The novel Iras of the Empire is the story of a woman living at the collision point of imperial and spiritual power, seeking power and peace in a dangerous world. Iras enjoys the full protection of the Roman Empire as handmaiden to Procula, wife of Pontius Pilate. An orphan from a Nubian family, Iras lacks power or privilege of her own. She becomes family with the other servants - her best friends Mitos and Joseph – and takes comfort in remembrances of her mother’s healing herbs and balms, and her father’s wisdom from the astral realm. Yet she finds little respite from the casual brutality just beyond the palace walls and columns of soldiers that protect them on their journeys. She meets John the Baptist in the desert – he gives her hope yet she unknowingly aids in his degradation as she serves at a banquet in King Herod’s palace. She meets with joy the coming of Mitos’ and Joseph’s baby, but the hatred of one man for another drives Mitos to her death, and drives Iras to become at once the protecting and avenging angel. Blood on her hands numbs her fear of Pilate, but the risk of paying the penalty for her crime makes her flee.
On the road to Ephesus, a chance encounter with the handsome charioteer Mandulis sets her on a detour to find the remnants of her family in Meroe. There, in the Nubian capital that rivals Alexandria in its splendor, Iras discovers her father’s mother, a pantheon of goddesses and queens, love, leprosy, and betrayal. She takes up work in the temple to be close to Mandulis, only to find that his ambitions and pledge of fidelity to the Candace would make family life together impossible. The anger of another woman leads to false accusations of leprosy; Iras endures a humiliating examination at the hands of a corrupt judge. She cries out to her goddess Hathor but no consolation is given. Returning from the temple, she finds her accuser near death from an accident in the street – a moment for mercy, for indifference, or for vengeance?
Iras’ life moves on, and in time she marries Pasan, a successful silversmith in Ephesus. She herself becomes a prosperous shopkeeper on the agora by the harbor, one of the many women who practices healing and sacred prayers in service to the goddess Artemis. Yet a new religion is catching fire, prayer scrolls are burning in the streets and Artemis’s silver icons are melted down for scrap. Paul and Timothy preach of one god not made with human hands in church houses and lecture halls throughout Ephesus, and Iras is drawn into their orbit as her husband’s business and many like it feel the rising threat against the goddess and protector of their city. Friend and foe from the past return, and Iras faces a life altering decision as the tension between the silversmiths and defenders of the new faith in the Christ erupts into a riot.
Iras of the Empire will be enjoyed by those who appreciate historical fiction, mystical imagery, Christian literature, and the cross-cultural worlds of ancient Nubia, Jerusalem, and Ephesus. In particular, the depiction of the city of Meroe will be for many readers an exciting new discovery of an ancient civilization.