged it just far enough to be out of the way yet still in sight of Felicita and her three elder sons.

This spectacle of horror repeated itself three more times as each of Felicita’s elder children refused to accept the judgment of the court. Several executioners had to be brought in, as the effort needed to beat each young man to death was too exhausting for any single man, regardless of his size and strength. By the fall of darkness, Felcitia had watched as four of her children were flogged to death. She had, in fact, encouraged their deaths by torture. There was no indication that she was going to recant, no matter how gruesome the methods used to kill her children. With each child lost, she appeared to be gaining strength in her twisted version of faith.

The magistrate Publius was now faced with a terrible dilemma. He had no desire to execute the younger boys, who were innocent victims of their mother’s madness. And yet Felicita, strangely, appeared to be winning in this battle. She had not broken during the execution of her children, not once. There were no tears and no wincing. Her condemnation of the court and of the pagan priests grew louder and more emphatic with each death. That she was mad was not in question. No mother in her right mind could endure what had occurred here today. Even the executioners were as horrified as they were exhausted by what they had done in the name of their father god, Saturn, and for the security of Rome.

But allowing Felicita’s three remaining little ones to live would show weakness. It would demonstrate that her will and faith were stronger than that of Rome and the gods.

This was how the emperor himself, Antoninus Pius, had come to be summoned to this affluent suburb for consultation, had come to be standing in the blood and gore that had once been Felicita’s elder sons. This matter had the potential to become a state crisis, and Magistrate Publius did not want the blood of the innocent younger children on his hands if such a thing went against the emperor’s will. Antoninus Pius was, himself, at a loss to determine the correct course of action in this hideous case. He considered the now infamous moment, generations earlier, when the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate had ordered the execution of Jesus the Nazarene, thereby creating the martyr around whom this strange cult was built. Pius did not want to create more martyrs whose ghosts would serve to weaken the might of Rome. He also did not want the blood of little children on his hands. But he was not certain how to avoid it. Indeed, the matter had already gone too far.

It was no doubt the most benevolent goddess of beauty and harmony, Venus herself, who smiled on him that evening by sending him an answer. When the alluring and graceful Lady Petronella arrived requesting an audience, Pius breathed a sigh of relief for the first time on that terrible day.

o

Lady Petronella did not have to plead her case with the emperor, although she had been fully prepared to do so. She was stunned that he seemed relieved to see her and to concede to her plan. Petronella was the popular wife of a senator, yet her status as an unapologetic, albeit gentle Christian could have made this mission difficult. Her beauty and elegance had gone far to win over the more hardened nobles of Rome, including this emperor, who was a great lover of attractive women. She came dressed in a simple cream gown, but one made from the highest-grade silk from the Orient. Her hair, the color of burnished copper in the sun, was plaited elaborately, strands of pearls woven through the coiffure. Around her long and delicate throat was an exquisite pendant with a large central ruby from which dangled three tear-shaped pearls. A smaller brooch, etched with the symbol of a rooster with ruby eyes, decorated one shoulder of her gown. To the uninitiated, Petronella’s adornments were merely the trappings of a rich woman. But those who knew her intimately understood that these precious stones were the symbols of her esteemed family. The rubies and pearls indicated descent from the ancestor they referred to as the Queen of Compassion–Mary Magdalene. The rooster emblem was the symbol of the other strand of her blood, that of her sanctified great-great-great-grandfather, who was no less than Saint Peter, the first apostle of Rome. She had, in fact, been called after the apostle Peter’s only child, given the name that was a feminized version of Peter.
[You can continue reading the rest of this excerpt here. The paragraph following the point that I left off at starts with ‘According to the sacred family legend,…’]

My Response:
Unfortunately I was unable to read this book much beyond the prologue. Due to this I will not be posting a separate review. This is the first Touchstone novel I have read. Although the quality of the writing was relatively good, this book was represented to readers as a “Christian” novel rather than “Mainstream”. I do read some of both but when a book is represented to me as “christian” fiction or otherwise that inherently carries a certain set of expectations which include content being “scripturally” accurate. Due to the fact that this book already presented inaccurate content according to my ultimate guide, the bible itself, I was unable to continue reading beyond that point. McGowan does present an intriguing premise in the cover synopsis and has along with her publisher offered an otherwise grammatically and mechanically sound narrative. I know many of my readers expect an honest opinion of content et al in the books I read. Some of my content standards are more flexible with “mainstream” books because they don’t carry with them the same set of content standards, however regardless of the book’s provenance and target audience certain of my expectations are carried over due to the fact that I simply choose not to read those types of content at all. Both this book and Davinci code would fall into that category but I was not aware of that content being in this novel until after I started reading. Readers who enjoyed Davinci code might find this appealing as would those who enjoy a well written story and are not deterred by content that would be considered controversial by much of the target audience of “christian” fiction. This was definitely not something I could personally enjoy reading but perhaps there are other readers with varying opinions or who might just be curious about this book and might find it right up their alley. Note that although I am posting the excerpt I have only posted the initial portion of it that does not contain the aforementioned content. The full excerpt can be found here. Also understand that I am not recommending this book or endorsing it, simply posting an excerpt that is required by the coalition of bloggers that organized the tour and suggesting who might want to explore further so they can decide for themselves whether they would enjoy it.

Codicil:
Click the bookcover or title for more info or to purchase a copy. Look for other FIRST Wildcard member posts and opinions also. Don’t forget to click the author’s name or photo to visit her website. Thank you to Touchstone/Fireside Publicity Simon & Schuster for a review copy.

Any readers who think they might appreciate this book more than I was able to please contact me via the button at the top of any page and fill in Poet Prince for the subject. Be sure to include an email address where I can reach you and a US or Canada mailing address, in two weeks I will draw one name from the emails I receive and pass the book on. There will be no strings attached to my sending you the book other than those just stated, however if you do find you enjoy the book then posting a review on retailer sites like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon etc and any personal site/blog you might have where it would be considered pertinent content would not be discouraged.

My apologies to those of my readers who may have some of the same reservations I did about this book and to those who provided the review copy for my inability to complete the book and post a full review.

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