A Draw Of Kings Review Continued


The Staff & The Sword trilogy covers

I ended the first half of my review of A Draw Of Kings by Patrick Carr by saying I wished for more. There’s a difference in saying the story left me wanting more, and I wanted more from the story. I’m afraid my reaction was closer to the latter position.

In reality, I thought the plot was filled with conflict and intrigue. As I described it last time, it had three distinct facets–the civil war, the three quests, and the face-off battles against evil.

I could make a case for each of those being a book in their own right. In fact, if Peter Jackson were making this into a movie, I’m pretty sure it would actually be three movies.

The point is, the story was dense, and in my thinking, too dense. This coiled and twisted plot created a couple problems. First, parts needed to either be played out fully, requiring many more pages, or resolved quickly in order to move on to The Next Important Thing.

If each had been played out fully, the book would have run closer to 800 pages than to 400. But resolving the issues quickly meant that the problems didn’t require a true struggle. Rather, they were solved in short order, with little difficulty, though some loss or failure was accrued.

Quick resolution has a way of lowering stakes, I think. If something isn’t hard to accomplish, or if losing doesn’t cost dearly, there’s a reduction of tension.

The civil war, then, ended with a minimum of conflict and some loss, but because of the ease with which it concluded, I never had the feel that the loss would make much of a difference. After all, when the circumstances appeared insurmountable, they were actually quickly and quite easily dispensed with.

The same played out in each of the three quests. Something dire appeared, but the struggle to overcome didn’t entail a great re-thinking of goals or strategies. There was no struggle apart from an initial conflict that ended up becoming a success through this clever maneuver or that act of bravery or the other display of character or strength.

Each quest, then, even when resulting in failure or partial failure, left me thinking the ensuing Battle would boil down to the same type of one plan, one confrontation, one quick result.

Furthermore, these conflicts didn’t seem married to the inner struggles the characters faced. I would like to have seen Errol struggle with the presence of his cruel father-priest, for instance. Instead, he made a rather quick business of moving on when he’d struggled mightily in the previous book.

And perhaps that’s why he didn’t need to deal with the issue again. But then the question is, why insert Antil into the story again? Adora’s anger toward him felt artificial. He was not someone she knew, and in the face of the death of hundreds of civilians, it seems petty for her to try and exact revenge, not for herself, but for Errol.

All this to say, the wonderful epic story begun in A Cast of Stones deserved more, from my way of thinking. Errol is a character much to be admired. He has real doubts, deep hurts, and great skills–some with which he was born, and some he developed through long hours and hard, hard work. He could have become bitter, but doesn’t, though the choice not to follow that path seems easily arrived at.

The world itself has layers of authority, political intrigue, allies and enemies, betrayers and deceivers. I would like to have had more time with the interplay of these elements.

Finally, a story this big requires an equally big cast, and there were so many characters in A Draw of Kings, it became hard to keep them straight (which is why most epic fantasy has a list of characters to go along with a good map!) Of course, if there had been more story, then these minor characters would have earned more page time and therefore become more fully developed and therefore more memorable.

How can I sum up this book? I’d say it was an adequate ending to a great story. It answered the questions and entertained. It moved quickly, without snags or delays.

I suppose I’m being hard on the novel because I think it could have been great. I think Patrick Carr is an excellent writer who could make the end as great as the beginning, if given enough time to do so.

Honestly, to complete this third book and have it on the shelves in the short amount of time since the release of The Hero’s Lot is a remarkable fete but perhaps not the best decision. I don’t know who determines these things, but I’ve voiced my thoughts on the six-month novel before. I’d rather see more time given writers to get a story right than to get it done.

Would I recommend The Staff & The Sword to readers? Absolutely! It’s a worthwhile story, highly entertaining, with lots to think about on the way. Would I buy the next Patrick Carr novel? Absolutely! He’s a wonderful writer and just needs time to do his magic. I hope he gets all he needs from here on.

CSFF Blog Tour – One Realm Beyond by Donita Paul, Day 3


Donita PaulDonita Paul can claim a number of firsts. For example, her DragonKeeper books were the first Christian dragon books, at least that I’m aware of. DragonSpell came out just ahead of Bryan Davis’s Raising Dragons, which I happened to be critiquing before publication. Hers was also the first book CSFF featured back in 2006 when the tour started. In addition, she was the first recipient of the Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction back in 2009.

