From the time he was a little boy, John dreamed of being a soldier, and as an adult, he realized that dream by becoming a member of the Roman army. He's worked hard to earn the respect of his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers and is known to all as a skilled warrior. While stationed in Germania, John met Paul, a fellow soldier with a similar background. The pair became fast and close friends. When John's commander unfairly ships him off to Egypt for a perceived slight, he's devastated over the separation from his friends and family. During his time there, he mostly keeps to himself, but often goes to the temple of Mithras, seeking spiritual guidance. Back home, Paul keeps watch over John's family and works tirelessly to get him released from his duty in Egypt. After three years, they are finally reunited. Eventually John and Paul make their way back to Germania. While there, the daughter of Emperor Constantine is kidnapped, so John and Paul volunteer to mount a rescue mission. Their mission is successful, earning them the favor of the Emperor, who rewards them with their own home in a prosperous part of Rome. There, they meet followers of the Christus, and begin following this new Way. Life is going well for John and Paul and they are more spiritually satisfied than ever. But when a new Emperor rises to power, who isn't as friendly to the followers of the Christus, they may find themselves imprisoned for their beliefs or even worse if they refuse to renounce their faith.
I agreed to read and review Mark Tedesco's book, I Am John, I Am Paul: A Story of Two Soldiers in Ancient Rome, because I have a certain degree of interest in the history and culture of Ancient Rome but have only had the opportunity to read a few stories set in that era. The book got off to a rather slow start for me, partly because the first few chapters didn't really draw me in very well and partly because of the writing style. We discover in the opening paragraphs that John is in prison and he's basically starting at the beginning and writing down an accounting of his life. Therefore, it's written in more of a journal or memoir style. It tends to skim over the surface of John's life, hitting all the high points, and in general, it's an interesting and adventurous journey. However, it doesn't delve too deeply into his feelings, nor does it go into great detail with regards to most events. He often skips quickly through time, jumping over days, weeks, or even months. It's written in such a way as to emulate the feel of sitting down with a friend and having him regale you with his life story. This made it very difficult for me to get into at first, because it's pretty much all telling and no showing. I primarily read fiction to escape into another world for a while, to live alongside the characters, which to some extent I was able to do with this story. However, I also like to immerse myself in their experiences, feeling what they feel and understanding how they think, and I didn't really get this kind of reading experience with this book. I will admit though, that around Chapter 4 or 5, when John and Paul strike out on their own to rescue Constantine's kidnapped daughter, things started to pick up a little. I gradually became more and more invested in the story, which is why I was able to give it four stars in the end.
After finishing the book, I did a bit of research, and discovered that this is a biographical fiction, inspired by the lives of Sts. John and Paul. There's apparently enough of a historical record to know that these two men were indeed Roman soldiers, who were eventually martyred for their Christian faith and were later granted sainthood by the Catholic church. Their remains are buried in their own home, over which the Basilica Santi Giovanni e Paolo was later erected. These underground areas were rediscovered in the late 19th century by the rector of the Basilica, who was searching for the tomb of the martyrs. I've seen some of the photographs of this underground area, and it's quite impressive. I can see why Mark Tedesco might have been inspired to write about it and these men.
That said though, because of the telling and not showing style of the writing, I can't say that I got a strong sense of who John and Paul were. We learn quite a bit more about John than Paul, because he is the first-person narrator of the entire book, with the exception of the last chapter. We learn that he is a loyal and skillful soldier, who is a leader of men and who follows orders even when being treated unjustly. He's also brave and physically strong. He loves his family, particularly his mother and sister, and misses them when he's stationed far away. John is also a man of faith and a spiritual seeker. He initially follows the teachings of the Roman god, Mithra, but he still feels an empty space in his life and is searching for something more. Most importantly, we also know that John shares a deep friendship with his fellow soldier, Paul. Except for three years when John was stationed in Egypt, the two men are pretty much inseparable. They do most things together and after earning the gratitude and favor of Emperor Constantine for rescuing his daughter, which included a prominent home, they also lived together. While there are a couple of very subtle remarks that could be taken as there being more between these two men than mere friendship, this part of the story is left pretty ambiguous. While I don't think it's necessarily important what the exact nature of their relationship was, it's obvious that they were at least best friends and brothers of the heart. Where I kind of had a problem though was in understanding exactly how they came to be so close. I was willing to accept that their friendship was a fact, but since the author doesn't delve into feelings and emotions, showing how that friendship came about, I simply didn't grasp the why of it.
I enjoyed the parts where John and Paul rescue Constantina, and I especially enjoyed the parts where they begin to learn of and follow the new Way of the Christus. I've always had an interest in early church history and the beginnings of Christianity, so that part drew me in more than some of the others. I also liked that the inspirational message is present, but not in any way overpowering. I can tell that Mark Tedesco's background in history served him well in writing this story too. He even includes several endnotes, which while not unheard of, are definitely unusual for a work of fiction. The fact that he piqued my curiosity sufficiently to make me want to look things up on my own says something as well. The lack of emotional engagement, however, left me feeling distant from his characters. If he had drawn out their humanity more and made me feel what they were feeling, I could easily see this book having keeper-status potential. The book is also free of anything potentially offensive. It has no bad language, no sensuality, and considering that the two main characters are soldiers, even the violence is kept at a minimum, so IMHO, it would be appropriate for most readers. Even without the emotional attachment I would have liked to see, I'm willing to recommend I Am John, I Am Paul to readers who are interested in the history of Ancient Rome or early Christianity, as long as they don't mind a more journalistic style of writing.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
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