Spoiler Alert: “Blood Doctrine” — An Unpromising First Novel

Blood Doctrine Just Doesn’t Deliver as a Novel

I really regret having to pan a writer’s first novel. I know how much hard work and hope goe into a first novel. While Christian Piatt’s Blood Doctrine has relatively plausible fictional premises, as a novel it just doesn’t deliver.

If you begin with The Da Vinci Code, add some Jurassic Park and strong dose of Jesus and the Essenes, you have the main elements of Blood Doctrine.  Yes, Jesus genes exist in our time frame, preserved in a 2,000 year old blood sample which blood is basically cloned. There is no bloodline, at least not yet.  That comes, perhaps, in a sequel hinted at in the last line.

I look for a few things in novel.  First, I like it when there is at least one character that I care about, one character who is likable. There is no character in Blood Doctrine who is likable.  No character in the story is developed enough to care about.

The opening scene was reminiscent of the birth scene in the movie Willow. While a screaming mother separated from her newborn conveys a lot of shock value, it is virtually the only thing that actually happens until the last 40 pages of the book. By page 50 I was angry that I had committed myself to writing this book review at all, and by page 100 I was furious.

There are two episodes of violence referred to in the first 140 pages, but they occur “off-stage”, out of range, to people we have never seen and with whom we have no emotional attachment. These killings are unreal, and do not generate the sense of danger and foreboding they were designed for.  Dramatically speaking, these two murders are simply cerebral ideas.  The killings do not move the action forward, at least not emotionally.

Allow me to list what I see as dramatic problems with Blood Doctrine.

  • There is not a single character I like or care about, not a single character with whom I identify. The best developed character is the “plucky reporter”, but there is no spark of individuality as she stands now.  She is just a one-dimensional stock character, imbued with a determination to follow in the footsteps of her father as a fearless reporter.
  • There is virtually no characterization in the novel, and absolutely no character development. Perhaps we are to wait for that in the sequel, but I don’t see a hint of an ability to develop characters.
  • The fact that Jacob grew up in an orphanage, being separated from his biological mother at birth, seems designed to create some sympathy for the character.  But this element is so truncated that if fails to create any emotional connection with the blood clone.
  • Blood Doctrine hijacks a universe of assumptions and tropes (genetic technology, church schemes, powerful bishops, secret societies, plucky reporters, etc.), but fails to live up to that literary heritage.

Rumor has it that the book is aimed at young adults.  If it is, then the book seriously underestimates the reading interest and endurance of the YA audience. The young people with whom I am familiar are reading “adult length” novels: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (377 pages), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (309 pages), Divergent (487 pages). Obviously length is no measure of quality, but the sparse 186 pages of Blood Doctrine fail to deliver as a novel on any level.  It’s just too short–it leaves out too many elements of a satisfying read. At the same time, it’s too long–like driving across the plains of Canada at night: nothing happens and you can’t see anything.

One of the central problems is that the main motivation for writing the book is ideological and theological.  I have no problem with the ideological and theological premises of the book.  And there is no  disputing the fact that every novel reflects its cultural and ideological context.  The problem here is that embedding those ideological and theological premises in a novel is absolutely no guarantee that that the story will work in its incarnation in the fiction genre.

Despite the bare similarities between Blood Doctrine and The Da Vinci Code, as a novel Piatt’s book has more affinity for the urban fantasy genre. Urban fantasy generally has an urban setting, a brash female heroine, and (especially more recently) a gritty feel (read: several “fucks” per page). There are two other ways in which Blood Doctrine resemble urban fantasy.

One similarity is that in urban fantasy, the heroes discover their secret powers gradually as their stories develop. This is certainly true of Jacob, Jesus’ present-day blood clone, as he discovers his (one suspects) mutation-based ability to heal.

The second similarity between this book and urban fantasy is the racism and sexism that often mar urban fantasy.  But in the case of Blood Doctrine, the specific species of racism is anti-semitism.  Piatt’s portrayal of first-century scribes and Pharisees is the most shrill I have ever encountered.  He seems to begin with John’s gospel and then ratchets it up a couple of notches.

While Blood Doctrine has the look and feel of the more gritty urban fantasy, it is structured much like a mystery, which in large part accounts for the sense that nothing really happens in the book. Numerous “clues” build up in the beginning of the book, but they are not enough to build up a real sense of suspense.

Another technique Piatt uses is a triple narrative, concerning first-century followers of Jesus, the blood-clone Jacob, and the reporter tracking down her dangerous story. Unfortunately, these story lines do not build any compelling suspense either.

Blood Doctrine attempts to answer the question, “What would Jesus be like if he were born today?”  Piatt postulates that he would have genetic healing powers, possibly rooted in a mutation.

The difference between Jesus and Jacob, however, is that Jesus was nurtured in pious environment, and all of his experiences directed him toward the enhancement of his intrinsic healing abilities and toward an eventual Messianic identity, which is enhanced by the many years he spent among the Essenes learning their esoteric lore. In terms of environment, everything in Jesus’ “silent years”, especially his years spent with the Essenes, resembles Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

Jacob, on the other hand, lives his life in a decidedly impious environment, where “fuck” is the adjective of choice, and where the blood clone actually does “fuck”, with the logical result. Piatt’s generous use of “fuck” from everyone in this timeline seems to me either the reduction of “realism” to profanity, or an insult to the intelligence of his “young adult” readers.

In addition to the gift of healing, the single symbol of the Jesus clone’s “eccentricity” is his preference for jazz and playing the sax.

What I don’t know is whether I am dissatisfied with Christian Piatt as the author, or with Frank Schaeffer as the editor. Schaeffer reportedly cut Piatt’s manuscript in half. But in either case, the only reason I would ever be interested in re-reading Blood Doctrine would be to see whether my intense disappointment with the novel, as a novel, is deserved.

A novel should move on at least two levels, one is intellectual, the other is emotional. On a feeling level, there are many kinds of feelings that can be aroused.  Likewise, there are many different intellectual levels or premises available.  I did not find the intellectual premises in Blood Doctrine offensive.

While I don’t embrace Piatt’s Essene Jesus, neither do I reject it.  What was lacking, almost totally, was a requisite level of emotion.  There was one scene of shock value emotion in the first chapter, and a tepid level of emotional involvement in the last fort or so pages.  The book doesn’t fail as a piece of ideology, it fails as a piece of fiction.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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