The Secret Book of Kings showcases author Yochi Brandes’s unique creativity. The narrator at the beginning of the novel is a child whose family belongs to one of the less powerful tribes of Israel. The Bible stories he learns are not exactly those we tell today; instead Brandes challenges the usual Biblical narratives by making small tweaks to these stories and slipping them casually into the characters’ conversations and the background explanations. Easily overlooked, these twists raise an intriguing world of possibility. What might have resulted if the stories handed down across the generations were different in fundamental elements? In order to notice the changes Brandes makes and appreciate the full power of her inventiveness, readers must know key biblical stories very well and read carefully.
By comparison, the plot — about the leadership over the kingdom of Israel — is interesting and engaging but not incredible. There are two narratives that eventually meet: the child grows up to become a soldier and eventually king, and the princess schemes in hopes of usurping the current rulers and regaining her family’s power over the throne. There are many characters along the way, and most of them are introduced in one role and later revealed to be someone else. At its best the story is a surprising and unpredictable page-turner. But there is much palace-based gossip that detracts from the momentum even as it provides necessary background.
Greenspan’s translation is another highlight. Clearly the words have been chosen with care so as to facilitate good rhythm and flowing dialog. The language captures the emotion in the story as well — especially the despair that arises from familial disputes and military violence, both of which are recurring themes. The translation also appears to pick up intangible elements from the original Hebrew. This enriches the experience of reading a powerful story filled with complex characters.
This novel will be of particular note to those interested in an imaginative look at the ancient kingdoms of Israel. Given the attention-grabbing characters and the stimulating story about a key part of the people of Israel’s history, it is easy to see why The Secret Book of Kings was a bestseller in Israel. English-language readers are fortunate to have the opportunity to read this book and enjoy Brandes’s intricate tale.