When does fan fiction become a retelling? Like, we all accept Bridget Jones’ Diary as a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, but when you retell Downton Abbey in modern London*, it’s fan fiction? I’m not sure if the copyright law of 70 years after the creator’s death applies here and makes that distinction. Regardless, maybe it’s my love for retellings of all kinds that gives me a little soft spot for fan fiction.
The Bible, whatever you may feel about its origins, has been around long enough to inspire numerous retellings, though most of the translated texts are not public domain. Many retellings of Biblical stories are abjectly terrible, more intent on pushing the author’s message, whether they are a conservative Christian author trying to be inspirational (think mostly pages of prayers or copy-pasted verses and no actual plot) or a liberal non-Christian trying to be provocative (think a lot less God and a lot more random sex). Anyone who has read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, knows it’s a rich story, with captivating characters and memorable scenes–and quite enough inspiration and sex on its own. A good retelling captures all of that and fills in the gaps of a text that necessarily skips over long periods of time and summarizes much dialogue to tell a bigger story.
Miriam by Mesu Andrews is a Biblical retelling that takes the first fourteen chapters of the book of Exodus and fleshes them out in a detailed and impactful story that is strong enough to stand alone as an original piece, but also plays well on textual details and foreshadowing that will be interesting to a reader with solid Biblical knowledge. You don’t have to be a Christian or Jew to get into this story, which like Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s Odyssey retellings or Mary Renault’s Theseus series, makes use of what facts we know of ancient history and weaves them in with legend. You can take it as fantasy and enjoy it for the intriguing story that it is, if that suits you.
In Miriam, the title character is a Hebrew woman in her eighties, who was born into and has lived a life shaped by slavery under the Egyptians. Misunderstandings and gossip about Miriam’s youth serving in the Pharaoh’s harem made her an undesirable bride, so she has no children or husband in her old age, or much support beyond her invalid parents and her beloved nephew Eleazar. But her hope is in her dreams and visions, as she is a prophetess and healer, the only one of her people who their ancestral god, El Shaddai, still speaks to. El Shaddai has been her constant through her trials, giving Miriam control and prestige among the people. But when her brother Moses, a boy raised in Pharaoh’s courts and long-thought to have run away and died, returns, it is to him who El Shaddai speaks, leaving Miriam bereft. Without her visions, Miriam must trust in the god she knows but can no longer hear, as Moses promises deliverance from the powerful Egyptians and a freedom the Hebrews have never known.
The Bible, like most ancient texts, gets a bad rap for patriarchal themes, but it’s female characters are often bold, showing up the men in their devotion to God and willingness to take control of tough situations. The Miriam of the Old Testament is one such woman, one who lies to royalty to save her baby brother and to make some extra money for her family. Andrews’ previous book, The Pharaoh’s Daughter, tells some of Miriam’s youth, but Miriam is all about Miriam in her old age. Miriam makes for an unusual heroine, a woman whose purpose in the story is to lead people and to be a strategist in the politics of her tribe. In a lot of ways, Miriam is a feminist powerhouse, taking on a matriarchal role in a family where the patriarchy isn’t working, and being at first the sole communicant with the divine. Despite being a sucker for romance, I absolutely loved that romance and sex were not central themes of the book. It definitely passes the Bechdel test and the Mako Mori test, which are both (semi-flawed) popular methods of weighing a story’s feminist credentials by its representation of women.
Not that Miriam ignores romance and sex, the neglect of which often makes for an unrealistic and therefore unbelievable story (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead, but that’s a whole other issue**). There is an added romance with supporting characters, and that moves the story along without distracting from the main plot, more by displaying how arranged marriages would work in a tribal setting–more awkward than romantic. Miriam herself does have some romantic intrigue, which surprised me, as older folks are often treated as totally asexual in fiction. No spoilers, but as that came into play later in the book, I worried that Andrews would use that romance to decrease Miriam’s interest in leadership. However, it didn’t take away from Miriam’s strength at all, and never made it as if she needed a husband. In the end, it’s about her choice to have companionship, not a need to not be alone. Additionally, none of the sex is played up to be shocking or shifting too far from Biblical tradition, so it won’t alienate more conservative readers.
My main critique of the novel would be the repetition of certain phrases and descriptions, like the constant references to the character Taliah as “the beautiful girl” or “the fascinating woman”, when just her name would’ve been just fine. At times, Andrews can explain a little too much, telling us rather than showing us, but that is common in most historical fiction, which borrows more from the grandiose epic tradition than streamlined modern fiction. Personally, I like a lot of descriptive words, not only to know what characters look like but how they behave. I do love adverbs, so even when I knew Andrews was over-using them, I was forgiving, because it got me seeing what she saw and hearing what she heard. An issue many readers who are less familiar with the Biblical story might have is that there are an abundance of characters who all have history with each other, and it’s assumed that the reader will pick up. For those who haven’t read the book of Exodus or seen the animated Prince of Egypt, it might be better to start off with The Pharaoh’s Daughter, which tells the beginning of the story.***
Overall, I’d give Miriam 4/5 stars. I loved the attention to historical detail and the respect given to the Biblical text it’s based on. I didn’t feel patronized by it or like it was shoving a message at me. There is a lot of depth and a good student of the Bible will pick up on a lot of foreshadowing, but the story itself is accessible to all kinds of readers, as it is descriptive and focuses primarily on its compelling cast of characters and the world of Ancient Egypt. I would highly recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction and retellings of ancient religious texts.
Andrews is a Christian author who has written several Biblical novels, all extensively researched and female-oriented. Her heroines include Pharaoh’s daughter, a sorceress serving Queen Jezebel, Dinah the daughter of Jacob, Hosea’s wife Gomer, and the woman of the Song of Solomon. I’m definitely interested in reading more of her works, and seeing her interpretations of Biblical characters.
What are some of your favorite retellings? I’ve been reading a lot of Biblical retellings, like a few by Tosca Lee (her novel Iscariot is excellent), fairy tale retellings, like Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, and am super excited about Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology coming out in 2017. Send me some recommendations and I might use one for my review next month.
*If anyone can find me the link for this really solid novel-length Sybil/Tom fan fic set in a modern London AU I read about 2 or 3 years back, hit me up!
**Yes, there’s Glenn/Maggie and Rick/whoever and the Governor/Andrea, but what about Daryl? Carol? Beth? COME ON. When people feel they could die at any point, they live every moment like it’s their last. Too much dragging stuff like that out on that show.
***I’m normally opposed to reading a series out of order but the book cover said nothing about being a sequel!
Brittany Ann Zayas