Review: “Soulsaver,” James Stevens-Arce

Pros: Fantastic story of the Second Coming
Cons: The message comes on a little strong
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Soulsaver: A Novel of the Second Coming, by James Stevens-Arce, takes place in San Juan at the very end of 2099. Juan Bautista has just turned 22, and he has become a soulsaver, one of a corps of people who collect the bodies of those who have died by suicide and bring them to be resurrected. (And then imprisoned for breaking God’s law.) He’s a true believer, a zealot, but soon his partner, Fabiola Muñoz, has him questioning himself and what he’s been told. The people are impoverished and starving, sometimes suicide seems their only way out, and then even that is ripped away from them. Meanwhile, the clergy have no problems actually disintegrating blasphemers. We’ve become an Americhristian nation, in which “you can be any kind of Christian you like–Christian Jew, Christian Muslim, Christian Buddhist….” The government is hunting down twin children Noel and Emma, who claim to be the Christ Children, the Twin Messiahs. The Shepherdess, who leads the nation, has declared them to be the Twin Antichrists and has a nationwide manhunt going for them. Soon, some higher-ups approach Juan: they want him to find out through Fabiola where Noel and Emma are, and turn them in. But the idea of lying to Fabiola is difficult for Juan to swallow.

My only negative is that the condemnation of this organized religion comes on awfully strong. It’s pretty transparently despotic, particularly when the Shepherdess casually suspends the Bill of Rights. Other than that, however, this is a really fascinating tale. It has a lot of style, a stark contrast between the lives of the elite and the squalor of the downtrodden. The contrast between resurrected suicides and yet casually killing blasphemers is striking. The worldbuilding has a fair amount of detail to it–Juan, for example, has just entered his “marriage year”, and this causes him to make some rather precipitous decisions.

Once Juan gets sucked into the high-flash world of Jimmy Divine, evangelist and television preacher, and even meets the Shepherdess, things get wild. It’s believed that the end of the world is coming–in scant days, forcing events to pile on top of each other as everyone races to reach the end-game. The end of the world is a huge stage production, and it delivers. Juan is our proxy, just trying to do the right thing as he navigates his new world. While sometimes the right thing seems obvious, Juan’s prevarication is made understandable. He has a greater role to play in the end of the world than seems to be the case, and what he decides matters. I also appreciate the fact that the girl he suddenly marries has some depth to her, and she doesn’t always do what we expect, either.

While a little one-sided, this is a fascinating depiction of what a very one-sided religious nation might be like, and how income disparity can lead to horrible conditions. It’s something worth reading given where we are at today.

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