John Knox, the Thundering Scot, lives a life of adventure and danger in turbulent, corrupt sixteenth-century Scotland. Finding himself a wanted man, Knox is besieged in a castle by French soldiers, seized, and made a galley slave. Yet he is unflinching in his stand for the gospel, even in the face of assassins and death, and even when when his fiery preaching makes him an enemy of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Told from the perspective of a young student resolved to protect Knox no matter the cost, Douglas Bond’s thrilling biographical novel provides a look at the harrowing life story of a giant of the faith. Discover the fascinating story of a timid man transformed by the grace and power of the gospel into one of the most influential figures in Scottish history. (Synopsis taken from the back of the book)
I’ve read several other books by Bond and I’ve enjoyed them all. He tends to research very well (with a few exceptions) and the settings are vivid and respectful to the time of history that they are in. If he has a fault, it’s a rather slow start to his books. The action tends to begin happening in chapter 2, not on page 1 or 2. I expect this now, so when I sat down to read The Thunderer I was prepared to get though those first few pages. I was pleasantly surprised. It begins bam! right in a besieged castle and puts you smack dab into the protagonist, George Douglas’s, head. (Warning: there will be spoilers ahead. Many spoilers)
The beginning is probably my favorite part because of that. The first few chapters, when they’re focusing on the siege and the attacking French, and the hope of English reinforcements… that was exciting and drew me in. But then George tells the story of the bishop who lived in the castle before he was murdered. This bishop apparently tied a woman in a sack and drowned her, all because she had prayed in the name of Christ while in labour, instead of in the name of Mary, the Mother of our Lord. That jerked me out of the narrative. Instead of highlighting the evilness of the late bishop, as it was intended to, it made me go “wait a moment…”. I’m not Catholic, I’m Orthodox, but I’m fairly certain that no-where in Catholic doctrine does it say that praying in the name of Christ, not Mary, is a capitol offence. With an eyeroll, I went back to reading.
Everything was fine, if a big hagiographic of John Knox, until it came to a point where he preached his first sermon of the book. I realize that this is a biographical novel on a preacher, but still, two chapters entirely devoted to a sermon was a bit much. Not to mention the sermon. At this point in the story-world, it was Lent. And therefore Knox preached on the evils of fasting. For two chapters. And to top it all off, his arguments were flawed. He pulled verses out of context and applied meaning to things that didn’t have those meanings. After the first chapter of this I ended up skimming to the end of it, just reading George’s reactions to Knox’s sermon. I’m actually glad I read that bit, though, even though it made me a bit annoyed at the time. Because, as I began this book, the Orthodox church entered the two-week fast prior to the Dormition of the Theotokos. I wasn’t particularly happy about fasting at that time, but as I came up with arguments to counter what book-Knox was saying, it helped me strengthen my resolve to fast.
After a little bit, another sermon came up, this one on Holy Communion. Now I’m an Orthodox Christian. I know, with every fiber of my being, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the bread and wine at Communion is truly the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m also fairly sure (although not completely certain), that for 16th century Anglicans and Catholics, this was also the case. So of course John Knox preached before communion on the horrible evilness of believing that the bread and wine were anything but ordinary bread and wine to a bunch of simple townspeople and villagers. That beyond annoyed me – until I reminded myself that this was just a book – and also written by a Protestant.
At this point, I made a decision to enjoy the book. I liked George, with his bulging eyes, and I liked his brother, and I wanted to find out what happened to them and their friends and family. But I wouldn’t enjoy reading if I constantly stopped and got annoyed at bad theology. So I did my best to ignore it and focus on the good bits.
In the end, I enjoyed it. George’s character development was well done, and happened so subtly that you reached the end of the book and suddenly realized “wait a minute, George grew up!” One of the two major subplots was nicely resolved in a way that made you grin from ear to ear. The other… I was disappointed in it. When at first Alexander disappeared I worried about him, as did George, Francis, and to some extent Knox. The first part of the book was filled with anxiety about him, and then it seemed like they forgot him. He vanished, and very occasionally was brought up, seeming to remind the reader that ‘oh yeah, Alexander’s missing’. Then, suddenly, without warning, he’s found again – in the act of assassinating Knox. He’s then tackled and carted off the prison to vanish forever from the rest of the book, all in the space of a few short paragraphs. It left you wondering what happened to him and wanting an explanation.
Oh, another thing that I almost entirely forgot to mention. The language is really wonderful. The way that the character’s speak, the words, they use… even the voice of George as he tells the story as if he was writing it down, it put you right in the 16th century.
In summary, it was an okay book. There were several strong points, such as the prose and the characters, plus the subplots detached from the personal history of John Knox. But where the bad bits were they were big and obvious, from the flawed logic in the sermons to the major Catholic-bashing. I would not recommend it, nor will I re-read it. Douglas Bond is a good author, though, and his other books, especially the Mr. Pipes books and Hostage Heath, are well worth a read.