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Newell and Hamblin, "The Book of Malchus" (reviewed by Beth Roach) Options · View
Posted: Monday, March 21, 2011 12:43:11 PM

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Title: The Book of Malchus
Authors: Neil K. Newell and William J. Hamblin
Publisher: Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT
Genre: Fiction-Early Christian Church, Fiction-Ancient Philosophers
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 336
Binding: paperback
ISBN 10: N/A
ISBN 13:978-1-60641-833-8
Price: $19.99

Reviewed by Beth W. Roach for the Association for Mormon Letters

When I read the reviews for “The Book of Malchus,” I was confident that it would be a good book. That was reassuring to me because I hate having to try to like a book or just plow my way through one. Thanks to comments from previous reviewers, I knew the story would be engrossing; forewarned is forearmed so I made sure our home was stocked up with cold cereal, frozen lasagna and new videos for various family members before I started to read past the first few pages. My backup plan included asking anyone who interrupted me to show me their homework or do household chores - that was certain to make people dive for cover.

I was in for a great story. Other reviewers were experts in historical fields; I wanted to know how the book would touch those with a more rudimentary understanding of Roman civilization and how this book would appeal to various ages and interests.

After a few days of procrastinating, I looked over at the book and it winked at me. It actually winked! "You know you want to read me. Why don't you sit down for a few minutes and we'll start the story." So I did. One caution, don't try starting this book at night if you have to get up early. Grumpiness can be expected the next day.

The story opens with Lucius being summoned for a midnight meeting with the city council in Carthage to hear the announcement that Rome has fallen to the Goths. Shortly after this, he finds a record made by a distant ancestor, Malchus, who, hundreds of years previously, had written of his life as a ship's captain and a tin merchant at the time of Christ. Lucius, a teacher and philosopher, is left to reconcile his beliefs and life's experiences and philosophy with stark new evidence he had never before considered. As he is making his way through the rubble that was his life into the unknown dangerous future after the Roman Empire has crumbled and when the persecution of pagans by the Christians [1] is becoming increasingly violent, he is pulled to read the account of Malchus who is also heading into an unknown future, full of uncertainties, persecution, and almost inescapable death for himself and his sailors.

The main character, Malchus, is flawed but likable. One theme of the story is that people often make tragic choices, but they keep trying, hoping that things will get better. Another theme examines the sacrifices some characters made out of love for someone else contrasted with other characters' attempts at self-preservation. I would have enjoyed more character development for Glaucus, beyond the "faithful sidekick here to point out stupidity and make sarcastic comments" role which, by the way, was well done as far as it went and very amusing.

One paragraph haunts me throughout the book. It is when Malchus and his men attempt to liberate someone at great personal risk, only to find out the person they try to rescue turns on them in hatred and contempt. The paragraph says, "Had the world gone mad? ...Were heroes of so little worth in this new world that the women they attempted to save despised them for their efforts? Did saving a life have so little value that instead of praise, it drew scorn?" I can think of recent examples in the news of just this: efforts to save a life have drawn scorn instead of praise; women who have turned in hatred and malice on the very men who try to preserve and protect their lives and the lives of their children, armed service men and women who are dismissed and marginalized. Has my world gone mad? What happens to heroes when the world they live in no longer values their heroic actions?

At this point, the book changed for me from an exciting story to a model of the hero's journey. A chance encounter with Jesus Christ as he performs his heroic mission changes the life of Malchus, whose personal account of his own hero's journey strengthens Lucius so that he can clarify the choices he wants to make on his hero's journey which in turn are an example for me as I face friction caused when cultures and values collide as they do with increasing frequency on my journey. With much of the story revolving around ocean voyages, it has made me consider also, what things in my life are essential and are worth keeping and what things are weighing my life down and should be tossed overboard. Will I regret my choices? Are some things, once tossed, irretrievable?

As for testing the book for various audiences, I think this book will have wide appeal. I gave the camel race riddle [2] to my kids to figure out, which they attacked with enthusiasm. My 11 year old son is eager to hear more after I read parts of the Malchus chapters to him. As a parent or teacher, I would pre-read it for suitability for 'tween readers because certain passages are intense with frightening images, but it corresponds to Ancient Civilizations that many students take in 6th grade, and may be a good enrichment book. (I would definitely recommend parents or teachers reading in conjunction with children to help with vocabulary, give explanations and answer the inevitable questions, like "how could Christians who are supposed to be trying to be good, persecute other people?") There are plenty of themes and topics for book club discussions here. Participants could easily come up with at least a dozen questions for each of the three cultures highlighted in the book. The endnotes are very informative and helpful so that people can easily understand various aspects of unfamiliar cultures. The authors point out the ironies and word plays in phrases used by the characters from different cultures and in different languages. I admire someone who can tell (and explain) jokes in three languages!

I did learn several new things about the different cultures which has made me want to do a little digging and learn more. All in all, this book has so much to offer, I will keep coming back to it to ponder on the various big life questions that it presents through a masterfully written story of different people in different generations and in different lands who ultimately all seek for the same truths.


1. The man who finds the book of Malchus is Lucius and is a pagan philosopher in Carthage at the time that Rome falls. In the parts that talk about his life and culture, the main conflict is that the leaders of the Christian faith, derisively referred to as "the Galileans" after Christ who was a Galilean, by Emperor Julian (AD 360), have gained power in Roman areas and have begun to throw down the idols and burn books in the pagan temples. Aurelius, the Bishop of Carthage at the time the story is taking place, has called for a "cleansing" of Carthage to avoid the threat of the Goths sweeping over to attack their city. This includes non-Christians as well as Christian groups that are break-off sects. The cleansing includes Aurelius visiting Lucius to tell him, in his seventies, that he is to leave behind his villa, friends, and everything he has and leave within 90 days -- to go somewhere else, anywhere else. Lucius is faced with how to relocate at his age, what to do with his wealth and his resentment of the Christians, at the same time knowing that his trusted servant and dear friend is also a Christian, and the Book of Malchus is written by a distant ancestor that had also converted to Christianity. He is conflicted with what is true -- the things he has taught all his life or this other new religion, and how can that religion be any better if its leaders do horrible things. The author says the character Aurelius reflects historical attitudes and actions of fifth century Christian leaders, but little real facts are known of the historical figure of Aurelius beyond some letters that survive between Aurelius and Augustine.

2. The camel race riddle is an old story that Lucius remembers. He is trying to work out a paradox of his own and thinks of the two sons of a rich man who were both very proud and ambitious. They both wanted their father's extensive lands and wealth and, upon reading their father's will after his death, found that their father required them to engage in a camel race from Carthage to Utica and back in order to gain his wealth. He knew both of his sons were very ambitious and could not bear to lose, therefore he said all his wealth would go to the son whose camel came in second. The first one could brag that he won the race, but he would have no wealth, the second would lose the race, but gain all the wealth. The sons both wanted the wealth, and so they wanted their camel to come in second, but they also wanted to win the race. Their progress slowed to a creep. On the last half of the race, they stopped at the home of a wise man for refreshment and explained their situation. The wise man thought about it and uttered two words. Both men rushed out of his home and tore off for Carthage as fast as possible. The riddle is what two words did the man say?

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