Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Harvest of Rubies by Tessa Afshar

Harvest of Rubies tells the story of a young Persian scribe during the Reign of King Artaxerxes. Set in 457 BC Persia the novel opens with Sarah, daughter of Simeon who is a royal scribe in the Persian court, revealing her ability to read. When Sarah's father and her Aunt Leah balk at her learning to read and write, Sarah's cousin Nehemiah, cupbearer to King Artaxerxes intervenes.
If the Lord has gifted the child, then perhaps it's because He has a plan for her life that requires such skills. And who are we to stand in the way of the Lord."
Her father sets about teaching her and eventually Sarah becomes accomplished in writing and languages. By age sixteen she can read and write Persian, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Hebrew. Sarah is driven to succeed as a way to get her father to notice her and to have some sort of relationship with him. When Nehemiah questions Sarah about her faith she tells him that she doesn't believe that God helps people. Instead she feels that people help themselves by their own efforts and that only her work makes her valuable as a person.

Eventually Sarah is recommended by Nehemiah to become the Queen Damaspia's senior scribe. Although initially reluctant, because she fears that she will fail, Sarah does agree to take on the position and moves to Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire. There Sarah becomes a trusted scribe to the Queen.

One day she is summoned by Damaspia who tells her that the queen mother, Amestris has accused Damaspia's servant, Frada, of stealing. Damaspia is furious. When Sarah reads the tablet she finds evidence that things are not as they should be. She manages to convince Damaspia to allow her to try to sort out the situation. Damaspia agrees and when Sarah solves the mystery in the three days allotted to her and salvages the relationship between the king's mother and the king's wife, Damaspia decides to reward her senior scribe in a manner Sarah never dreamed.

The reward Damaspia has in mind, horrifies Sarah;  Damaspia has arranged for Sarah to marry Lord Darius, son of one of the king's cousins, Lord Vivan. Both Nehemiah and Damaspia put forth Sarah's name when Lord Vivan complained about his son's inability to find a wife. Not only will Sarah marry Lord Darius, but she will do so within the week because Lord Vivan will be departing for Ionia.

Panicked, Sarah seeks out her father and her cousin, Nehemiah, in the hope that they will be able to get her out of the marriage to Darius Passargardae but she soon learns that this will not be possible as both men sealed the contracts. Nehemiah encourages Sarah to trust God, that he has a plan for her. Instead, Sarah gives in to despair and refuses to prepare properly for her marriage.

The week before her wedding passes quickly, with Sarah refusing to prepare properly. Her lack of personal care and outrageous appearance at her wedding both shock and humiliate the groom. Darius is revolted and furious and Sarah realizes too late what she has done.
The last of my defiance vanished as I realized how I had demeaned him in my foolishness. An avalanche of shame and regret covered me with such force, I almost cried out. I turned to leave, to run away from this devastating disgrace, to free Darius Passargadae from the humiliation I had brought upon him.
After spending the night together in which their marriage is not consummated and Darius is drunk, Sarah is taken before Queen Damaspia the next morning where she confesses to the Queen what happened and how herdemon-like appearance was completely unintentional. The queen asks her to persevere and sends her a maid, Pari to help her and be her companion.

Sarah then travels to Darius' large estate where she finally has the opportunity to speak with him and tell him what happened. Darius believes that Sarah schemed and manipulated her way into the marriage after their first encounter years earlier on the dunes outside of Persepolis. When she tries to tell him the truth her refuses to believe her, thinking she is a liar.
'I cannot abide liars. I do not think I can abide you. Your very presence is like a poisoned dagger pressing against my flesh.'
And so she is left alone on Darius' estate. After wallowing in grief, depression and utter loneliness, Sarah is encouraged by Pari to get out of bed. Sarah must make a choice; wallow in her despair or try to win the heart of her husband. Will she allow her faith to sustain her and will she trust in God's plan for her life?

Fearing that her behaviour might cause harm to Pari, Sarah decides to try to make the best of her situation. She soon discovers that her husband's steward, Teispes, is abusing his position and stealing from the estate, allowing it to go to ruin. She manages to build her case against Teispes, and when Darius returns, Sarah presents the situation to him. This is the beginning of their reconciliation and Sarah's realization of the true state of her relationship with God as well.

Harvest of Rubies is another beautifully written novel by Tessa Afshar that captivates the reader both with its well crafted romance and its unique historical setting - a hallmark of Afshar's novels.

This book has plenty of biblical references and allusions to parables seamlessly woven throughout the story. When Sarah is young, Nehemiah reads one of the psalms to her and Sarah remembers learning them when her mother was alive. Later on during Sarah's marriage to Darius, Nehemiah brings him a copy of the psalms of King David. Darius crumples the valuable gift, but Sarah later on these same psalms serve to draw Sarah back to the Lord.

When Sarah finds Bardia, the groundskeeper cutting back the grapevines until there was almost nothing left of the plant, she admonishes him to stop. But he tells her that the sweetest wine in produced when the vine suffers and that he, the gardener knows what is best for the vine. This encounter leads Sarah to reconsider her relationship with God. Was he allowing all that had happened to her; the neglect by her father, the loss of her beloved mother, the loss of her work that she held so dear, and her difficult marriage for a greater purpose?

We travel with Sarah through her journey of faith beginning when she recognizes how she has lived her life up until her marriage. She remembered her mother's painful death and wondered at God allowing such suffering - a question many people struggle with. She struggled to earn her father's love but only received what seemed to be indifference.
"At that point I stopped reciting the Scriptures and relying on the Lord. I still kept the outward form of the Law when possible, living amongst Gentiles as I was, but my heart no longer made room for God. I learned it was far better to rely on myself."
Instead of trusting God, as Nehemiah suggested, Sarah fought him and made her life more difficult. Eventually with time, Sarah comes to realize that she has been putting the Lord to the test, questioning and accusing God instead of clinging to him. She understands that she must either unconditionally surrender to God or continue to stubbornly resist his will for her. With her arrogance and rebellion, and her need for control, Sarah had constructed walls around her heart that had kept God out.

But her lack of faith is not her only problem. Sarah's view of herself not only affects her own life but has now spread to how others view her. She believes her only value comes from her work. She tells Nehemiah to look at her, and that no man will value her, especially not a rich spoiled man like Lord Darius who will likely want only beautiful women. Sarah believes she has value only through her work as a scribe.

One of the major themes in this novel is that of reconciliation. As Sarah's relationship with God changes so does her relationship with her husband and ultimately her father. Allowing God to lead her, frees her from her fear and helps Sarah open her heart towards those in her life.

Thankfully, Afshar will continue Sarah and Darius' story in a second book that deals with Nehemiah's journey to Jerusalem. The first chapter of this novel can be found in the back of Harvest of Rubies.

Harvest of Rubies Trailer from River North Fiction on Vimeo.

Book Details:
Harvest of Rubies by Tessa Afshar
Chicago: River North Publishers 2012
372 pp.

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