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Anne Rice goes way out on several limbs with her new, first-person narrative by the 7-year-old Jesus.
For starters, the best-selling author, famous for her darkly sensual tales of the undead known collectively as The Vampire Chronicles, tries to lead her huge fan base out of the darkness and into the light of her own spiritual awakening. (Rice returned to the Catholic Church in 1998 after a long absence, acknowledging that she now embraces conservative doctrines.)
Second, it may be difficult for readers to approach any novel about Jesus with an open mind because of their own religious beliefs, or the lack of them.
And finally, in the book and promotional materials, Rice sets daunting goals: to make Jesus real for people who have stopped seeing him as anything other than an icon, and, for non-believers, to bring to life the times that would later spawn a religious revolution.
Despite those challenges, Rice does what she set out to do. For Christians and others open to the belief that Jesus was literally the son of God, she takes an intriguing look at what life may have been like for that real boy and his family.
And she re-creates a violent world in which devout Jews struggle to survive and worship, their rituals a stark contrast to rampant lawlessness.
The story opens in Egypt, to which Joseph the carpenter and his wife, Mary, fled after the birth of their son. After the death of the despot King Herod, they return to Israel, arriving in the village of Nazareth after a narrow escape in riot-torn Jerusalem.
Jesus is a bright boy devoted to his young mother, who is becoming aware, with some alarm, of supernatural powers that set him apart. He is frustrated by mysteries that surround him and the sense that his family is protecting him from dangers that he can't see.
His is a protective family, determined to hide the Messiah from those who would harm him. It's particularly interesting to see them face skeptics who believe that Joseph was ensnared by a girl who became pregnant by another man.
The greatest flaw is that Rice treats her subject so respectfully that his narration is staid. The lush imagery of her earlier works, dripping in sexuality and cruelty, is greatly diminished because of the youth of her narrator. If there are sequels (and she has said there will be), her savior chronicles will be better served by the evocative language that's her signature.
What you must admire, however, is that Rice is not playing it safe. In ending her own exile from the faith in which she was raised, she is reinventing herself as an artist with the hope, but not the certainty, that readers will follow.
*Read an excerpt from Christ the Lord at books.usatoday.com.
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