Those are just interesting tidbits and not relevant to the rest of my post–a review of Donita’s latest young adult novel One Realm Beyond, book 1 of the Realm Walkers series published by Zondervan.

The Story. Young Cantor wants to be a realm walker. In fact, he’s destined to be a realm walker, but he cannot go off on adventures on his own until he receives permission from his guardian and mentor. Even then he must first travel to a particular location and choose his dragon partner, his constant, before proceeding to the Realm Walker Guild where he must train.

When at last Cantor starts out on his own, he’s faced with some surprises: a dragon who has picked him instead of the other way around, another realm walker named Bixby looking for her constant, and citizens who aren’t always willing to help him on his way. But the greatest surprise might be that the leaders who ought to be working with the Realm Walkers Guild to secure the safety and just treatment of the citizens, are actually the ones oppressing, robbing them, and kidnapping their young men.

What can two young, untrained realm walkers do to make a difference against the forces of the king? Especially without their dragons (unless you count Bridger, the tag-along dragon who Cantor doesn’t really want).

Multiverse_-_level_II.svg_Strengths. The Realm Walker series takes place in a different kind of fantasy world, more nearly a multiverse than anything. In her first post about One Realm Beyond, Jill Williamson discussed the unique world, offering several maps she found that helped her understand the description.

Interestingly, Bruce Hennigan a guest contributor at Spec Faith, recently wrote about the multiverse, so I had a picture I could call to mind. Whether it’s anything close to what Donita intended, I’ll let other readers be the judge.

At any rate, the whole concept of traveling through a portal from one plane to another is unique. C. S. Lewis, of course, had other worlds in his Narnia series, and Narnia itself could be accessed through a portal of sorts. The various worlds, however, were separate pools contained in a sort of holding place–obviously quite different than Donita’s stacked planes.

Besides this interesting setting, One Realm Beyond has delightful characters and at least one formidable adversary. Each is credible given the parameters of this story. Hence, the fact that the mor dragons can sit at the table with the humans or turn into boulders or trees at will, is plausible.

The story is also intriguing, and as Shannon McDermott noted, a tad darker than previous books by Donita Paul. There’s oppression to fight and a mass murder plot to thwart and missing loved ones to find. The story is filled with conflict which tests the mettle of the protagonists.

In spite of all these strong elements, I think the strongest might be the theme. Often Donita’s books, because they are of the gentler side of fantasy where violence is not as prevalent, are frequently referred to as fun. I’m sure I’ve used that word to describe them myself. And it’s appropriate for One Realm Beyond as well. However, people don’t often couple fun with thought-provoking, but I think that’s what we have in this novel.

All is not right in the very place that should be the seat of justice–the Realm Walkers Guild. Here, where the realm walkers are trained and where leaders of other realms turn for support against opponents of peace and harmony, where those pledged to serve Primen ought to be most faithful and true, there is corruption, plotting, power struggles, pride.

Primen is without apology an allegorical representation of God. He is supreme, he is held in highest esteem, he is served, and he is worshiped. In fact, he is the power behind the guild.

Consequently when the protagonists visit the Sanctuary, a gathering of people serving Primen, there’s a bit of a shock when the large facility only has a smattering of people seated in the pews.

Then there was this description of part of the ceremony:

The homily given by a man in elaborate robes said little other than to try to think good thoughts,. According to the speaker, this practice of thinking good thoughts would order the rest of your life. As if thinking about daises would eradicate sewer problems.

There’s the key, I think. The realm walkers and the guild are supposed to serve Primen, to protect the people, to put things to rights. But they aren’t doing their job. They aren’t speaking truth. And they’re falling away.

In short, I believe One Realm Beyond is a story about the church. I for one am interested in seeing where Donita takes her next book in the series.

Weaknesses. Every book has things a reader can pick at if they have a mind to. Was the pace too slow? Was Cantor likeable enough? Were the characters adequately motivated for each of their decisions? While these are valid things to discuss, many of like kind are in the eye of the beholder.

My hope is that those things don’t distract readers from taking this fun book seriously and thinking more deeply because of it.

