Savior by Martha Kennedy
A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
Savior is Martha Kennedy’s poignant tale of Rudolf and his brother Conrad, inhabitants of thirteenth-century Zürich and a society immersed in religion and warfare. Rudolf suffers from depression, a condition he is counseled comes from Satan and can be eradicated in a fight to save the world from such sin. A local priest explains that with Jerusalem once more in the hands of the infidel, who “wasted no time in desecrating the holy sites and persecuting Christians living within its walls,” fighting these invaders would help to expiate sin and contribute to his salvation.
Kennedy opens Savior with a quote from St. Augustine that reflects Rudolf’s state of mind—“I bore a shattered and bleeding soul,” it reads in part—and a downpour reflecting the emotion, as if nature herself was as anguished. No amount of service to travelers escaping the downpour, or joy in his fiancée, Gretchen, eases Rudolf’s internal torture.
Conrad, on the other hand, is restless and though negative about Gretchen or some content of the minnesingers’ songs, sees a bright future elsewhere, such as under the tutelage of a knight, who could teach him the rules of chivalry. He longs to see the reality behind the travelers’ wonderful stories, so filled with the strange and faraway, the wild and brave. One could easily imagine Conrad delighting in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville had he known of even the outlandish within the travelogue, yet to be published.
Thus begins Rudolf’s aim to join the latest Crusade, following his own examination on the roots of his torment, and Conrad’s in his quest for adventure and something beyond the confines of the Longfields’ estate and his father’s goal for him, to serve his brother as a stable hand.
As the boys prepare to leave, Kennedy alternates between Rudolf and Conrad and their conversations with those who seek to dissuade them. Through expressive, sometimes heartbreaking, dialogue readers are given an internal view to the opposing motivations of each to make the dangerous journey, the same their father had made in his own youth, and which had driven their mother close to the brink: Rudolf, to rid himself of feeling suffocated by the presence of evil, Conrad to “be[come] the hero of his own romance.”
One of the first features I noticed in Savior was the manner in which Kennedy brings to life not only her characters, but also the emotion swirling through so many scenes, while simultaneously managing its effect and keeping it out of the realm of the overwhelming. Readers feel each mood as it hovers, and the author consummately provides the history that we need to know behind each person’s perception.
Despite their opposing motivation both Rudolf and Conrad search for self, and the dialogue, whether between the brothers or one of them and a supporting character, reflects this intuitively. It is as if Kennedy overheard and recorded real conversations rather than created ones that sought to speak from distinct perspectives.
Character growth in Savior is depicted beautifully, largely utilizing the author’s dialogue expertise but also the internal discourse of several characters, including that which plagues and then begins to inform Rudolf as he faces the terrible reality of war, and the now-porous walls of his depressive prison. While his understanding is not exactly as he thought it might be, there is a greater openness to his examination that questions circumstances while retaining the devotion he had always known.
Kennedy wisely allows Rudolf to be the thirteenth-century man he is rather than forcing on him either genuine modern sensibilities or political correctness, while truthfully opening his understanding to the political machinations that had made their way into bonafide belief. The changes wrought by invasion and crusading alters his individual world and eventually society as a whole, and the pain of that transition is felt in Rudolf’s experiences.
Through the current trendiness of Christianity bashing in our own time, it would be easy to label Savior as an indictment of the religion given its early misdirection. While Kennedy does not pull her punches in illuminating the misdeeds of those who abused power and manipulated religiosity, she does also address human failure to recognize the beauty Rudolf’s God desires for him, and how ignorance is the main driver behind misinformation treated as the nature of God.
“Brother Youhanna, did those priests lie when they said my sins would be forgiven if I came to fight the infidel?”
“Lying? No, yet I doubt they spoke the truth. They spoke from their beliefs, in the limits of their understanding, but Truth is not carried on the edge of a sword.
“But if the Holy Father in Rome told them, would it not be the truth?”
Rudolf never imagined the Holy Father could speak anything other than the truth. “What then?”
“Confusion. Desire. Blindness. Anger. No one is free.”
As historical fiction the novel is top notch. Kennedy brings readers to the brutal Battle of La Forbie where injections of stark prose match what lay out in front of the arriving fighters: too few of them—the Hospitaller leader looks at them “thinking only that they had come to die”—horrendous confidence-destroying heat—shedding layers of protection one at a time, eventually succumbing grievously to, “Who cared if a sniper’s arrow picked them off? They were in Hell now. Death would bring Heaven”—and locals trying to “redeem themselves for the crime of survival.”
From their position on the coast to de Brienne’s impatient and premature strike from a disadvantageous terrain, Kennedy remains true to historic events, smoothly writing in both Conrad and Rudolf’s places in and before the battle. Rudolf experiences a watershed moment, flawlessly written into a scene leading to the moments both he and the fighters have been waiting for. A bridge in the novel, it is filled with an array of memories, sensations, activities and song of the minnesinger, and displays an achingly beautiful passage of time both ghastly and poetic, a combination not often seen done, even less often done as well as it is here.
While Savior is a work of historical fiction set in a time when religion was a way of life and not just part of it, it also is a coming-of-age story, though related within a cultural milieu so different to many of the same stories of today. This is not a Vietnam, or a coming to grips with gruesome urban events, and though it retains the spiritual with its mood and prodigal son angle, it opens itself to readers in its search for truth, an age-old quest, even while appearing in some ways so foreign to what many readers will know, such as medieval attitudes toward mental illness. It is also a book audiences will want to read again and again, it being easily recognizable as one with layers that often reveal themselves upon subsequent visitations, which I highly recommend.
About the author…
Martha Kennedy has published three works of historical fiction. Her first novel, Martin of Gfenn, which tells the story of a young fresco painter living in 13th-century Zürich, was awarded the Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society Indie Review and the BRAG Medallion from IndieBRAG in 2015.
Her second novel, Savior, also an BRAG Medallion Honoree (2016), tells the story of a young man in the 13th century who fights depression — and discovers himself — by going on Crusade.
Her third novel, published in July 2016, The Brothers Path, a loose sequel to Savior, looks at the same families met in Savior three hundred years later as they find their way through the Protestant Reformation.
Kennedy has traveled intensively in Switzerland, journeys that have at once inspired and informed her writing. She has also published many short-stories and articles in a variety of publications from the Denver Post to the Business Communications Quarterly.
Kennedy was born in Denver, Colorado and earned her undergraduate degree in American Literature from University of Colorado, Boulder, and her graduate degree in American Literature from the University of Denver. She has taught college and university writing at all levels, business communication, literature and English as a Second Language. For many years she lived in the San Diego area,but has recently returned to Colorado to live in Monte Vista in the San Luis Valley.
All of Martha Kennedy’s novels are available in both paperback and ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other online booksellers. You can also contact the author!
The blogger was furnished with a free copy of Savior in exchange for an honest review.
Photos courtesy of and provided by the author.