By Martin Elsant
Perditus qui haesitat.
Acts of Hope is a prodigious tome of epic proportions. Set in the 16th century, the story adeptly navigates the serpentine coils of political, cultural and ecclesiastical clashes in multiple countries from England to the Holy Land. Also pirates. Forgeries. Narrow escapes. Double-crosses and desperate battles. Revenge and forgiveness. Steadfast courage and stalwart faith in the face of overwhelming odds. True love. And hope.
An enjoyable historical novel, this book features study characters, exotic settings, and a solid, engaging plot.
The story opens off the Portuguese coast as Diego Lopes and his daughter Maria flee the Inquisition. Their ship is bound for Diego’s estate in Bristol, England. When Maria’s father dies later as a result of wounds suffered during his arrest per the Inquisition, Maria takes over his substantial shipping business, becoming one of the wealthiest women in the world.
As a recent immigrant to Elizabethan England, Maria must navigate the tumultuous cross-currents of vicious religious persecution. She must also learn what she has to do to stay Jewish, and what she has to hide to stay safe. But Maria’s no cream puff. A newly minted business tycoon and shipping magnate with dexterity in multiple languages and a keen, cunning eye for diplomacy, Maria reminds us of James Clavell’s Dirk Struan. Where she’s concerned, you’d best lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Maria eventually marries the dashing Englishman, Doctor William Ames. Together, they become involved in Tiberias, a refuge perched on the Sea of Galilee for Jews fleeing the Inquisition.
We‘re quickly whisked into Part II which is set in the Holy Land. Here Muslim, Jewish, and Christian characters percolate throughout the story. We meet Ari, Maria’s former betrothed. He’s trying to free the Church from “the clutches of the Inquisition” and expose the Holy Office as a sham. While interviewing scores of Inquisition victims in Jerusalem, Ari plans to present the documentation of same to the Pope, hoping the latter will repudiate and shut down the Inquisition. Report complete, Ari boards a ship bound for Rome. But it’s attacked by pirates. (Dontcha hate it when that happens?)
Enter Ya’akov Koriel, captain of the fiercest Jewish pirates that sail the seas. He eventually teams up with a Jewish innkeeper, Esther, who’s fierce and independent in her own right. Together, they learn to fight a different kind of battle. So does Ari when he meets a Muslim girl, Aisha. Cast out from her family and blinded in her left eye by her brother, Aisha arrives in Tiberias as a launderess.
It gets complicated. But Elsant pulls it off with a deft and capable touch.
That being said, here are a few minor caveats:
- The occasional use of 21st century vernacular -“Hi, I’m Esther Levy, the inn keeper … is this your first time here?, etc.” – is a bit of a stretch.
- I got kinda lost in the New Christian/Old Christian thing.
- Although I’m well familiar with both the Old and New Testaments, I felt that the whole Edomites/Amalekites/Canaanites/Israelites/Fits-Too-Tights in Part I was a bit overlong, needlessly bogging down the story.
A Little Time
Yes, the story takes a little time to get rolling. Early chapters include impressive descriptions of Jewish culture, custom, and worship as Maria strives to gain a firmer grasp of her Jewish roots. Some will find this fascinating. Others may find it tiresome.
We pick up steam around page 100 when Don Joseph Mendes of Spain shows up at the Ames’ doorstep with a proposal. Lightly seasoned with touches of romance and humor, the story comes to a soaring crescendo with an all-hands-on-deck battle for survival.
Easy to Follow
Meticulously researched and cleanly organized, the chronology is easy to follow. Each chapter glides seamlessly into the next. Just when you think the plot is going one way, it heads in another direction. A robust triumverate of three-dimensional characters, a full-bodied plot and a nimble storyline keep you on your toes. Each story arc tucks in neatly. No loose ends. Far from predictable, this intriguing read will keep you turning pages until The End. (Spoiler alert: Gruesome battle scene in chapter 26.)
Indeed, “peditus qui haesitat.” He who hesitates is lost. So don’t put off reading this book for too long. Because hope is indeed the truest form of belief.
Our Rating: 4.0
But it was evident that the author actually read and paid attention to our submission guidelines. That’s always good for a few extra brownie points. Besides. I’m a sucker for articulate historical fiction. I also have a soft spot for most anything that’s well-written and set in the Holy Land. It’s also refreshing to see members of the faith community portrayed as actual people instead of as the ridiculous cardboard caricatures seen so often elsewhere.
That’s kind of a trifecta.
So out of sheer curiosity, I decided to do a lightning fast dash in and out of chapter one. You know. Lickety-split. Just to get a feel for the novel. But I got pulled in and swept up in the story. I was 200+ pages in before I knew it. So I finished it in a day.
See what following instructions will (sometimes) get ya?