Recommendation. I’m all in. Yes, this is a young adult book, but it’s dealing with subjects adults should care about just as much or more. I highly recommend One Realm Beyond and suggest readers get on board now, at the beginning of the Realm Walkers series.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Fantasy Friday – Goddess Tithe


goddesstithecoverOne of the best Christian speculative writers, in my opinion, is Anne Elisabeth (don’t call her Anne or Ann ;-) ) Stengl. As it happens, she is also the winner of last year’s Clive Stables Award with her novel Snowflower. She has since released Dragonwitch and most recently, Goddess Tithe, her self-published, illustrated novella.

If you’ve not had occasion to read any of Anne Elisabeth’s works, Goddess Tithe might be the perfect introduction. While the world and characters have some connection to the rich story world of the series Tales of Goldstone Wood, in which all Anne Elisabeth’s other novels are set, this small story can easily stand alone.

The Story. Munny, a poor boy who wants to give his sick mother the gift of life by freeing her from the responsibility of caring for him, goes to sea. As a lowly cabin boy, young and inexperienced, he’s tormented by those older and stronger than he. But an old sailor takes him under his wings and goes about teaching him all he knows about such things as tying knots and why he should always do what their captain says.

The lives of all the sailors on the Kulap Kanya are put in jeopardy, however, when they discover a stowaway on board . . . and when their revered captain does not at once throw him overboard as the tithe justly due the goddess Risafeth who rules the sea. Rather, he puts the stowaway under Munny’s care and protection. And then the goddess comes to claim her tithe.

Strengths. Anne Elisabeth has created an incredible world, less obvious in this short novella, which makes this story the perfect entry point for someone wondering what kind of writer and stories they’ve been missing. The character’s the thing, you might say. Munny is wonderfully drawn (with words and with . . pencil, or whatever the media Anne Elisabeth used for her illustrations). He is sympathetic, well motivated, heroic, not free of prejudice, but able to grow and develop. He shows greater strength because of his belief in his captain, prompted by his aging mentor.

Best of all is the end when . . . heheh–you didn’t really think I was going to tell, did you?

Anne Elisabeth masterfully tells the story using the old time fairytale-style point of view–the omniscient voice. It’s so well done, and so necessary to this story, that no intimacy with the protagonist is lost.

The story is short and not complicated, but it packs a punch as all of the Tales of Goldstone Wood do. This is not allegory, not even symbolism in the normal sense of the word, and there is no preaching. Rather, the Christian theme becomes apparent as the characters live out what comes naturally to them as Anne Elisabeth has depicted them. She’s masterful at showing Christianity.

Weakness. I had one point of contention with this story. I thought Munny’s motivation for leaving home was weak. It’s the one place where I didn’t think he came across as smart. He left hoping something would happen, but the fact is, if it didn’t happen, he would have made the situation he was trying to improve so very much worse. I thought it too obvious even for a poor uneducated peasant boy to miss, and thought he should never have left home without some assurance that what he wanted would in fact result from his decision.

Recommendation. For all the macho male readers who have stayed away from the Tales of Goldstone Wood because they thought they were, you know, fairytales, and romance (could there be a worse combination for a macho male reader?), well, here’s the chance to find out for yourselves what all the buzz is about. Goddess Tithe is a nearly all male cast of characters, despite the title. Munny’s mother does make an appearance, but the goddess is like no other goddess you’ve read about.

This is a wonderful story, short, mildly fantastic, more about character than fast action. In short this book is for any reader who likes quality literature.

I’m happy to say that at the writing of this post, the Kindle edition of Goddess Tithe is on sale for $.99. What a great buy!

Also watch for Anne Elisabeth’s next novel, Shadow Hand, which releases March 4 in both print and e-book versions.

Fantasy Friday – Project Gemini by Jill Williamson


Project-Gemini cover

A Review

Project Gemini, a young adult novel in the Mission League series by Jill Williamson, is a mildly speculative story most suited for young teens.

The Story. Spencer Garmond, AKA Jonas Wright, is a promising basketball player. He’s also been recruited into the development program of the Mission League, a secret branch of INTERPOL, which aims to collect and analyze intelligence regarding “rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” As part of his training, he went on a practice mission to Moscow after his freshman year in high school. He’s now preparing for his second trip–this time to Okinawa, Japan.

