We know what we like and we like what we know. That simple logic is what draws readers to books that are part of a series. We like the consistency of knowing what we’ll get when we throw down our hard earned dollars for some reading entertainment. If we like the storyline and the characters in one book, we hope the author will be consistent and bring us the same great storytelling in the next and the next.
There’s always a danger the longer a series goes on, the greater the chance the author simply can’t keep delivering the goodness. Eventually, the storyline grows stale and we just don’t care anymore.
The Gates of Babylon is the sixth book in Michael Wallace’s Righteous series. Number six. One might expect there’s a good chance, after cranking out six books in the same series, some of the quality would drop off. Authors are only human, right?
Wallace manages, not only to keep up the pace and the tension we expect from this enthralling series, but also to point the storyline down a completely unexpected but perfectly logical path and it’s brilliant.
Wallace told me in an interview that he had intended the fifth book, Destroying Angel, to be the last book in the series that features Jacob Christianson and his sister Eliza as they reluctantly find themselves leaders of a Mormon polygamist community. Wallace’s publisher had other ideas, asking for three more books in the popular series. What do you do when you’ve got a series you think is finished and you still have to write more? You do exactly what Wallace did. The Gates of Babylon makes such a radical change in story direction from the rest of the series, the new course can easily occupy two more books in the innovative arc.
Throughout the series, we’ve watched Jacob Christianson, a physician and the eldest son of the spiritual profit of an insular LDS polygamist community, come to terms with his position in the conclave. In each of the five previous books, the deadly power struggle between the Christiansons and the rival Kimballs is the central plot line that takes us deep into a world most of us know little about. It’s a place where loyalties drive people to do unspeakable things, where scripture is welded like a weapon to dole out punishment and retribution and where the ties of family sometimes mean everything and other times, mean nothing at all. Wallace consistently makes us witness to the diabolically brutal and evil lengths some will go to reach their own ends.
But how long can a family feud go on? How long can the same good guys and bad guys battle it out? Turns out smiting your enemy only means you’re left with the burden of cleaning up the mess, but what an interesting mess it is.
What makes this series most successful is Wallace’s ability to show us this radical cult-like lifestyle of polygamy, religious fervor and blind obedience to a spiritual leader in a light which seems not only plausible, but reasonable. Jacob Christianson is a normal guy with his own religious doubts. He seems reluctant and unaware of his charismatic appeal which draws unlikely followers like a couple of ex-FBI agents, local law enforcement and elders in his community who fight against many things but are most threatened by change.
Christianson’s leadership is tested when, as foretold in the Book of Mormon, the end cometh. What will that look like? How does he protect his community? Is a man whose life has been filled with religious doubt the best person to lead his people through the end of days?
We may all have different tastes when it comes to what we read, but I think most of us read for the same basic reasons—we like to be transported to places we’ve never been, we want to learn things, expand our worlds, meet people we otherwise wouldn’t know. It’s not easy to find stories that absorb us in a way that sufficiently accomplishes all of this, so when we find an author or a series that works for us, we stick with it.
I thought the Righteous Series had to be nearing its end but Wallace’s The Gates of Babylon has given new life to the story and I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.