Kingdom of the Wicked is a story with a trial at its centre. Yeshua ben Yusuf and his associate Yehuda Iscariot are in custody for causing a riot at the Temple resulting in deaths. The place is Jerusalem and the time is 31AD. But this isn’t the story you’re thinking of, at least not quite. Because Helen Dale has recreated the ancient Roman Empire – it has undergone an industrial revolution – and it is dragging the ancient, monotheistic Judaean culture along with it.
Much is familiar about this new industrialised Roman society – we can recognise the militarism, the paganism, the tiered society of citizens and non-citizens, and the rule of law that we know to be true of the historical Roman Empire. What’s new is the modern medicine, tanks, flying machines and abortion clinics. In this respect the new industrialised Roman Empire of Kingdom of the Wicked bears some resemblance to our own industrialised, western societies – it has our tools of trade, even though its underlying cultural ethic is very different to our own.
What I enjoyed most about the book was the contrast between the modernised and sophisticated Romans and the traditional, monotheistic Jewish population. The indisputable superiority of their systems and technology compared to the primitive and non-industrialised Judaean society really brought to life the culture clashes that were the reality of the historical Roman occupation throughout the empire. One gets a very real sense of the misunderstandings that arose between two very different societies and the ways in which they understood the world. The Romans are egalitarian and permissive – even callous – about sexual relationships and reproductive rights; whereas the Jewish culture is situated at the polar opposite end of the scale. When the Roman legions advertise the benefits of concubinage to the local female population for example, resentment in the male Jewish population skyrockets.
In bringing to life a fictional industrialised Roman society, Helen Dale has deeply researched Roman law, paganism and economics, and there is an element to this industrialised Roman society that is decidedly libertarian in nature. As this is a legal story, contracts, private property and the rule of law are in evidence throughout. Helen goes to lengths to describe concubinage contracts, for example, in detail and in doing so presents almost a manifesto on how our society could be if we were to embrace a model that allowed for people to freely and privately negotiate voluntary transactions with each other, not only over property or business activities, but also over personal relationships.
Of course being the Roman Empire, it is heavily dominated by the state and the military which is decidedly un-libertarian. There are citizens and non-citizens who enjoy vastly different rights and therefore standards of living. And the tensions that arise between the conquerors and the conquered are evidence that forcing change on people from above is doomed to failure, even if the system being imposed is superior. People value their autonomy – they don’t want to be forced to do things, even if it is for ‘their own good.’
As a Christian, I will admit to feeling concerned before I started reading, that I wouldn’t like the treatment Yeshua ben Josef receives at the hands of somebody who is self-confessedly irreligious. But apart from the fact that the disciples of the New Testament were decidedly not terrorists, nor rapists (at least two of them are portrayed this way) I had nothing much to worry about. And it is Helen’s story after all, she can treat her characters however she likes. But although Yeshua hasn’t spent much time centre stage thus far (this volume is book 1 of 2) Helen has successfully imbued him with a presence one could describe as something approaching the divine. Yeshua is preaching a message that pertains to another world; he is non-violent – apart from his actions in the Temple – and has an otherworldly presence that manifests in one scene as an uncanny ability to imitate voices. The most desirable woman in Judaea follows his teachings and believes that he is the son of God. I cannot detect a tone of ridicule.
Despite the fact that Kingdom of the Wicked is heavily researched, Helen doesn’t burden the reader with all her knowledge – the depth of her research is revealed in her ‘Author’s Notes’ at the end of the book. We are instead told a story, and it’s a romping good read. The characters are rich and real, and one feels as though they haven’t spent enough time with any of them at the end of the book. Which makes sense, because Kingdom of the Wicked is a two part story. Kingdom of Wicked Book 2: Order has been recently released, and I look forward to returning to Helen Dale’s alternate world to see not only how the drama of the courtroom plays out, but how the many threads are ultimately brought together.
Helen Dale has written an explanatory essay on what she set out to accomplish in writing the Kingdom of the Wicked books. You can read this essay at Libertarianism.org.