The problem is, Spencer, who learns his real name is Jonas Wright and that he’s been in a type of witness protection program because his father betrayed the Mission League and killed his mother, has made some enemies–or so it would seem from the prophecies he’s received.

He himself is gifted with dreams and glimpses that show him snatches of the future, but so has the daughter of his instructor, Mary Stopplecamp. Because of what this thirteen-year-old middle schooler has dreamed, she warns Spencer not to go to Japan. He’s not convinced, however, that he can’t intervene to change these events, as if the prophecies are merely forewarnings, not actual predictors of what is to come.

Based on her dreams, Mary then tells Spencer to beware of foreign women. He himself has a dream of a beautiful Japanese girl, one who is sometimes in trouble.

Upon arriving in Okinawa, Spencer does in fact meet the girl of his dreams–or rather two of them since she has an identical twin sister. In addition, one of the assignments he receives is to keep track of and monitor the activity of his dream girl. Or her sister.

He’s drawn to her, and she to him. When her former boyfriend forces her to go with him, Spencer springs into action to protect her. The fact that he took a scooter without permission and left the group on his own, instead of calling for help, gets him into considerable trouble, however. And Mary’s continual warnings make him begin to question who he can trust.

Mission-League-web-logoAfter all, there are some pretty bad players hanging around, some suspected of involvement with a notorious Japanese gang. And now Spencer has reason to suspect there may be a connection to his Moscow enemy, Anya.

Excerpt. Read a sample chapter of Project Gemini (Mission 2: Okinawa).

Strengths. One of Jill Williamson’s many talents as a writer is voice. She manages to capture the voice of a young teenage boy to the point that her character comes alive.

I’ve read a number of Jill’s books now, spanning three series and a stand-alone novel, and none of the characters has the same voice. Each is distinct, unique, individual.

Achan, the slave boy turned king in the Blood of Kings high fantasy novels, is a very different person from Mason, Levi, or Omar in the Safe Lands books. In turn, they are all very different from Jason, the cloned boy living in a laboratory in Replication. And none of them is like Spencer, the hero of the Mission League adventures.

Not only does Jill capture the voice of a teenage boy, she taps into his heart and soul–what motivates him, what he hopes to accomplish, how he processes the various things that pull him in one direction or another.

In other words, Jill has created a believable character who also happens to be a likeable kid. He’s trying to turn his life around, but he’s got enemies that seem determined to keep him from doing so.

The plot is action packed, with tension on every page. Who can Spencer trust? How can he complete his assignment and heed the warnings of the prophecies, too? And why does this new Mission Leaguer, Grace, have it out for him from the moment he met her?

Because Jill writes Christian fiction, she does not back off from dealing with the concerns that confront teenage guys: lust, girls, sex, sports, drugs, parties, and lying to get what they want. Interestingly she also shows the divergent paths adults can take in raising teens. (Or maybe that comes mostly in the novella due to release in a month or so). At any rate, Jill shows. She doesn’t preach. But Spencer eventually comes to understand where he goes wrong and what he has to change, and the reader follows right along with him.

Weaknesses. I know reviews are more credible if the person writing them exposes faults. The problem for me is that I get so caught up in Spencer’s story, I tend to gloss over any small inconsistency or plot problem. It’s a stretch for me to identify weaknesses.

I think the characters are all rock solid and believable, but on retrospect, I do think there is a segment of the plot toward the end that happened so fast, I wasn’t sure how all the developments came about.

There’s also some description that could bog down a reader (I sort of glazed over at places)–notably a section about ropes (anyone who has read the book will probably know what I’m referring to).

Recommendation. The Mission League books are terrific stories perfectly suited to younger teens–thirteen to sixteen, boys or girls. More mature pre-teens may also like the stories, but there is some frank discussion about attitudes toward and behavior with the opposite sex, so it would be good for parents to be aware of this.

Project Gemini (available on Kindle for only $2.99), and the previous books in the series, The New Recruit and Chokepoint, would make perfect gifts for anyone in the target age group and their parents. And if you’re like me, you’ll buy the book for yourself, because it’s just that enjoyable a story.

