Title: Within the Palace Gates
Author: Anna P. Siviter
Major Themes: Ancient Persia, Jewish History, Nehemiah, Biblical Historical Fiction
Synopsis: Nehemiah, cupbearer of the great king Artaxerxes Longimanus, must go rebuild the walls of Jerusalem—but with enemies on either hand, will he be allowed to go—let alone accomplish the great task?
Within the Palace Gates is one of the best historical fiction books I’ve ever read. Combining thorough, solid historical research, true-to-life Biblical characters, a solid grasp on Biblical laws, and a fast-moving adventure, Anna P. Siviter has woven a masterpiece.
Mom first read this story as a girl, and recently she remembered it again and immediately bought it. Even though this is an older book—published in 1932—the story is still just as fresh and exciting as it was then. Mom read it aloud to the family over the course of a week or two, and we couldn’t wait for the next installment each night. If it wasn’t for the fact that we have strict rules around here regarding read-alouds, I know several of us would have read ahead from the sheer torture the tension gave us. Even now, whenever I read the book, I have to plan on not going to sleep until late.
The story opens with Nehemiah meeting Hanani, the brother he lost when he and his parents—Hachilah and Sarai—were taken to Persia. From him he learns of the terrible state Jerusalem is in after years of neglect, even after Cyrus allowed the Hebrews to rebuild their temple. With the walls in heaps of rubbish, the residents of Jerusalem and the surrounding area are in constant danger from different bands of wild raiders that sweep through from time to time.
Hanani comes to Persia in search of permission from the king to rebuild the walls of the city. Not only does the plight of the whole Hebrew race rest on his shoulders, but he has a personal burden—his wife and eldest son were among some of those taken captive by the cruel Samaritans.
Then there is Adna, a Hebrew servant of Nehemiah’s, who has fallen in love with Lady Sarai’s lovely handmaid Lydia. Lydia is a heathen girl, so according to the Torah Adna isn’t allowed to marry her—but she still asks to be allowed to love him in return, even if they cannot marry.
Nehemiah is the king’s cupbearer, and as such, he must protect the king’s cup with his life. But what happens when poison is discovered in the king’s cup? Nehemiah is suddenly in grave danger—in such a time and place, he will be executed without a trial. Then the king decides he wants Lydia to become his wife. Both Lydia and Adna are heartbroken—if she becomes part of the king’s harem, they will never see each other again. And what about the plight of the Jews and Hanani’s wife and son?
Within the Palace Gates is full of adventure, plot twists, and tension. There are a few slow places, but those are quickly replaced by the plight of the characters getting into more trouble. Besides a great story, I felt like I really got to live as a Hebrew through this book—witnessing their fears, struggles, and danger as it would have been at that time. This book made me feel like Nehemiah was a close friend.
Soon after finishing this story, I read through the book of Nehemiah, and was very impressed with how Anna kept to all the detail in the Bible. I couldn’t even spot any places where she took artistic license in creating or adjusting the facts given! Overall, this is a great story, telling about a fascinating little-known part of Jewish history.
WARNING: Through the beginning of the book, there are some references to the ancient Persian methods of torture. There is also one place where a character is badly injured by some archers. One facet of the story is romance (between Adna and Lydia), but it is very clean—no kisses or hugs. Mom had no problem with my brothers hearing it.
Read Aloud—Ages 8 – 12, 10 – 13, Family Read Alouds
Reading Independently—Ages 10 – 12, 12 – 15, 15 and Above, Adults