Book review: Michelle Mazel’s “Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil”

Just finished reading “Julius Matthias – A Pact with the Devil” by Michelle Mazel (published by New Meridian, ISBN: 978-0-997603842).

It’s a remarkable work, not least because it takes Mazel into new literary areas. An accomplished author, Michelle Mazel has previously perhaps been best known for her Alfassi thriller series, a trilogy that weaves together the heat of the Middle East with the never-ending conflict that continues to tear the region apart.

With this latest book, however, Mazel paints on a much broader canvas – and an unusual canvas at that. Once again, the backdrop is regional conflict, but this time not in the Middle East, but the World War that began in Europe and ripped an entire world apart.

Interestingly, however, it is not World War Two that is depicted, but World War One. That in itself is enough to pique the reader’s interest. It’s a departure from the expected that is typical of the entire book.

Michelle Mazel has a fine eye for the human-interest stories of people going about their daily lives in a turn-of-the-century Europe that, unknown to most, was about to undergo a massive and irrevocable change. The author wields her literary brush with great delicacy to paint the fine details of those lives against the backdrop of major events that reshaped not just nations and states but the entire world.

The storyline is based in Transylvania, as if that weren’t a stark enough departure from the expected. The story deals with the interlocking lives that sometimes pitched Christians against Jews, women against men, secularists against the strictly observant, traditionalists against a new breed of liberals, young against old, Rumanians against Hungarians, the dying star of the Austro-Hungarian Empire against emerging Soviet influence, Axis powers against Allied forces. All told, a world in flux.

Michelle Mazel tells the story of Julius Matthias, a highly principled young man determined to become a doctor, whose only way of achieving his goal is to enter into a loveless marriage and have his education paid for by his father-in-law. Without giving away any of the storyline, suffice it to say that this is just the start of the multiple layers of intrigue interlaced throughout the book.

For the reader interested in the gradual unfolding of a new world order as rural Europe was overtaken by events spawned in urban political powerhouses, “A Pact with the Devil” is riveting reading. For anyone interested in inter-faith issues at the turn of the previous century, likewise. If you feel there are innumerable works of fiction based on World War Two but very few set in World War One, this one is right up your street. As a gripping, almost documentary – yet fictional – examination of religious, political and social relationships as the 19th century faded and the turbulent 20th century was born, “A Pact with the Devil” is highly interesting reading. And if you like occasional steamy yet beautifully understated romantic (read: sex) scenes, this book has got that too.

It’s a page-turner that ultimately disappoints simply because you eventually come to the last page – it really was that hard to put down once opened.

Read “Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil”. It will give you plenty to think about.

Not least, after you finish the book and take stock of the global situation today, one thing will strike you above all else: Michelle Mazel is keenly attuned to the foibles of humankind and takes a delight in depicting people, warts and all. But she is in equal measure a faithful historian with an eye on the bigger picture.

And that’s when it hits you: a century has passed since the first scenes depicted in “A Pact with the Devil” – but since ultimately the book is not so much about events as it is about people, not a lot has changed in the intervening hundred years.

“Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil” is about humankind. The beautifully pictured settings, the book’s myriad of tiny details that only a true historian and a keen observer would note, are mere window-dressing. It is the human interest that author Michelle Mazel captures so well.

I’d give the book a 5-star rating.

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