MESSALA: THE RETURN FROM RUIN, an excellent sequel to an all-time great

Posted: July 7, 2016 in Uncategorized

Ben-Hur is one of my all-time favorite Biblical novels, so whenever I hear of a book that is similar or related  in any way to it I jump at the chance of reading it.  So, of course, as soon as I heard of the existence of a sequel to Ben-Hur written from the point of view of his archrival Messala, I immediately sought more information.

The novel in question, called MESSALLA: THE RETURN FROM RUIN, and written by Canadian author Lois Scouten, is very clear evidence in favor of the fact that a timeless classic SHOULD have a sequel, provided that said sequel is done right.  And trust me when I say that this sequel is done exactly right.

The story of Messala is left with an unclear ending by Lew Wallace in the original novel. We only know that the brutal accident he was involved in with Ben-Hur has left him crippled, physically and spiritually broken. This leaves space for the wonderful thing that is known to those who love reading and those who love writing books as “speculation”.

There’s a great risk when writing a sequel to a classic novel, the risk of not being able to completely capture the spirit of the original.

Fortunately, Ms. Scouten is very well-versed in this very thing: capturing the spirit of the era in which the story takes place, and furthermore, the spirit of the character who narrates his story.  Readers get to spend time with a bitter man on his way back to a normal life, and follow him through the perils that do not seem to let go of him: a cruel and jealous woman ready to murder him and the dog-eat-dog Roman society of the time.

As a historical fiction enthusiast, I always appreciate it when the author puts in a great deal of effort to pay attention to the language they use. This novel, while not as linguistically ornate as the 19th-century original, benefits from a great deal of attention to linguistic details, managing to provide engaging dialogue without pandering to the modern reader by using anachronisms. The novel truly feels like the memoir of a physically and psychologically traumatised Roman nobleman, which is how the author  meant for it to be read.

As a person born with a physical disability, I loved to get a chance to see how a man of more than 2000 years ago could have perceived himself after remaining physically disabled in a society in which a body as healthy and strong as possible was the norm. I loved reading about Messala’s exploits as a novelist, and his relationships with various figures in the “high” society of the times, from Valerius Gratus, the procurator Ben-Hur was accused of having assaulted, to Herod Agrippa, the King of the Jews. I loved Messala’s interest in Christianity, explored, but not overdone. The novel manages to be a piece of Christian historical fiction by not forcing Christianity down the throat of the reader, and though we never get a clear answer to whether Messala actually becomes a Christian, we do get to see him grow to respect the movement started by Jesus, if only for not being the threat to Rome that every emperor up to Constantine the Great claimed it to be. The character of Caligula is also very well done: the reader gets to see him grow from spoiled brat to demented tyrant.

The character of Ben-Hur is very compellingly presented in this novel. The reader is constantly kept aware of the fact that Messala is the narrator of the tale, and thus, he spends a large period of time being bitter about the fact that Ben-Hur is living a prosperous life and considered a legendary hero. However, the relationship between the two grows into something resembling mutual respect, and the journey towards that relationship is a thing of beauty.

Overall, MESSALA: THE RETURN FROM RUIN does an excellent job at creating a believable sequel to a beloved classic, with the first-person narration giving it the always welcome air of intimacy. It’s one of the best books on Ancient Rome in my library, and I’m richer in knowledge and spirit for reading it. Ten stars out of five for an epic tale of bitterness, betrayal, faith and perseverence. I received a copy of the book courtesy of BPS Books in Toronto(and Mr. Donald Bastian), but I’m proud to say that the views expressed herein are my own.

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