A Review of Stones of Wrath, Book one: The Tapestry By S.J. Ratcliffe

Review by Albert J. McCarn

What do Christian Vikings, the last Catholic queen of Scotland, a Danish archaeologist, and a German Zeppelin have to do with the Lost Tribes of Israel? S.J Ratcliffe answers that question in her debut novel, Stones of Wrath: The Tapestry.

Ratcliffe’s work easily fits a number of categories: historical fiction, romance, mystery, Christian, action-adventure, espionage, and crime drama. She combines those genres into an intricate piece of literary art set primarily in 1916, at the height of World War I. The Israelite connection is established in the opening pages, on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of England. The monastery at Lindisfarne played a major role in the development of Christianity in the British Isles. Its destruction by Vikings in the year 793 provides an excellent setting for Ratcliffe to introduce not only an ancient Israelite artifact, but the network of faithful guardians who have kept it secret for centuries.

From this introduction, the author jumps forward to the early 20th century, where the next crisis in the artifact’s mysterious history unfolds. We learn that Mary Queen of Scots somehow became connected to this artifact, and kept it hidden even as she was under house arrest in Sheffield, England, during the reign of her cousin, Elizabeth I. It remains hidden as World War I engulfs Europe, but whispers of its existence and potential power inspire Germany’s Kaiser to send agents to retrieve it. The German spies enlist the unwitting assistance of Danish archaeologist Mikkel Jacobsen, who is temporarily assigned to the faculty at the University of Sheffield. Jacobsen’s budding romance with Ivy Jenkins soon entangles her and her family and friends in the mystery. As the plotlines unfold, we are taken on a fast-paced tour of wartime England, neutral Denmark, and the roots of Western civilization.

It takes a masterful storyteller like Ratcliffe to weave all these elements into a cohesive and credible epic. She does this by drawing heavily from her own family history. Her roots extend from her native Australia to England, where she still has relatives in Sheffield. Characters developed from her family line populate the novel, such as Thomas Jenkins, a bi-vocational Wesleyan Methodist pastor based on Ratcliffe’s great-grandfathers. This family connection, as well as her deep Christian faith, shape her depiction of England’s vibrant Christian culture in that era. She goes beyond the stereotypes and headlines to tell her story through real people, not two-dimensional characters. These are genuine Christians whose principles of faith guide them as they navigate the hardships of war on the home front. Their choices stand in contrast to the characters whose principles – or lack thereof – give them greater freedom of action, but fall short of the wisdom and discernment that sculpts daily actions into enduring achievements for the greater good.

Ratcliffe’s characters interact in a traumatized world coming to grips with global war. By 1916, the illusions of glory and glamour had evaporated over the muddy ruins of the Western Front and bloody beaches of Gallipoli. What we encounter are ordinary people doing their best to maintain some semblance of normalcy in an environment where the military-aged men are nearly all at the front, shortages of everything dictate daily life, and suspicions abound. That is what we would expect in wartime Britain, but we encounter similar circumstances when the action shifts to Denmark, which remained neutral throughout the First World War. The Danes are spared the loss of their military men, but every other reality of war impacts them, as well as difficulty of threading the needle between the hostile powers. That brings on a different, but no less toxic, kind of trauma that puts a strain on every relationship, but also provides opportunities to find allies in unexpected places.

These are the realities of life Ratcliffe writes about with the authority of experience. As the wife of a British naval aviator, she knows about military life in war and peacetime. Her extensive genealogical and historical research, as well as her travels, have equipped her with a reservoir of knowledge that she eagerly shares. This is not merely a knowledge of facts, but an intimate understanding of life, with all of its joys and sorrows, that translates into an engaging and uplifting story. From the scheming of the German spies to the gentle courtship of Mikkel and Ivy, we encounter a depiction of a bygone era that is more familiar to us than foreign simply because the author has chosen to write about the features of our human existence that never change.

This is what makes Stones of Wrath: The Tapestry so enjoyable, and what enables us to accept the elements that might be called the stuff of legend. That, of course, is the mysterious Israelite artifact, and with it, the account of Israel’s Lost Tribes. They did exist in antiquity, but where did they go after the Assyrian and then Babylonian empires conquered the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah? Ratcliffe weaves that into her story in the same way she incorporates Medieval and modern history. Her readers may be surprised to learn how much is known about the migrations of Israel’s tribes, and how those migrations shaped the development of nations and peoples around the world. There is a reason she has a Danish archaeologist as her protagonist, and she does not disappoint in taking him on a journey of discovery about the origins of his own people.

Is it all fiction, or is there something to it? This novel is itself the first phase in a journey of discovery that Ratcliffe calls Stones of Wrath. What are those stones? Whose wrath infuses them? What is their connection to Israel’s tribes, and why are they important? We get hints of the answers in The Tapestry, but the full revelation will come in bits and pieces with each new novel. It truly is a journey of discovery that will inspire the reader to look into this question with new eyes.

Stones of Wrath, Book 1: The Tapestry is available on Amazon.com, and through the author’s website at https://www.sjratcliffeauthor.com/.

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