T. Davis Bunn,
Riders of the Pale Horse
(1994; Bethany House, 2002)

Despite what the book jacket would have you think, T. Davis Bunn's Riders Of the Pale Horse is not about terrorism. The focus is not on nuclear weapons or Soviet spies, on international intrigue or terrorist rings. The globe is not in imminent peril. It is a story of a missionary, Wade Waters, and his journey to faith through strange lands.

It's odd that Bunn chooses to open the story with secondary characters. The former Soviet scientist, Alexis, and his family of would-be defectors don't come into the story again for far too long. The lead international agents, Cyril Price and Judith Armstead, are essential to the later story, but not so much that they need all their actions explained. Bunn's interest clearly lies with Wade and his attempts to share Christian faith in largely Muslim countries.

Wade's adventures are enjoyable on their own, without any great international plots or sense of global threat. The travels of the Red Cross convoy through the former Soviet Union provide plenty of action and tension on a small scale. Wade's uncertainty leaves him an approachable character in spite of his missionary zeal, and his slow evolution to confidence feels natural. His ever-lengthening quest -- to reach the Red Cross outpost, to find the workers, to distribute the supplies on the convoy -- provides plenty of interest long before the rogue nuclear engineers come into the picture. The engineers, and their potential for casing havoc, never feel nearly as threatening or as crucial to the story as Wade's companion Rogue Robards, a delightfully threatening mercenary.

The same can't be said for Allison Taylor. Her stay at the charity clinic in Aqaba is interesting in the way a travel documentary can be interesting. But despite her supposedly perilous circumstances, nothing of real importance happens to her until Wade's story finally aligns with hers. She's surely not the first love interest to twiddle her thumbs until the hero shows up, but so much time is given to showcase her inaction that it becomes irritating, a break in the more compelling story of Wade's more involved journey. She could have been introduced when Wade meets her, with no loss to the story or to reader sympathy.

Riders works from a definite Christian viewpoint, but not a cloying one. Bunn manages to create a largely Christian story without making it unpalatable to those who don't share his faith. A story about missionaries would seem very odd if it never mentioned faith at all, and most of the testifying done in the story is done effectively through the actions of the characters. The few awkward moments of evangelical dialogue or overtly Christian worldview stand in odd contrast to the rest of the novel.

It's not clear why Bunn felt the need to present his story as high political drama. Certainly he's aware of the political situation in the Middle East, or at least what it was in 1994. His careful research into the realities of daily life and his obvious fondness for the land and the people pays off; from Grozny to Aqaba, the landscape feels as threatening and alluring as any adventurer could wish. The various tribes, factions and semi governments that move through barely defined borders are all presented with interest and acceptance, and very little moralizing.

Riders of the Pale Horse doesn't live up to its promise of international drama or pressing thrills. Instead it delivers a fine adventure, a likeable hero and an armchair safari through lands both familiar and dangerous. It may not live up to its cover story, but it's never a disappointment.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 10 May 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.