CSFF Blog Tour – Outcasts by Jill Williamson, Day 3


Outcasts cover

A Review

This month the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring the young adult dystopian novel, Outcasts, second in The Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson. Several of our tour participants have remarked about dystopian fiction and its predilection for gloom.

In my view, this genre is one of those that can show how the Christian worldview stands in stark contrast to that of a view that ignores God.

My introduction to the genre was Brave New World, followed soon after by 1984. I believe I came to understand the world better for having read those books, yet I wouldn’t want a steady diet of that kind of literature. It is, quite frankly, so hopeless, it’s depressing. Until a person realizes there are key components of truth left out.

Jill Williamson has not left those out. The picture she creates in her Safe Lands series, of a hedonistic society literally rotting away, could be depressing, but there’s more to the story. There are characters working to escape, bring down, and cure the corrupt society. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Story. Continuing the story begun in Captives, Outcasts features the three brothers from Glenrock–Levi, Mason, and Omar–as they deal with their present circumstances. They have rescued their women from the harem and now must do the same for their children who are either in the state boarding school or nursery.

Omar and Mason continue to live as nearly normal lives as possible while plotting with the people of Glenrock who live in hiding. Levi has taken up the mantle as elder and leader of his community, though he’s finding the role much more challenging than he could have imagined.

Who is he to trust? How can he get everyone on the same page, with Omar making his own superhero plans and constantly vapping and consorting with Safe Land women, even as Shaylinn is carrying his baby; with Mason bent on finding a cure for the disease the flakers carry. What hope does Levi have to reunite all his people and get them to safety?

Strengths. I’m not sure where to start. The characters are so strong in this book–with complex motives and heartfelt struggles, both internal and external. They are captivating, so much so that when I finished reading the book, I found myself planning to go back to the story in the evening, only to realize that I had to wait until the next book comes out. The point is, I wanted to know what happened to the characters I’d come to care about.

But just as strong is the worldbuilding. The Safe Lands have their own entertainment, society celebrities, fads and fashions, slang, cliched greeting, technology, political system, and state secrets. The place feels real!

Which brings me to the plot. So much is going on in this story. There is the overarching question–can the Glenrock citizens escape? But there are relational questions for various characters, too, and then there is the greater question about the Safe Lands and what they are hiding, what they are doing to their citizens, and who might be behind the whole thing. It’s intriguing on some level on every page.

More importantly, Outcasts and the other books in the series are addressing important issues, without preaching. Rather, the choices the characters make show all that a reader needs in order to discern what worldview addresses the pressing problems best.

Weaknesses. I have no serious complaints. I’m sold on this series and find myself lost in the world and engaged with the characters and the ideas presented in the story. It’s entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.

But there was one place where I felt the story could have been stronger. Without giving spoilers, it’s hard for me to discuss in detail. Suffice it to say, one character seemed to act in a surprising, if not uncharacteristic, way, with consequences that turned the story (and still must be dealt with in the next book). Perhaps a little more foreshadowing or a closer look at this character’s development would have made the story stronger at that point.

Recommendation. Outcasts and The Safe Lands series are must reads. Not just Christians can embrace this story because it is one of struggle between two distinct ways of life that anyone can understand and appreciate. It is also about how the gulf between the two can be bridged and how the leadership of the two sides can go astray. It’s a big story, a powerful story and shouldn’t be missed.

It’s also clearly targeting older teens, but adults can appreciate the story just as well. The third book in the series, Rebels, is due out in June, so I suggest you read Captives and Outcasts between now and them so you won’t be left out.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour – Merlin’s Shadow, Day 3


Merlin's_Shadow_2I’ve had fun exploring Morgana and the Knights of the Round Table as part of the CSFF Blog Tour for Robert Treskillard‘s Merlin’s Shadow, Book 2 of The Merlin Spiral. But the strength of a blog tour is the book itself. It’s great that it stirs up thoughts and discussion, but is it a good story?

I’m happy to say, in my opinion, it most definitely is a wonderful story. Above all, I love to be surprised, and I love to see a character grow and change. Both those important aspects of good storytelling are present in Merlin’s Shadow.

The Story. Merlin, taking seriously his commitment to protect the baby Arthur, leaves to escape the vengeful druidow and the betrayer who arranged to kill High King Uther. Merlin’s one concern had been for his sister who he arranged to stay with the weaver and his family.

