The Lost Wisdom of the Magi

Written by Susie Helme
Review by J. Lynn Else

In this biographical historical novel set during the 1st century, Sophia is a Jew who loves exploring the royal archives as her father’s secret apprentice. She feels called to learning and devotes herself as a bridesmaid of God. When she is forced into a betrothal, Sophia flees from home. She’s found by an incense caravan and adopted into a family. Her love of stories and learning thrives amongst the caravan. She eventually joins a commune of magi. When a rebellion against Rome arises in 70 AD Jerusalem, Sophia joins and uses her learned skills in magic to aid the cause. Though pledged to celibacy, the stars have ordained she will know her true love “over a pool of blood.” Meanwhile, the world holds its breath for Judgement Day.

The prose could use a bit of polish. With sentences like, “We abided a week in Pella while the hot winds from Arabia passed, then passed over the mountains…” (word repetition) and “Crying always make me exhausted…” combined with sentences missing independent clauses, sometimes the narrative feels awkwardly put together.

The book itself is all story with no end notation discussing research and source material. Where did the history about the study of magic and mysticism within the Jewish community arise? I’d hoped for an inside look into Helme’s research; she knows the time period well!

The setting and its peoples are stunningly realized, but most compelling are Sophia’s struggles with mental illness, aptly named “the black cloud.” Sophia must learn to pull herself out of these spells when the cloud/the demon overpowers her. Sophia’s poignantly told, slow development to overcome her “demons” gives the character a depth rarely seen in ancient fiction. This is a unique story with multifaced characters and a landscape filled with tension.