I read Arslan for the first time when I was reasonably young. I was shocked and disturbed and enthralled. The implausible back story aside, the book is about the strange charisma of a brutal and fanatic tyrant and his effect on a small American town.
I found the book less effective this time through. The beginning was just as powerful, even knowing what was coming. But the latter half of the novel was weaker than I remembered. The story is told (in two alternations) from the viewpoints of Franklin Bond, the school principal, and Hunt Morgan, a boy severely affected by the arrival of Arslan and his soldiers. On this re-read, I found that while Bond’s sections are still effective, Morgan’s portion is not.
Engh tries to get into Hunt’s head, and to show his turbulent ambivalence, but it’s not as convincing as when I first read it. She gets at Hunt more effectively from Bond’s limited viewpoint than she does from within Hunt’s head. In part, that’s because she never really gets very far into his head. Bond is far more introspective about his, Hunt’s, and the town’s situations than Hunt is about his own. It’s a shame, because I think Hunt is a credible character. Engh never really gives us a chance to see him as he sees himself. Instead, we’re given mostly the top level of his thoughts, and not the deeper dive that seems called for.
The book also weakens toward its end. While I thought the plot itself was reasonable, the eventual resolution was less than I had hoped for. In large part, this is because of the role of Arslan’s son. He’s like a character actor offered a starring role, but only going through the motions. In the end, his role, while offering some nice literary balance, simply doesn’t carry the weight that it needs to, leaving the book to trail off into a vague cloud of metaphor. It could be a nice counterpoint to the book’s sharp beginning, but in fact it’s just a disappointment.
Despite all that, I still think this is a great book. It’s surprising and unusual, and it does make you think, which is always good. I downgraded it to a strong 4 stars, but in some ways I still think of it as a star book for its initial and memorable impact.