But betrayal exists in many guises, and Merlin and his band committed to help him care for the heir to the throne find no safe place to hide. In fact, the number of enemies increase, and worst of all, God seems to have abandoned them. At times Merlin would simply like the struggle to end, but as long as Arthur lives, he’s bound by his word to do what he can for the young prince. But what exactly can he do when he’s hunted, enslaved, and deserted?

Strengths. Tension fuels this story. It’s filled with danger, but also with realistic emotional reactions to the crises the characters face.

And readers are concerned with more than Merlin. A subplot unfolds regarding his sister, little Ganieda. With both her mother and father dead, her grandfather, the arch druid Morganthu, takes her to live with him–primarily because he sees her as a tool for his desires. When the weaver comes and takes her into his home, Ganieda believes she’s found a family that will love her. However, she discovers Merlin’s hand in the arrangements which pushes her toward the dark powers awakened when she was with her grandfather.

She’s a complex character, though still a child, and it’s Treskillard’s ability to make her thread of the story as compelling as Merlin’s that takes Merlin’s Shadow to the next level.

He’s able to do that with a host of other characters as well: Garth, Caygek, and to a lesser extent Natalenya. One of the most fascinating characters, in my opinion, was old Kensa. Clearly Treskillard has a way of writing unique characters that each have their own problems and needs that propel them through the story.

For those who love history, there’s a sufficient amount sprinkled throughout the story. More than once I found myself forgetting that I was reading legend, and re-imagined legend, at that. The story felt solidly anchored in a real place and time.

But how about the legend? Treskillard has given readers a fresh take on Arthurian lore. Of course there are as many ideas about the heroes, heroines, and enemies as there are writers who have ventured to feature Arthur. Treskillard adds his own while avoiding a simple retelling from Merlin’s point of view.

In addition, this is a Christian work, something that is believable considering the time period and the prevailing religious climate. But the Christianity is not surface. Merlin faces a crisis of the soul and others exercise surprising faith. There’s temptation, yielding, and repenting. The themes, in other words, are strong, even as they are appropriate and completely consistent with the events of the story.

Weaknesses. I have two. The first, I felt Merlin made a significant decision which could have had a stronger motive. I could see what was behind his decision, but it ran so counter to his desires all throughout book 1 that I felt there wasn’t sufficient reason given for the dramatic change that took place.

Along those lines, I thought Merlin’s crisis was resolved too quickly. He’d struggled for so long, I’d liked to have seen his change be more gradual or to have it brought about by something more dramatic. It’s hard to do when what we’re talking about is change in belief, in attitude. I loved the change. Really loved where Treskillard took Merlin. But I would also liked to have seen the reasons behind it strengthened.

Notice, in both instances character motivation is there. For me, those could have been stronger in those two instances, but for others, they may have been just right.

Recommendation. Merlin’s Shadow is a wonderful continuation of the Merlin Spiral trilogy. It’s fast moving, engaging, filled with tension and intrigue. I highly recommend the book to readers, especially fantasy fans. It’s a must read for those who love the Arthurian legend.

I received a review copy of Merlin’s Shadow by Robert Treskillard from the publisher in conjunction with the May CSFF Blog Tour.

Catching Fire – A Unique Point Of View


catching_fire_coverLast Friday I went to see Catching Fire, the second movie based on Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. I have a unique perspective on the movie because, unlike the majority of people who have seen, or are planning to see, it, I have neither read the books nor seen the first movie.

Consequently, my opinion of Catching Fire is largely formed by the movie itself. I say “largely” because I have been a party to more than one discussion of the Hunger Games books, and therefore have some familiarity with the direction the story is taking.

Nevertheless, my view is probably as untainted as is possible to get in this communication age in which we live.

First, I liked the movie a great deal and found myself thinking about the story long afterward. True, I was thinking about writing a review, so in some ways, my dwelling on it isn’t a sign of affirmation. However, I think the more I’ve taken a closer look, the better the movie gets.

When I walked out of the theater, I was captivated by the fast action and very aware that I didn’t really know the main character, Katniss, at all. She was a pretty girl, sensitive to others, even tenderhearted. But she had some steel inside her, which is why she was able to win in the games.

