There is definitely something for everyone in Larew’s The Philistine Warrior—war, love, politics, and history in the Middle East just before the rule of King David (c. 1,000 – 960 BCE).
Many readers have enjoyed Karl Larew’s Paul’s Three Wars, the trilogy of U.S. Army Signal Corps officer Paul Van Vliet, and his family, from WWII through the Vietnam War. Larew is quite adept at giving his readers a portal into the very different lives of active military officers and their families (as in contrast with civilian life).
In The Philistine Warrior, Larew carries his exemplary skill in this subgenre of historical fiction to the portrayal of the military exploits and family life of an army officer further back in history—way back—to 1115-1110 B.C. While the chariots, arrows, and javelins of that era have been supplanted by tanks, rifles, and bombs, the camaraderie and rivalry among officers and the disruption of their families have remained much the same, changing only in form over the millennia.
Captain Phicol, trying to escape the humid heat of Askelon, along the Mediterranean coast of Philistia (part of the territory of Canaan, later called Palestine), goes for an early morning swim in the sea. He spies a beautiful young maiden engaged in the same pursuit and watches from a distance as she emerges from the sea totally naked. As she proceeds to enter the palace of his Uncle Zaggi, Phicol realizes that she is his young cousin Delai.
Later called to Zaggi’s palace himself, Phicol encounters another officer just leaving. Meeting with his uncle, he learns first that the officer is Major Warati, a new protégé (hmm), and then that Zaggi has received a letter from Melek (King) Nasuy saying that Delai is desired as a bride for his younger brother, Ekosh, who is now a general in the service and the court of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses IX. Phicol is to escort her to Thebes. Over the lengthy trip, his feelings for Delai come to surpass those of a cousin, but of course he keeps them to himself, just as 16-year-old Delai does hers regarding marriage to the 45-year-old general.
Phicol’s rivalry with (newly promoted) Colonel Warati escalates. Larew skillfully draws on his military knowledge to describe the military tactics (as he sees them) of the Philistine ground forces and charioteers, especially those led by Phicol. Returned to Askelon, Phicol is rebuked for engaging in a row with Warati by his uncles Maoch and Zaggi—the Sheren (Lord) and Chancellor, respectively, of Askelon, one of the sovereign cities that comprise Philistia.
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Delai has given birth to a healthy son, Akashou. She is convinced that the infant was protected in utero and at birth by the Goddess Inanna of a secret cult, in whom she was led to believe by the temple priest, Ibbi. The role of religion in this time and place, pervaded by politics, makes for a fascinating story in itself.
When Ekosh’s elder brother, Melek Nasuy, dies, Ekosh is elected (in absentia) Melek of Philistia. Phicol travels to Egypt a second time, carrying this news to the royal couple. Ekosh worries about leaving the Pharaoh—weak as all the Ramses descendants have been since the great Ramses II and Ramses III. A group of conniving priests will likely seize power, leaving the Pharaoh as a figurehead on the throne.
When the Danites put the plains city of Ekron under siege, Ekosh, with his aide-de-camp, Phicol, lead the Philistine armies to the rescue. In the aftermath of a minor skirmish, the giant Danite leader Samson escapes in the confusion. An intriguing version of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah ensues that lays the foundation for more political intrigue, betrayal and subterfuge, and plot twists, which leads to more battle strategies and political and personal intrigue. Larew is excellent at giving his readers more insight into how religious dogma affects culture and government along with an interesting history lesson about the rise of nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa– long before the Roman or Greek Empires existed.
After considerably more horror and sorrow, not to mention political twists and turns, including exile in Assyria, the matured Philistine warrior, his beautiful, loving, and supportive wife, their baby son Achish, and Ibbi—still with them as friend, priest, medical adviser, and not so accurate seer—find themselves welcomed back to a relatively peaceful Philistia.
The author has come through again with the attention to detail he is known for, though perhaps more of it than some readers like, but fans of historical fiction will relish. His characters are drawn with precision, whether they are good, bad, or downright evil. My personal favorite is Ibbi. Two not mentioned in this review are Rachel, Delai’s slave, then servant, as well as friend and companion. Another is Amphimachus, the venerable yet unassuming High Priest of Dagon, always there when Phicol needs him most.
Karl Larew, Ph.D. is a retired history professor, so readers should approach this novel (412 pages) as a comprehensive account of the times with introduction of new war technologies such a chariots and organized battle tactics, the long history of the numerous nations/tribes that been warring for centuries, and the events of the time. Larew’s telling from the eyes of a heroic young Philistine nobleman living in ancient Palestine gives readers a new perspective of this time and place in history. However, true to Larew’s style (He can write as deftly about passion and love as he does about battle tactics and military politics.), passion and romance is juxtaposed against the battle tactics and court intrigue, proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same.