“The Ironsmith,” by Nicholas Guild: An outstanding historical novel

This new novel from Nicholas Guild is a damned good read — at once a deeply intriguing historical novel and a keep-the-pages-turning tale of intrigue and suspense.

The novel is set in the area of Galilee, Capernaum and Jerusalem in the days just before the New Testament documents came to be. The protagonist is Noah, a clever and hard-working ironsmith. Noah is a man of integrity, who seeks little more than to live a happy life, obey the commandments,  take care of his family and leave his apprentices in a position to be successful tradesmen themselves. A widower, he also seeks to start a new life with Deborah, a fish merchant’s widow. 

However, Noah’s cousin and best friend is Joshua — who would become known to later generations as Jesus Christ. Joshua picks up the teachings of his mentor, John the Baptist, after the latter’s arrest. In so doing, Joshua draws the gaze of power brokers in the government of Herod Antipas, and soon Noah becomes embroiled in the plots against Joshua as well. Noah must tread a dangerous path, seeking to protect  himself and his family while trying to thwart the schemes arrayed against his friend.

Noah is a very engaging protagonist. He seeks to do the moral thing at every turn, even if it means personal danger. He does not understand his cousin’s talk of hearing the voice of God, but he stands by him anyway. The other people in his life, and those who would threaten it, also are depicted with skill. There are no wooden characters in this novel.

In expert, concise prose, Guild draws upon a mountain of historical research to portray another time and place, and to tell the story of a very human Jesus. It is no mean feat to tell a suspenseful tale surrounding events that the world knows so well (or at least thinks it does), but the author manages it nicely. 

It is not uncommon to hear people today refer to Jesus’ contemporaries in derogatory terms as “a bunch of goat herders,” but Guild depicts a complex society in which honor and dignity mean something, and in which practices that seem to us barbaric — for instance, transactions of goods and money associated with marriage — are, in fact, considered points of honor in their time and place. 

Some readers, no doubt, will have trouble with Guild’s depiction of Joshua as a fully human being. There is no divine birth, no corpses are raised from the dead, no storms are calmed with a wave of a hand. Joshua himself, while convinced he is hearing directly from God, seems at times to be unsure of what is happening. It is a depiction based upon much scholarship into the life and times of the historical Jesus, and it is left to the reader to decide to what degree this very human Jesus might also be divine.

Personally, I found the character of Noah to be more inspiring, through his determination to stand by those he loves and to do the right and moral thing, no matter what dangers that might mean for him.

I highly recommend this novel to any and all who wonder how a fully human Jesus might have become the inspiration we know today. There is much imagination involved in Guild’s plot, of course; this is a novel, and no one is claiming that everything in the story happened just so.  Still, a suspenseful page-turner that also makes you think deeply about the foundations of faith and belief and the role of irony in human history … well, those don’t come around every day.

Give it a read. And check out Guild’s previous novels — spy thrillers, crime novels and historical epics — as well. The man can tell a story.


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