Richard Gray,
The Piaculum
(iUniverse, 2003)

The Piaculum is a book that has seared itself into my memory with its singular vision, darkly compelling storyline and truly moving conclusion. I was originally drawn to the dark fantasy elements of the novel, but The Piaculum far exceeded my expectations. It's a dark tale, to be sure, but it is also an enlightening one with a religious and humanistic depth that burns with the light of true inspiration. I was moved to a few tears by the powerful, uplifting and incredibly inspirational final chapters and I remain somewhat stunned by the intellectual and emotional depth displayed in Richard Gray's incredible first novel.

Like any work of such vision and power, The Piaculum is a book destined to be either loved or hated, depending on the reader. The darkness and suffering laid bare throughout the story as it progresses will disturb some readers and possibly even disconnect some from the story, and the religious aspects will also doubtless turn others away as well, but many readers, I feel sure, will bear the cross of the main character's suffering and find solace if not joy in the novel's incredibly powerful conclusion.

I was utterly fascinated by the concept of this novel. The Piaculum takes place in a distant future, a new Dark Age in which mankind is split into two distinct groups. On the one hand you have the Mone, a primitive but Christian society, which follows the teachings of The Book of Testaments. On the other hand, you have the Kathe, a more urban, technologically superior culture that is based upon a cult of blood. The Kathe believe that no man may go to heaven unless his sins are paid, literally, in blood. This holy blood is shed by the Piaculum, living gods they construct out of special Mones and Kathes born with "the white mark." The Piaculum are believed to go to hell, carrying the sins of the Kathe with them, and their blood is shed routinely for the salvation of the Kathe who worship them.

The Piaculum, almost always captured as youngsters, are literally fused and encased inside a prison of strong metal cages, their hands and feet gruesomely pierced by the process. Their shed blood is both worn and drunk by the Kathe as the necessary drops of their salvation. The Piaculum themselves are essentially brainwashed into believing themselves to be the gods the Shalute, or priests of the Kathe, proclaim them to be. Every 12 years or so, during the Week of Blood, new Piaculum are captured and forced to endure the agonies of such a life.

The Kathe came for Cearl when he was a small child, but he miraculously escaped the Circle of Blood with his life. Since that traumatic childhood experience, he has lost much in terms of his family and friends, but he has also gained a wife he adores and two children he loves dearly -- one of which was born with the white mark. When his youngest son is 5, the Kathe take him, forcing Cearl to deal with all of the horrors of his nightmarish youth once again. He gives himself to the Kathe in order to save the life of his son, and so begins his life as a Piaculum. The suffering he endures is great, almost unimaginable, and Gray spares the reader very little in his forceful, painful description of Cearl's new life. Cearl, ever faithful to his own God, knows his suffering has a purpose, however, one that goes far beyond the sparing of his little boy back in his Mone village. Cearl finds strength in the belief that God is using him to change Kathe society, and he works to bring literacy and then salvation to the ignorant followers of the blood cult.

It is not always easy to suffer alongside the pains of Cearl in these pages, but the reader is rewarded by a truly moving experience of a power rarely found in dark fantasy. The resolution of the novel is surprisingly complex as well; Gray does not just throw a fairytale ending out there -- far from it, in fact.

You don't have to be a Christian or a follower of any religion to enjoy the tale, although Christians may find it especially moving; this is truly a novel of human suffering and purpose, as the metallic prison of the Piaculum can mutilate Cearl's body and separate him from human contact, but it can never destroy his humanity.

The only negative thing about this novel is its incredibly large number of misspelled words and other editing errors, some of them rather egregious. It is unfortunate, as this takes a little something away from the reader's experience and forces him to momentarily remember that he is reading rather than experiencing the story himself. The frequent disconnections caused by the errors are unfortunate, but this story is far too unique and powerful for anyone to let these errors stop him from immersing himself in a story unique in its depth and vision. I daresay I've never read a novel remotely like The Piaculum before, and I have been immensely rewarded by the experience.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 12 February 2005

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