That steel inside, or backbone, was also the thing that the people saw and admired, together with her caring. She felt the way they felt, grieved with them, and cared about those they held in esteem. She was someone they could rally around.

But that’s it. I don’t know Katniss beyond those points. She loved her sister and apparently her childhood friend and sweetheart, but also her companion and fellow champion. She didn’t seem conflicted by loving two guys at the same time because her life was reduced to survival.

Yet oddly, it was Peeta who pointed out to her that she needed to live for her family and for the guy who loved her rather than sacrificing herself for him. She, it seemed, was all too willing to die for him, though he had no family and no one apart from Katniss to love.

I guess that made me think she was a bit shortsighted. And in the end, when it’s apparent that others have realized she is a symbol of hope to the nation when she herself is unaware of it, my thoughts of her limited vision are born out.

In many respects, Katniss mostly wanted to escape, not fight, the system that oppressed her and the nation. She tried to get Gale to leave with her before she was called back into the games. She entered intent to take no allies apart from Peeta. At one point she said she didn’t have friends, and that wasn’t true, but it showcased her desire to keep people at arm’s distance as a way to protect herself from the pain of seeing them die, or of having to take the blow for them.

In many ways, Catching Fire is an issues movie. Yes, the action is filled with tension, but the real question isn’t will Katniss survive. It’s what will Katniss decide to do? Will she step up and seize the role that her nemesis, President Snow, fears she will take?

In the end, she doesn’t. She actually becomes a symbol without meaning to and with others manipulating events around her to bring it about.

I’m left, then, with disappointment. The people want hope and they have it, but not because the heroine has chosen to side with them or to lead them. She’s thrust into the circumstance of being a leader of a cause, just as surely as she was thrust into the games. She thinks about one person at a time–her sister, Peeta, the other competitors–but in fact, her actions have far-reaching impact on many, many others.

In the long run, I’m glad I saw the movie, and if the third in the trilogy came out tomorrow, I’m pretty sure I’d make every effort to see it. But at this point, I don’t see Katniss as a character I care for deeply. I don’t know her well and don’t believe she is trying to accomplish anything of great significance. If she could, I’m sure she’d escape with Gale and be done with the whole thing. But she can’t.

So the new question is like the old one: what will Katniss do now?

A worthwhile movie which is generating some thoughtful conversation.

The Shadow Lamp by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


shadow lamp cover

A Review

Having spent some time on a couple aspects of The Shadow Lamp by Stephen Lawhead to which I responded less than favorably, I now want to give a full review of this installment of the Bright Empires series.

The Story. Thankfully Mr. Lawhead provided a succinct, well-written summary of what took place previously in the first three books, as well as a list and brief description of the characters. These helps made it quite easy to pick up the various story threads and follow them. And there are quite a few of these threads now, and the number seems to be expanding right along with the omniverse about which Mr. Lawhead is writing.

The two characters I still think of as the protagonists, Kit and Mina, have been reunited and now, along with a group of lesser characters, are trying to return to the Stone Age where Kit had seen the spirit well. To do this they must acquire new shadow lamps, but the key ingredient which makes them work is something they can’t determine. They need to analyze the little they have of the mysterious ingredient, acquire more, and return to 16th century Prague in order to have the lamps made.

Meanwhile, Lady Haven Fayth and her servant Giles have stumbled into a place and time they didn’t intend to visit, or at least to stay. Lord Burleigh and his mean (as opposed to merry) men decide to force Etzel the baker to reveal Mina’s whereabouts, and Charles Flinders-Petrie decides to defy the will of his father and retrieve the skin map from his grandfather’s tomb.

Of course there are other goings on, even a new player, and chronology is fairly meaningless.

Strengths. Mystery pushes this story along to a degree. There’s a great deal to learn, and an increasing amount of information that can lead to discovery of the ultimate prize, which looks less and less like a treasure.

However, for me, relationships make this book. I am most engaged when Kit and Cass begin to open up to each other, when Etzel proves his faithfulness (though most of the way he seems less important in this book, he proves in the end to be a man made of the stuff of heroes), when Tony is searching for his daughter, even when Lord Burleigh selects and trains his men.

