Storyhelix Review 035: Nikolai the Penitent

Mark Carver is a hard-core writer. He’s got a rock-hard love for language and grim reality, and I think he’s well on his way to knowing how to use it as a weapon much more than me.


So when I picked up his new work, Nikolai the Penitent, I knew it would be more on the edgier side of things. I wasn’t disappointed.

Nikolai the Penitent is a grim novel set in 14th century Europe, back when disease (Black Death) ravaged through the land and effectively killed a lot of people. During this time, Nikolai falls under the spell of rhetoric from the “Brotherhood of the Cross,” who are men and women who go around different cities whipping themselves, hoping to pay for the sins of the people with their blood.

It’s a little more on the “13” side of PG-13. R wouldn’t been to bad a rating either.

Best things: 

1. Historical Intimacy

We live in a world where PC stuff makes a big difference, and where we have a tendency to judge whether or not something is “good” but how diverse its cast is by the color and gender of its players rather than by the story; this usually results in judging history by the same standards we live in today, as if context doesn’t matter. I appreciated it a lot that Carver’s book has a lot of unpleasant violence and insults, but historically, it’s a realistic portrayal – maybe not all the violence, but the brutality and insensitivity over certain topics was fresh and striking (no pun intended).

2. Developed Characters and Themes

Nikolai is given a history. He’s not just a random fanatic looking for meaning in his life. He’s from a loving family, and he grew up with a foundation of honor. Debts need to be paid, work needs to be done, and eventually, for him, blood needs to be spilled. You can see the rhetoric of fear used is juxtaposed against every element of life: faith, family, and work.

3. Sympathy for the Devil and Questions of Faith

I don’t think this is quite as drastic as I made it sound there.

You do feel sorry for people in the Brotherhood of the Cross on some levels. They are afraid and determined, and brave in face of disease. It’s heartbreaking to see how it ends up tearing Nikolai apart, spiritually and literally. It does also make you wonder, curiously and admirably, at their passion, seeing how willing they are to share in the pains of Christ in order to prevent the disease (in their estimation) from harming other people. I thought the Brotherhood became both victim and victimizer in this way.

Well, what are you waiting for? Check it out here!!


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