Review: Christianus Sum, by Shawn J. Pollett

Christianus Sum, by Shawn J. Pollett (Word Alive Press, 2008)

In third-century Rome, Christians have enjoyed a time of relative peace…until the installation of Emperor Decius. One of the emperor’s key supporters is Publius Licinius Valerianus, a cruel man who schemes to be next on the throne—and whose hatred of Christianity has already cost many lives.

To refuse to deny the Christos, to adamantly declare “Christianus Sum”—I am a Christian—is to die a martyr’s death.

Roman Senator Julius Valens disagrees. In honour of his dead wife’s faith, he allows a group of Christians to worship in one of the many rooms of his home. Equally indifferent to all deities, he designates other rooms for the other gods his slaves may want to worship.

He doesn’t expect to fall in love with a slave—a Christian slave, at that. The beautiful Damarra and her friends teach him about their faith. Although he’s not convinced, his efforts to protect the Christians from persecution draw him into danger.

Canadian author Shawn J. Pollett has created a complex plot with vivid characters and a strong sense of place and time. I was hesitant to read a novel set in such a troubled era, but the story quickly drew me in. When I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about it.

With long Latin names and authentic details, Christianus Sum (the ‘u’ in ‘sum’ sounds like the ‘oo’ in ‘cook’) isn’t a fast or light read. It slowed me down and made me feel like I was there in the past, in this ornate and formal time of Roman rule. It also let me see a bit of the life and times of the culture.

The novel has plenty of drama and emotion to keep you turning pages, and I appreciated the author’s sensitive handling of the brutality. Much of the suffering is off-camera, so to speak. Readers know what’s going on without being traumatized. The ending does get quite intense, but no more so than necessary and there’s nothing gratuitous about it.

The story is told in the third person with shifts into omniscient, and although occasionally I wasn’t sure of a scene’s point of view it always became clear within a few paragraphs.

As well as the spiritual, persecution and romance threads, Christianus Sum also explores friendship, duty, battles and political intrigues. There’s a lot in these pages to satisfy a reader.

I’m not strong in history and I found myself wondering about these characters, especially the emperors and generals. Were there actual people by these names? How much of this actually happened? The author thoughtfully included an afterward to answer these questions and more.

I’ve finished the novel, but its characters have stayed with me, and I find myself wondering how well I’d stand in such a time of trouble. How my brothers and sisters in Christ would stand. These fictional characters share such a vibrant love for one another and for the Christos, and mine feels so pale in comparison.

As well as love for God, the characters have a strong trust in Him. After one rare, happy experience, we read, “Sometimes, [Damarra] wondered if God worked in unexpected ways for the sheer pleasure of watching his people look up to the heavens, scratch their heads, and ask, ‘How did you do that?’” (p. 49)

In 2009, Christianus Sum received The Word Guild’s Canadian Christian Writing Awards in three of the novel categories: Historical, Mystery/Suspense and Romance. Before that, as an unpublished manuscript, it won Word Alive Press’ 2008 free publishing contest in the fiction category.

Christianus Sum is book one in the “Cry of the Martyrs” trilogy. Book two, What Rough Beast, released in April 2010. I look forward to reading it. Both are available through local bookstores and online. Ebook versions are available through various online stores although not from my favourite, fictionwise.com. I notice a variety of ebook pricing, so shop around.

If you visit Shawn J. Pollett’s website, you’ll find an interesting introduction to the “Cry of the Martyrs” series.

[Review copy provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.]

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