Following a harrowing experience, a military recruiter devotes himself to assembling an army for God in this debut novel.
Sgt. Hamilton Riley was a prisoner of war, held captive under the most torturous conditions for months. Dehydrated, starved, and severely beaten, he was mysteriously rescued by three strangers after receiving a communication from the Lord that he was charged with a celestial mission. Once physically recovered, Riley is sent to central Illinois to become a recruiter, but has already decided that his military occupation is merely a cover for his true vocation: the enlistment of four spiritually adrift youths into the army of the Lord. He meets Sgt. Fowler, who tells him about a summer church camp that was transformed into a hybrid of martial discipline and spiritual development, a Christ-centered basic training site for youths. Riley sees this camp as the instrument for his divinely ordained assignment, and immediately begins to track down worthy candidates. The process is more revelatory than rationally systematic—Riley finds one candidate in a photograph he sees posted in a local mall. Another he finds working in a Mexican restaurant, and patronizes the establishment twice a month for a span of a year in order to build a personal connection. Eventually, Riley manages to entice his four marks to a recruiting session at the camp, where they are evaluated and assigned special gifts (for example, evangelism), and the bulk of the book details their regimented training and religious awakenings. Cranford was an officer in the Army and holds a master’s degree in theology; as a result, she’s uniquely qualified to find intriguing metaphorical parallels between religious and military life. But Riley and his cohorts come across as religious fanatics. Riley feels that God dictates his every move (“During times of consciousness, the Holy Spirit directed his steps, urging the sergeant to veer this way or that, or perhaps even engage with that person or another”). The group’s methods of recruitment will likely strike many readers as socially awkward at best, if not simply unsettling. In addition, Cranford’s writing is stiffly formal—by turns, she refers to Riley as “the combatant,” “the surrendered servant,” “the bewildered disciple,” and the “well-trained professional.”
Even devoted Christians will likely find the self-assured radicalism of this religious tale discomfiting.