This bold, intelligent and thought-provoking second novel from acclaimed Australian writer and religious cult survivor Rhys Hagan is a powerful work of historical fiction, set during the time of Jesus Christ.
Hagan’s debut novel, the gripping thriller, Hunting Taylor Brown, received rave reviews on its release in 2016, and this smart second work is no less of a page turner. The author has spoken publicly about his own experiences with a religious cult, and this skilfully-plotted book focuses on the theme of corruption in organised religion.
Controversially, Hagan presents the reader with a situation in which Christianity itself is created as a cynical marketing ploy and money-spinner, with Christ himself a wiseman and skilful public speaker blackmailed into posing as the Son of God in order to convince naive locals to donate their cash to the church.
Written from the point of view of a Roman banker named Amphion Gallius, Sovereignty has a cast of characters that includes Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and Pontius Pilate.
These Biblical figures are brought convincingly into life as three-dimensional characters with strengths and flaws (Hagan’s version of John the Baptist is so called because of his fondness for drowning himself in cheap plonk).
The subject is clearly a provocative one, and Hagan doesn’t shy away from dealing with heavy-hitting themes. His principal characters are money-driven and cynical, intent on using religion as a money-making tool, regardless of the consequences.
Amphion is the son of a famous banker, failing to make a name for himself financially, who enters into a contract with the corrupt Pontius Pilate. Having caught wind of Christ’s popularity, he cons the locals of Judea into believing that not only is the messiah among them, but he wants them to hand over their cash to the church.
Amphion blackmails the renowned ‘wiseman’ into declaring himself the Son of God, and convincing followers to donate to his cause. It’s a dangerous move in a time of religious and political instability, but Amphion teams up with his brother Marcus and good friend Dismas to stage ‘miracles’ for Jesus to publicly perform, rewrites religious texts, and establishes a new religious group, the ‘Christians’.
As Christianity begins to grow, however, Amphion finds himself taking on board some of the teachings of Jesus Christ. His moral awakening comes too late, however, and the consequences of his money-grabbing actions are severe for himself, his family, and for Jesus of Nazareth.
The political and religious climate of Judea spirals into a cycle of violence, and Amphion loses control of his men, his religious movement, and ultimately his own mind. Amphion looks to Christ for words of wisdom, but the ‘Son of God’ is also set to meet the ultimate punishment.
In a powerful book that examines some weighty themes such as religious corruption and our own capacity for self-deception (‘Haven’t you heard? We can convince ourselves of anything’), Hagan raises some pertinent issues. The central theme is controversial, but it highlights the issue of cult leaders exploiting their power, and exploiting vulnerable members of society for their own ends. Sure to stir up a great deal of debate, Sovereignty is well worth a read regardless of your religious standpoint.