If you enjoyed City Harvest Church’s recent Easter production, you might find Mark Of The Lion, a series set during the Roman Empire, a satisfying read.
Once upon a time in the Roman Empire… there’s something about fictional stories set in the time of Jesus that invoke curiosity and ignite the imagination. CHC does it well with its yearly drama productions, such as this year’s lauded Easter drama titled The Empty Tomb.
If you loved that and are keen on more stories in the same setting, might we suggest the Mark Of The Lion series by Francine Rivers, a trilogy that tells of courage, faith and redemption that will move your heartstrings while challenging your beliefs about fate—that which life throws at you—, faith and personal decisions. The series offers a unique blend of historical fiction with spiritual themes, making these tomes an enjoyable read.
The first book, A Voice In The Wind, introduces the main characters of the trilogy: Hadassah, a young Jewish girl who is the daughter of the widow’s son Jesus resurrected in Nain (Luke 7:11-17); Marcus, a Roman aristocrat embroiled in the politics of Rome; and Atretes, a Germanic warrior taken captive and sold into slavery in Rome.
In broad but vivid strokes, the world in which Jesus lived is brought to life: the violence of war, the cruelty of slavery, the decadence of Rome and the contempt and persecution of Christians. Once the context has been set, the story becomes more intimate: Hadassah enters the Valerian household as a maid for Marcus’ sister, Julia. There we see how Hadassah has to constantly face her fears and defend what she believes in despite her low status. In the process, her inner strength shines through and the peace she exudes is so outstanding that, those around her cannot help but be attracted to her. The strength to overcome does not come easily. Through Hadassah’s often anguished prayers, we see how it is by faith that she is sustained through difficult times and circumstances. Despite all the good that Hadassah does, she is betrayed and sent to be eaten by lions. But fear not, the HEA (happily ever after) is in the next book.
The second book in the series, An Echo In The Darkness, continues Hadassah’s tale while developing the story of Marcus, the Roman aristocrat and his sister Julia, whom we met in A Voice In The Wind. The most compelling aspect of the second book is the main characters: each one has his or her own unique voice, and given all that has happened in book one, we see how hard it is for them to overcome guilt, anger and bitterness. The forgiveness they achieve only towards the end is hard-won and heartfelt. Have your tissues ready if you get as absorbed in the story as I did. The secondary characters are also important as they not only provide insight into the network of relationships, but also highlight how radical Christian values were in relation to prevailing beliefs.
This book contains many poignant moments that truly invoke your emotions. The emotional highs and lows linger even after the story of Hadassah and Marcus ends. If you want more, then continue on to the last book of the trilogy.
[SPOILERS AHEAD] As Sure As The Dawn, the third book in the series, follows the story of Atretes, the Germanic warrior who, as a gladiator won his freedom but gained no peace the last we saw of him. The prologue revisits the scene of Atretes and Hadassah’s meeting in book one. Then, having been told that his infant son is with John the Apostle and a widow named Rizpah, Atretes goes in search of them. What follows is a riveting adventure as Atretas escapes with the Christians who are also fleeing persecution from Rome. During the journey that is fraught with danger and his own internal torment, Atretes falls in love with his son, with Rizpah and ultimately with Jesus Christ. He finds his purpose as he protects the small band of Christians, who spread the Gospel while on the run.
If the content seems familiar, it is! Author Francine Rivers weaves in a whole host of characters from the Bible, including Theophilus, Bartimaeus, Agabus, Rhodan and Timon. Their roles are, of course, fictionalised but it made me think about the Bible accounts from a different perspective. For example, I have read the name “Theophilus” umpteen times at the start of the book of Luke, but never wondered what sort of person he might be. Francine Rivers renders him as a Roman centurion, large and in charge, who helps to guide the Christians out of Rome. Luke’s letter to him then plays an important role in the spreading of the Gospel. It is details like these that make reading the series all the more interesting as it gives a sense of what it might have been like when all the post-Gospels books and letters were written. While providing great historical context for those interested in ancient Rome or early Christianity, As Sure As The Dawn is also an entertaining, action-oriented story that ends on a note of hope in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety. We can surely identify with such a sentiment.
Having said all that is positive about the series, I should also issue a “trigger warning”. With its uncompromising look at human nature, the Mark Of The Lion series is better suited to mature readers. There are fairly graphic descriptions of violence and cruelty, references to sexuality and venereal disease, discrimination and other forms of unjust treatments. All of it is written with a purpose and in the context of the stories, it felt appropriate. Nevertheless, if you are squeamish, you might want to avoid this series. While many books with Christian themes tend to be categorised under “self-help” or “self-improvement”, this series sits firmly in fiction but its message of faith, love and forgiveness in Jesus transcends the story and quietly feeds the soul.
If you enjoy this (or don’t), Francine Rivers has a host of other books you can consider. The New York Times best-selling, multi-award winning American writer was already a celebrated historical romance novelist when she was born again. She applied her talent to books that share the message of the gospel with the reader, among them her most famous work, Redeeming Love and The Last Sin Eater which was made into a movie in 2007. She has won four Romance Writers of America RITA Awards, the highest honour for romance writers in the US.
Rivers’ Lineage Of Grace series of novellas trace the ancestry of Christ through women, who even in this day and age, have less than stellar reputations. We start with Tamar, and meet Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and finally Mary, and through their stories, we find that God’s magnificent plan of redemption is enacted through lowly, wronged yet righteous women. There is also a Sons Of Encouragement set of stories which highlight the lesser-known men of the Bible: Aaron the priest, Caleb the warrior, Jonathan the prince, Amos the prophet and Silas the scribe. I found it interesting that Francine Rivers chose to write about these men who stood in the shadow of more prominent ones such as Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah and Paul, throwing a spotlight on these ones that had a crucial role in God’s plans, whether their lives were long or short. Each of the stories, whether from the Lineage of Grace or the Sons of Encouragement, can be read in one sitting but when strung together, they offer a compelling sense of time and purpose from the perspective of eternity.
The author has also penned contemporary novels such as The Masterpiece, Bridge To Haven and Leota’s Garden. The great news is, these books by Francine Rivers are available in the National Library. This means you can read one, read some or read all of them for free! If you prefer audio books, that is also an option. Some of her stories have also been made into movies, so whichever format you enjoy a story, there is plenty to choose from.
The Mark Of The Lion series and other books by the author can be found in the National Library in hard copy or in audio and electronic formats via the Libby app.
Images of books from NLB