With few of the sly narrative flourishes that distinguish most of his fiction, Vargas Llosa now offers a vast historical novel tightly focused on an 1890s rebellion in the Bahia state of Brazil--by followers (called jagunÃ‡os) of an apocalyptic religious figure, dubbed "The Counselor," in the little town of Canudos. And though much of this novel is surprisingly drab and flat, the extraordinarily punishing, unremitting scenes of battle and carnage bring the book's lesson home all too vividly: the madness that can horribly grow out of any small fanaticism and power-base. The Counselor's followers in Canudos are both poor peasantry and societal dregs--bandits, circus geeks, failures, whores--but his manifest saintliness harmonizes them. When the republican-government officials of Brazil, however, learn that money is no longer being used at Canudos, they foolishly suspect that this is a monarchist plot that is merely using the people at Canudos as pawns; furthermore, this myopia--which utterly ignores the religious basis of the very Christian experiment there--is compounded by the hysterical influence of an important newspaper publisher. Inevitably, then, Canudos will be crushed--yet not without resistance: one, then two massive and bloody government assaults fail. Then a third succeeds--and since it occurs after The Counselor's natural death, it leads to a terrible decision by the holdout jagunos to slaughter their own innocents, women and children and the aged, rather than allow them to face the depredations of the "Freemason" soldiers who are attacking so successfully. What is ultimately sacrificed, murdered, therefore, is the spiritual quality of Canudos; extremity turns it into ideology--and more death. But this powerful conclusion, unfortunately, is a very long time in coming; in its first hundreds of pages, the novel is often stiff, dull in dialogue, precisely detailed but with little aura of atmosphere and scene. In sum, then: an odd combination of cardboard and passionate horror--with grim, rich rewards for those readers willing to plow through the book's early, stodgy chapters.