Book Review: ‘Sword and the Serpent’ by Taylor R. Marshall


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Saint George and the Dragon is a fairy tale, but Taylor Marshall begs to differ. His novel Sword and the Serpent claims to be a “historical retelling” of the St George legend. The problem is, whether historians like it or not, we don’t think of St George as a historical figure like St Augustine. Even though saints like St John the Baptist and St Paul preceded him, St George has been lost in the mists of time and become a legend whom we don’t really take all that seriously. After all, as my seven year old daughter often points out to her knightly younger brother: dragons aren’t real.

So I was intrigued by Marshall’s claim, but when I received my advance copy I must admit I hesitated to open it. Would it be yet another fantasy romp masquerading as historical fiction? Could Marshall fashion a character both historical and credible? Was I going to regret agreeing to read and review what would probably make me cringe the whole way through?

I turned to the first page and breathed a sigh of relief. Emperor Diocletian greeted me and there wasn’t a dragon in sight. Here was someone familiar, even if only from spending many memorable moments in his palace in Split, Croatia; and George – or Jurian as he is mostly called in the book – was most certainly not in possession of a white charger. Marshall has made the unknown Silene into Cyrene, with its apt connotations of Simon of Cyrene – a fair interpretation – and St Christopher has been given a Philistine ancestry to explain his great height and strength. Even St Nicholas (the precursor of Santa Claus) makes an appearance, and his story is faithful to what we know about the fourth century bishop of Myra.

The book doesn’t have the gravity or poise of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, but that is perhaps the selling point of Sword and the Serpent – it is an easy and engrossing read.

By the end of my first day, despite the responsibilities of home schooling, writing a blog post, and the demands of four young children, I had almost finished the three hundred plus page book. It is written in a classic style and is appropriate for adults and teenagers alike. Crucially, it maintains a good pace throughout and draws you into the world of Jurian, Sabra, and co..

That world is largely credible, though as a historian I do wonder at Marshall’s decision to not use the name legend has given St George’s sword: Ascalon. Ascalon is the medieval name for the city of Ashkelon in Israel. Even in St George’s day it had a rich history upon which Marshall could have drawn for the sword’s background. I am, frankly, surprised that the author of The Crucified Rabbi would ignore such a ‘gold mine’ – especially as he has made the Canaanite/Philistine connection through the character of St Christopher – in favour of an anachronistic legend from the other end of the Roman Empire. It is the one aspect that diminished my enjoyment of what is essentially an excellent read.

The character of Sabra is also interesting. Marshall has cleverly explained how she was confused as a princess and instead made her a priestess who sacrifices children. Far from being an evil character, though, she comes across as motivated by love, dedicated to saving her people, and altogether desperate. She is quite the modern woman, and (whether intended or not) she is the archetype of the mother who sacrifices her own child through abortion. Marshall illuminates her character with brilliance. We are given a wonderfully realistic understanding of her thinking and feelings about child sacrifice. Ultimately, though, she learns that in her desperation she has ignored the only truly loving and right path, and that sacrifice can take many forms.

My only concern is that some may read Sabra’s desperation as an excuse and her willingness to sacrifice herself as exculpatory. Jurian is held to a higher standard. When he stabs a man in self-defence he is blamed for provoking the other man (even though that man had murdered someone in his presence only moments before). Though he has more than one justification for his action, he is held to account as if he had none. Sabra, on the other hand, is let off the hook seemingly on account of being desperate, weak, and helpless – even though she has the emotional strength and resilience to be able to prepare and escort children to their gruesome deaths. Now, I’m no feminist, but I do believe men and women have the same moral agency and responsibility for their actions, so it does bother me that the compelling Sabra is shown to be mentally robust while morally irresponsible whereas the saintly Jurian is portrayed as comparatively immature even though they are roughly the same age.

However, if this is the book’s main flaw it is a ‘good’ one. It reflects our society and how women are so often given a free ride. It reflects the way we criticise men and demand that they ‘man up’ while at the same time making excuses for women in advance of their bad behaviour. I hope that by seeing just one example placed outside of our own context we will gain enough perspective to question why this is so… and whether chivalry is just another form of feminism, albeit sanitised and of a more romantic ilk.

There isn’t much more I can say without giving away too much and spoiling the book, so I will end by way of a quote in the hope that it will inspire you to buy a copy and read it for yourself; because it is a captivating novel and deserves to be read.  I’ll be buying a copy this Christmas!

To his surprise, the emperor looked nothing like the statues he had seen of him. They all showed a rugged, bearded face, strong and implacable, but the Diocletian standing before him was cold rather than strong, and dominating rather than implacable. He wore no beard, and his hair was cropped short, not curled over his forehead like the sculptors showed. His face wasn’t rugged but it had a strange kind of beauty to it, remote and dangerous. Jurian wasn’t surprised that most of Rome considered him a god.

