Into the Unbounded Night is an upcoming historical fiction novel by Mitchell James Kaplan. Set in the first century Roman Empire, the story follows a myriad of characters from different walks of life and cultures. The most prominent perspective character is Aislin, a young woman native to Albion (Britain) during the Roman conquest of her land, who becomes a refugee as a result. Second to her point of view is Yohanan son of Zakkai, a studious and thoughtful young Judaean man living in Roman-occupied Jerusalem who philosophically struggles with keeping to the traditions of his faith and respecting the institution of the Temple, which seems more concerned with pleasing their Roman overlords. Other characters include a disgraced Roman soldier turned artist, the Roman general Vespasian, and the condemned angel Azazel.
Though some books I’ve read recently can be counted in the genre, this novel feels like my first meaningful step into the realm of historical fiction in a while. I did study Roman history a little in university, which served as a bit of a primer for the time period this book covers, but in many respects I was walking into relatively unknown territory. Despite this, Kaplan does a really good job of easing the reader into each character’s facet of society and their view of the world. For instance, I rather quickly felt a connection with the stories and customs of Aislin’s people in Albion; their reverence for their ancestors and oral traditions, their connection with the natural world around them and the “Companions” that they believe spiritually inhabit it. Though it recedes from the story as the lost traditions of a conquered people, I was left with a lasting impression of it that allowed me to mourn Aislin’s loss with her.
The nuanced viewpoints between all of the point-of-view characters is one of this novel’s biggest strengths, especially in how their religious beliefs frame their perspectives. Each was unique, and when seen through the lens of each character they felt equally true. Vespasian’s devotion to the god Quirinus and old Republican values felt as woven into his identity as Yohanan’s to the singular god of the Judeans and the laws of his people, or Aislin and her connection to her ancestors. This is important because these belief systems so often clash, yet each character is sincere in their beliefs and the bulk of the text does not try to undermine that when shifting between characters. Romans are not presented as villainous because they believe in the wrong gods, but because they conquer and subjugate other people, justifying their violence with the misused presumption of divine approval, which is something that in turn condemns the Judeans later in the story.
It was an appreciably grounded presentation of religious belief, honest in the portraying the good, the bad, and the morally grey. While respective philosophies are woven into the story, what felt most important was how deeply these beliefs informed the way these people lived their lives. As someone who lives an entirely secular life, it was fascinating to see such a frank representation of a world where my perspective would be practically unheard of. As a character displaced from the world she grew up in, Aislin’s was an especially valuable character, as she travels to Rome and eventually Jerusalem, learning of these beliefs and customs as an outsider in a way that aids an unfamiliar reader such as myself.
The only thing that nagged at me was the presence of Azazel as the present-tense narrator and minor character in the story. While compelling as a supernatural force subtly influencing how events played out, it meant that the text cements one of the belief systems as the correct one. This felt out of harmony with what the bulk of the text seemed to be going for, especially as historical fiction. I am more than fine with seemingly miraculous or uncanny moments being left up to interpretation, but something this concrete didn’t gel with the rest of the story for me.
The plot itself is mostly character driven, focused more on how characters’ living situations change and the ways in which they adapt as history unfolds around them. This is most apparent with Aislin, the closest we get to a protagonist, who changes the most dramatically and continually throughout the story. Yohanan, a sort of parallel protagonist, finds himself at odds with Temple leadership, but never finds himself at odds with his actual faith, continuing to be scholarly and becoming a spiritual leader in his own right as a rabbi. I found I learned the most historically from his perspective, but I was always happiest coming back to Aislin. Though she doesn’t just let go of her desire for vengeance against all of Rome for what it did to her people, I enjoyed how worldly her experiences forced her to be, in turn realizing that there were good people in Rome despite the evils of the state, a bittersweet taste of how the world is crushingly more complicated than we’d sometimes like.
I was surprised at how densely packed the book felt, as there are numerous characters and a lot of history unfolding in the narrative, yet the novel is of an average length. It is laudable how much history and narrative threads, big and small, Kaplan was able to weave together into a concise package. The only thing I found myself at odds with was the passage of time, which could occasionally be too vague for me. The two sections that divide the book clearly mark the years they start at, and some other critical moments clearly state how long has passed, but otherwise the narrative would often follow a character in the moment for a page or so, letting maybe a day or so pass, and then much wider, unspecified gulfs of time would pass in a manner of sentences. It occasionally had me feeling a little mixed up, especially at the notable point where Yohanan and Aislin finally crossed paths, when I realized that they’re probably supposed to be of comparable age, despite my sense that Yohanan was actually much older.
Though my knowledge of the era and peoples being covered is perhaps too scant to fully appreciate the history that Into the Unbounded Night covers, I sensed a continuous air of authenticity throughout, which became most apparent to me in how the infancy of Christianity was represented. Contemporary names like Joshua of Nazareth and Paulus are used, accurate to the region but much more unfamiliar to a modern reader like me. It was treated with deep reverence by those faithful to it, yet with the crucifixion having happened so recently and with so many ongoing tribulations, it felt more appropriately like a new philosophy struggling to hang on than a profound, spiritual revolution. Though there were a few things I found myself at odds with, the novel was a reading experience I found both enriching and enjoyable.
My Rating: 4 out of 5
I received a digital Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion. This has in no way impacted my review.