Monday, August 17, 2020

Book Review: Cestus Dei

Book Review: 'Cestus Dei' by John Maddox Roberts

4 / 5 Stars

'Cestus Dei' (283 pp) was published by Tor Books in June 1983. The cover art is by Kevin Eugene Johnson.

This novel first was published, in greatly shortened form, as a hardback book titled 'The Strayed Sheep of Charun', issued by Doubleday / The Science Fiction Book Club in 1977. 'Charon' was John Maddox Roberts's (b. 1947) first published novel. Roberts went on to be a prolific sci-fi and fantasy author during the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, writing novels for the Dragonlance and Conan franchises, as well as for his own 'SPQR', 'Stormlands', 'Cingulum', and 'Island Worlds' properties. 

It appears that Doubleday - for reasons unknown - cut 'Strayed Sheep' off at 180 pages (the final sentence in 'Strayed Sheep' has an awkward quality signalling that further plot developments were in the offing). The 180 pages of 'Stayed Sheep' are present in 'Cestus', along with another 103 pages of additional content. 

So: while I found 'Strayed Sheep' to be a competent novel even in its truncated form, to get the complete story, you'll want to pick up 'Cestus'. 

The plot: after centuries of isolation, the Flavian System once more re-establishes contact with the Federation. The United Faiths - a sort of Galactic ecumenical council representing Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism - approves of proselytizing in the Flavian System......on a first-come, first-converted basis, of course.  

Anxious to see millions of converts added to the fold, the Pope dispatches a Jesuit priest named Miles, and a Franciscan brother named Jeremiah, to the Flavian homeworld of Charun and its capital city, Augusta, where they are to begin their Missions. 

There is a marked contrast between the two: Miles is a man of action; brilliant in mind, devious and calculating in his ability to read, and exploit, the motives and desires of those he seeks to convert. And, by virtue of being trained on a heavy-gravity world, Miles is a masterful fighter in both hand-to-hand combat and the use of firearms. For Father Miles, a member of the eponymous Brotherhood of Cestus Dei, the use of venality and violence are perfectly acceptable, if they bring souls to Salvation..........

Jeremiah, on the other hand, is the quintessential Franciscan: meek, mild, seeking to convert the heathens through kindness and generosity of spirit. He is at times discomfited by the mercenary nature of Father Miles's tactics.

But once they arrive at Augusta, both men realize that converting Charun will not be easy. Although peopled by the the descendants of European spacefarers, monotheism has long since been abandoned on Charun, and in its place, the Consul has established the Roman practice of bread and circuses. Gambling, prostitution, drug abuse, and bloody gladiatorial games distract the populace from their impoverished misery. Allegiances among the ruling oligarchs are made solely for personal gain, and betrayal is simply another tool of statecraft.

Which strategy for conversion will win out - the hard-edged practicality of Father Miles ? Or the humble persona of Brother Jeremiah ? Whatever strategy to be employed must be immediately successful.........for it turns out the Muslims also have their eye on the Flavian System.........

'Cestus Dei' is a straightforward space opera, written in a clear and declarative prose style. What motivated me to give it four stars is the author's decision to color the actions of Father Miles and his church with a slight, but undeniable, note of extremism. For Miles and his superiors, lethal measures are quite justifiable if they protect the innocent and deter sinners......and the pirates and the warlords of the Flavian System are unashamed sinners. 

By avoiding a predictable narrative, in which the pacifism and selflessness of Father Jeremiah (improbably) winds over the hearts of evildoers, 'Cestus Dei' exhibits a transgressive sensibility that I found entertaining. For that reason, this novel is worth picking up.

1 comment:

engleberg11@ said...

Good book, but 'King of the Wood' is Maddox at his best.