Diocletian’s ice-blue eyes held his, measuring him steadily. At first Jurian thought he saw anger simmering behind his stare, but it shifted to curiosity, then, slowly, to something like respect.

“You dare to meet my gaze?” he asked quietly.

Jurian swallowed hard. The emperor’s voice was impressive even at a murmur, like calm waters veiling the rise of a maelstrom. His mind chased after something to say, but words slipped away, meaningless.

“Why should I not?” he heard himself ask.

Diocletian’s mouth twisted in a faint smile. “Because I am the divine Augustus, god and master of the known world.”

“But you came into the world from a woman just like every man,” Jurian said.

Sword and the Serpent is already available on Amazon as a Kindle edition. The paperback is due for release on December 1.

The Folly of Forgetting


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“You can’t remember the fall of Vukovar twenty-three years ago and not take sides. So today I don’t just remember those who fell and those who remain trapped by the memories of war and suffering. I also remember the folly of forgetting, what happens when we resort to disinterest and appeasement, because ‘never again’ is the voice of conscience. We must never allow it to be silenced. We must, as Churchill put it, “take our stand for freedom”. It is time for recovery and the rebirth of our resolve that such abominations will happen ‘never again’.”

Read more: The Folly of Forgetting | Mishka Gora | The Blogs | The Times of Israel
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Armistice Day Musings


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“So we find ourselves caught between the faithful and the faithless, a false dichotomy that pits the fervent against the apathetic. Freedom-fighters and terrorists are thrown into the same basket (and often mislabelled one as the other). Detachment and disinterest have been made into virtues.”

Read my complete post at: The Faithful and the Faithless 

Lay Off the Hijab


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You know your chances of a reasonable and civilised debate aren’t good when most of the people arguing their point can’t even use the correct terms. This is why my heart sank a few days ago and has stayed fairly submerged: it seems few people know the difference between a hijab and a burka or a modest woman and a terrorist.

Most of my readers will have deduced that I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Islam. So you may be taken aback by what I am about to say. But please hear me out.

The hijab is a beautiful garment. Head scarves are a wonderful expression of individuality, modesty, and aesthetic taste. I would love to see more women choose to cover their heads. Think of a world with more wide brimmed sun hats like the one Amal Alamuddin wore in Venice last week, cloche hats from the 1920s, bonnets reminiscent of Jane Austen novels, headscarves like that of the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, bandanas tied like Rosie the Riveter, medieval head dresses that the Society for Creative Anachronism recreate for their events, et cetera, et cetera. It would be so refreshing to see what women would come up with if the ‘norm’ weren’t the current fashion of badly-cut hair worn either out or in a messy ponytail or bun.

The hijab is just one version of a head covering. It’s true it sets the women wearing them apart, but no more so than a Catholic nun’s veil and wimple, an Orthodox Jewish tichel, an African head dress, or a Protestant kerchief. They look different. Or, I should say, we look different (because I love to cover my head). And there is nothing wrong with being different. The world would be very boring indeed if we were all the same.

So next time you see a woman wearing a hijab or something like it, try to exercise your curiosity and think outside the box. If you can’t help thinking about the Islamic State and the atrocities it is perpetrating overseas, at least keep in mind that the woman in front of you may be wearing a hijab because she fled a country in which she would have been forced to wear a niqab or burka… and that glaring at her isn’t the best way to communicate that Christianity is all about love or that the West is founded upon democracy and tolerance. The hijab is not a symbol of oppression or male domination. It’s just a head covering, something which Western women have worn throughout history. Perhaps Muslim women are inadvertently reminding us of our own rich heritage, which we are in grave danger of losing altogether….

P.S. I’m not going to add a photo of me in a hijab as I’m not Muslim, but here’s one of me in a head scarf.  Not particularly “confronting”, is it?!

20140921 meg tichel

Abortion Access Zone SitRep


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For some time, I have meant to follow up on the article I wrote last year about the Tasmanian Reproductive Health Act, but illness and death in my close family have prevented me spending time on writing. So this will be brief.

Last month, pro-life activist Graham Preston (sometimes accompanied by supporters) conducted a sustained protest within the access zone for Hobart’s ‘Specialist Gynaecology Centre’ (known by most people as an abortion clinic). This took place on Hobart’s ‘main drag’ during peak hour traffic and gained the attention of the press, supporters of abortion, and even the police. Most interestingly, this protest was in the wake of police dropping charges against Preston for failing to obey a police direction to move on earlier in the year in the same location.

Media reports have been unclear and contradictory as to the reason the charges were dropped and why Preston was able to continue his protest. Local pro-lifers are even claiming that they now have police permission to protest and that no one will be arrested.

