ALPHA AND OMEGA
by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Harry Turtledove takes a step away from alternate history to write a new future thriller about the End Times in Alpha and Omega, a religious thriller that takes place mostly in Israel as a series of prophecies from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam appear to be coming true that might usher in the end of the world.
Turtledove frequently makes use of a range of characters in his novels and in Alpha and Omega the viewpoint often shifts between Jewish-American archaeologist Eric Katz, journalist Gabriela Sandoval, the Avigads, Chaim and Yitzhak, the potential Messiah and his uncle, Lester Stark, an American evangelical, and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Not only does this allow Turtledove to present different points of view, but it allows him to realistically have characters involved in all the major events, and sometimes even driving them.
Following the explosion of a dirty bomb in Jerusalem, the rules of engagement between Jews and Muslims are irrevocably changed. An election brings a far right majority to power in Israel and they announce that they will remove the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque from the top of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The recent discovery of a red heifer in Arkansas, brought to Israel by an ultraorthodox sect, had given the right wing the impetus to rebuild the temple in order to open the world to the coming of the Messiah.
One of the most interesting things about Alpha and Omega is that even as the prophecies are being fulfilled, and interpreted differently by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it is not clear if the prophecies and events will lead to the appearance of the Jewish Messiah, the Christian Antichrist and apocalypse, or the appearance of the Islamic Mahdi. As each prophecy is fulfilled, the question of authenticity is raised, however Turtledoveís narrative provides his characters with enough proof that faith is rewarded and the more scientific begin to suffer their own crises of reason.
Although there is some tension caused by the actions of individuals, notably Iranian and ISIS attacks on Israel and the Temple Mount, as well as the decisions made by Shlomo Kupferman, an archaeologist and Israelís Minister of Religious Services, the main tension in the novel is caused by the seemingly inexorable march towards Armageddon and what form it will take. The novel creates an interesting dynamic for the reader, juxtaposing the laws of nature in the real world against the possibilities in the world of Alpha and Omega. The reader canít bring normal expectations to a world in which the divine is imminent in the way it is portrayed. Mundane explanations canít be relied upon.
Interestingly, despite the driving force of divine will in setting plans in motion and carrying them through, there is still a feeling that individuals have free will for their own actions within the confines of the greater story. Even Chaim Avigad, the potential Messiah, and Muhammad al-Muntazar, the declared Mahdi, seem to have control over their own fates to a certain extent. Both boys are also depicted as typical teenage boys, despite having the possible divine expectations on their shoulders.
Turtledove sets a strong pace for the novel and, naturally, handles the multiple viewpoints well. Faith and a lifetime of beliefs and understandings for various characters, not just the scientists, but also the Grand Mufti, are tested as they come face to face with evidence that they may be incorrect. The end of the book, if not the end of the world, comes sooner than the reader would like.
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