While most spiritual fiction these days is cast toward readers with a New Age (James Redfield) or evangelistic (Frank Peretti) spin, Everett's first novel is rooted in the profound religious issues--sin, salvation, grace--that inspired writers like Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, even Dostoyevski. It's a notable debut, too, despite some clanking plot mechanics. The novel begins nearly a year after Rev. Alston Pierce, who narrates through journal entries, has suffered the pain of being forced to listen, bound to a chair, as his wife is raped and then stabbed to death, along with their little son. Now Pierce has determined that he must follow Jesus's precept to love his enemy--the young, imprisoned killer, Alex Leonard--and lobbies for and gains access to Leonard, drawing much media attention. Or so it seems; halfway through the novel, Everett lets on that Pierce plans to sneak a gun into the prison and shoot Leonard dead. Obvious plot contrivances--a prison riot, a tentative romance between Pierce and one of his flock--heighten or relieve tension, and the climax provides too pat a wrap-up. Most jarring, though, is the revelation that Pierce is more scorpion than saint. Not only does it come out of left field, but it serves little thematic purpose and cheapens with plot melodramatics the spiritual suspense of Pierce's run for martyrdom. Even so, Everett writes strong prose that grounds his theological meditations in sharp, sensual detail, and he displays a mature understanding of his characters' inner struggles. Taking up the question flung by Ivan Karamazov--How can a loving God let innocents suffer?--Everett proves himself, though yet a shaky storyteller, a novelist of audacious ambition. (Feb.) FYI: A Story of Scorpions is the first volume of Everett's Beaumont Trilogy.