I don’t claim to have the ‘scoop’, but I have contacted Tasmania Police and I have it in writing that they have NOT given permission for peaceful prayer vigils within the access zone.

I would also offer a few thoughts on this topic:

1) If we take the police at their word (which I’m inclined to do), the police realised they did not have sufficient justification for issuing a ‘move on’ order (under the Police Offences Act Section 15B) as Preston had not committed an offence. This conclusion was possibly based on the provisions of the Reproductive Health Act which prohibit a protest that “is able to be seen or heard” not could or might be seen or heard. This may seem a minor distinction, but in law these things matter, especially when a law is yet to be put to the test or set a precedent. Preston’s signs were facing the oncoming traffic on Macquarie Street, not the clinic entrance in Victoria Street, and it is conceivable that someone could have entered the clinic from the north without seeing or hearing Preston’s (silent) protest. It would also have been nigh impossible to demonstrate intent to impede access, especially as Preston has in the past been gaoled for actually blocking access to an abortion clinic.

2) The police cannot give permission to do what is unlawful.

3) Just because Graham Preston didn’t end up fined or in gaol doesn’t mean others won’t. A clear violation, for example a group of people directly in front of the clinic entrance, especially without signs quoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, could have a very different outcome. The police are unlikely to make the same mistake twice.

4) When the police ask for your name and address they either suspect you have committed an offence or believe you have committed an offence. This is not something to be taken lightly and may serve as a ‘warning’ of arrest if you commit the offence a second time. I believe the police have already taken the names and addresses of Graham and his fellow protesters.

5) The police may have been avoiding opening a can of worms. The offences committed against Graham Preston were far more serious than those he may have committed violating the Reproductive Health Act. It is quite possible that pursuing the case was viewed as undesirable given that it might highlight the loud and aggressive behaviour of pro-abortion counter protesters, the assaults on Preston, and the theft of his property.

Personally, I am a firm advocate of exercising one’s conscience, but the essence of conscience is knowledge (con + scire – with + ‘know’). It remains unlawful to protest (even peacefully) within sight or hearing of someone entering an abortion clinic in Tasmania. The penalties are not inconsiderable. A criminal record is not a minor matter and can have massive repercussions on one’s career and ability to support oneself and one’s family. Some people pray for the end of abortion quietly and without drawing attention to themselves, often just down the road in St Joseph’s Catholic Church, still within the access zone. Who is to say they are any less effective than the person standing on the street corner? That’s something to think about….

To celebrate….


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My opinions of Operation Storm are well known and I shall not repeat them today.  All I will say is that it is a day worthy of celebration, that it is intolerable for a nation to be shelled on a daily basis and for its citizens to live in a constant state of war, and that I hope you will spare a thought or prayer for those in Israel suffering under similar circumstances from persistent terrorist attacks.

To celebrate, I would like to offer you a few moments of escapism.  Today, Tuscany Press published a very brief excerpt from near the beginning of my novel The First Realm.  I hope you find it an intriguing and enjoyable read.  There is a field for comments at the end.

Sretan Dan hrvatskih branitelja!  Happy Victory Day, Croatia!

Am I a Zionist?


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You may be wondering why it has taken me so long to write something on the current conflict in Israel and Gaza. The first reason is that I’ve had the ‘flu’, and I still do, so this will be fairly short. Secondly, I have had a hard time keeping up with all the information and misinformation in the media and social media. However, the fundamental reason I’ve been slow to respond is that I’m not entirely sure it’s worth my effort. Allow me to explain.

I don’t believe in writing for the sake of it. If I have nothing to add to a discussion I’m not going to waste your time asking you to read yet another article. I have more articles of interest cropping up each day than I can actually read. (I have a similar problem with books – literal piles I want to read but probably never will.) So, I’m going to put a reading/watching list at the bottom of this so that you can pick and choose what is of most interest to you on this topic. There have been some fabulous articles written in the last couple of weeks while I’ve been down with the ‘flu’ and I am grateful to those writers for speaking out, sharing their viewpoints, and countering the propaganda most of the world is gobbling up with glee.

The other reason I’ve hesitated to write is the intractable mindset of most people on this topic. People who were the first to condemn moral equivalence in Bosnia are now talking about both sides being guilty. People who were aghast at Croatian and Bosnian civilians being shelled day in and day out by the Serbs are now suggesting Israel should just put up with a bombardment greater in proportions than the London Blitz. People who would never accept suicide bombings and missiles raining down in their own cities are telling the victims of terrorism that they must implement an unconditional ceasefire even though Israel has accepted and implemented five ceasefires, all of which were broken (oddly enough) by the Hamas terrorists. Rationality doesn’t seem to have much of a place anymore, and what I do say is no doubt preaching to the converted.

So allow me a few personal observations, seeing as so many people seem to value perceptions and feelings over morality and common sense.

Some things are a matter of debate. How to solve the ‘Middle East conflict’, for example. I don’t know the answer, so I’m fairly open to suggestions. Really. I have not made up my mind on this topic. (Though, I have no say in the matter, so I suggest you address any of yours ‘answers’ elsewhere.) Some things that are part and parcel of this topic, however, are not a matter of debate. (No, I’m not a relativist.) One is that Israel has a right to exist. Another is that Hamas is a bunch of terrorists. In all the brouhaha, these two central facts seem to have been forgotten. You can be pro-Palestinian without being pro-Hamas. You can love the Palestinian people and want the best for them and still support Israel – in fact, if you have any sense, you may realise that Israel is the best chance most Palestinian children will ever have of growing up in a democratic and multicultural society.

Those who think they know better (than everyone else), of course, tend to disagree. They don’t even bother with discussion or debate any more. They just dismiss anyone who isn’t anti-Semitic as a Zionist. They’re not quite as crude as the demonstrators calling for a Palestine “from the river to the sea” and who attack Jewish businesses and chant “gas the Jews”, but it amounts to much the same thing. It’s funny how being anti-Israel is supposedly not anti-Semitic, but wanting Israel to exist and flourish as a nation is Zionist. I want Australia to continue to exist and flourish too. What does that make me? Is that wrong too?

The bottom line is that if you want a Palestine “from the river to the sea” you’re calling for the extermination of Israel. And if you think Hamas terrorists are freedom fighters, you’re advocating the freedom to murder and terrorise. Israel has bent over backwards to accommodate a two-state solution. The Palestinians have rejected every opportunity. Gaza is a case in point. Israel made it Judenfrei and handed it over to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. What sort of peace has Hamas given them in exchange? Suicide bombings, missiles, and terror tunnels.

You may say that I’m just as entrenched in my position as the next person. If by that you mean I refuse to accept a world in which Israel does not exist, you’re quite right. If that makes me a Zionist, so be it. I never thought that basic humanity could be so controversial. And, for the sake of balance, let me say that I also yearn for a world in which Arabs/Muslims and Jews live amicably side by side, a world in which Israel has no need to use weapons of war. But I know that’s never going to happen with Hamas calling the shots, and unless ordinary people like you and me (as well as our leaders and journalists) stop giving Hamas this false legitimacy the situation is not going to improve, for Israelis or Palestinians. We need to call a terrorist a terrorist. They are not freedom fighters. They are base murderers killing Palestinians and Israelis alike.

There’s a much a bigger problem than Gaza at the moment, and that problem is us.

So, choose your words carefully next time you chat with someone on this topic. Did Israel “resume its offensive” or did Israel respond to yet another breach of a ceasefire, yet another attack on Israeli civilians? When you mention Israel blew up a hospital in Gaza, don’t forget to mention that Hamas was firing at Israel from that hospital and that Israel confirmed with the hospital director that there were no staff or patients inside and that he had locked all the doors. And when the news reports an Israeli strike, ask yourself whether perhaps Hamas misfired a rocket yet again. (Hamas managed to hit a hospital and refugee camp yesterday, but no mention of that in the media – no, it was reported as an Israeli attack on a kindergarten. Likewise, Israel has been vociferously blamed for the deaths of fifteen civilians in an UNRWA school yard, even though the single shell landed in an empty yard.)

We don’t live in Nazi Germany. I, for one, live in a rather tranquil part of the world. Yet, even here in the Antipodes, I (a gentile) have felt the hatred.

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This is a random (and far from exhaustive) list of articles I’ve appreciated in the last couple of weeks, an antidote to the mostly dishonest reporting of the mainstream media.

The Israeli Genocide in Gaza

Letter to an Anti-Israel Protester

Hamas Human Shields


Scared of the Mommies

Gaza’s West Side Story

Europe’s Kristallnacht

Paris’s Kristallnacht

Israeli Nazi Baby Killers

I’m Done Apologizing for Israel

Gaza Media Myths

Moral Clarity in Gaza

Gazans’ Real Enemy is Hamas

Has Hamas end the prospects for a two-state solution

Those TV cameras responsible for civilian deaths in Gaza

Journalists receive death threats after reporting Hamas uses human shields

J’accuse Western Academics

To the Students for Justice in Palestine, a Letter From an Angry Black Woman

Protests Make the Case for Israel

Israel Faces a Biased Barrage

Dear Sayed Kashua

Palestinian UN Rep

Gazan Child Pledges to Become Hamas Martyr

Ten Minutes about living on the Gaza border

Why do they ask the impossible of the Jews?

And, finally, a hauntingly beautiful song for peace, because we must live in hope and not despair: Shalom Aleichem