I found the pace of the book to be somewhat leisurely. I took my time meandering through the omniverse with the various characters–which seems to fit since time is more or less a moot point in this space/time travel.

For example, in one scene readers look back to the occasion when Lord Burleigh selects his four henchmen, then takes them on a voyage to China where they are to learn to do as he says and to become the fighters he wants them to be. Before long, however we are again in Prague with the trained foursome stalking Mina and Kit at Lord Burleigh’s command.

Mr. Lawhead is a master of setting his scenes, and I always felt as if he was in control, as if I had enough information to know which character I was following and where we had landed.

Each group seems to have a fairly defined set of motives, too, except perhaps Lady Fayth and Giles. Both of them seem as if they could surprise us readers but also a character or two with an unexpected betrayal or much needed support.

There’s still mystery surrounding Douglas Flinders-Petrie and some gaps with Lord Burleigh as well (how did he get involved in the search for the skin map in the first place?) But Mr. Lawhead’s writing assures me that readers are in good hands. He will deliver the answers to the questions he’s raised and will join the threads he’s unraveled.

The overarching feature, of course, is ley line travel, and this came out as more of a factor than ever with the recovery of the map from the tomb where it had been placed, the question about the energy source for the shadow lamps, and the theorizing about the formation of ley lines and their part in the omniverse.

In short, the writing, the story, the characters, the setting are all stellar.

Weaknesses. My first question is whether or not this five-book series can indeed be wrapped up in five books. I trust Mr. Lawhead as far as believing he has a plan for each of the threads he’s brought to the forefront, but from my perspective, I can’t see how they will all conclude in one more novel.

As a greater concern, I felt this story included too much didactic exposition. There were several large sections–one, an entire chapter–devoted to laying out theory.

One particular theory was intended to raise the stakes and show that the cosmos was at risk. I didn’t find this compelling, perhaps because of my own worldview of the cosmos. In question is the continued existence of creation.

But that raises theological questions. A key chapter draws to an end with this line: “It would be the end of everything.” This statement can’t be true if God is self-existent and not part of creation. Since He is, presumably this “end” would not be the end of God. And since He has promised His people an eternal inheritance, presumably it would not be the end of the place He is preparing. If this cosmic “everything” includes God, it’s heretical, and if it does not include God, it lacks potency.

There’s also the question of God’s sovereignty. There’s the idea that something has gone wrong and will end the cosmos, not at the Omega Point which God planned. I can’t help but wonder how these characters know this cataclysmic end isn’t the aforesaid Omega Point. There’s some suggestion here that they might know more about what’s going on than God does.

Recommendation. The story itself continues to grow, and I will eagerly look forward to the final Bright Empires volume. Mr. Lawhead knows how to artfully present an incredible story, complex without being confusing. This one isn’t my favorite of the books so far, but it moved the story along and certainly is a must read for anyone invested in the series. It’s thought provoking, even if I found some of the conclusions the characters reached, outside the scope of sound theology.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Martyr’s Fire by Sigmund Brouwer – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


Martyr's Fire coverAs usual, I’ve saved my review of the CSFF feature for the final day of our tour. Martyr’s Fire by Sigmund Brouwer is book 3 of the Merlin’s Immortals series.

The Story. Martyr’s Fire continues the intriguing story about Thomas and his quest to become king of Magnus. Except, he’s already king. In a surprising reversal, he finds himself exiled and on the run because the Priests of the Holy Grail win the hearts of his people and seek to imprison him. He must avoid capture, escape the city, and find allies to help him oust the usurpers.

But who can he trust? There’s Isabelle, the beautiful woman working covertly for the Druids who wants him to join this powerful religion, and Katherine who duped him from the beginning, though she was instrumental in his conquering Magnus. There’s also her companion, the enigmatic Hawkwood, and now the outlaw Robin Hood. Can he trust any of them or do they all wish to bend him to their will and steal what he values most?

Strengths. Sigmund Brouwer has created delightful characters. I want Thomas to succeed. I want him to trust the right people, and I want them to trust him.

The reversal in this book was handled in a believable way. What I feared would seem like a repeat of Fortress of Mist was actually an unfolding of the secrets and mysteries (some) initiated in the previous books.

As Thomas is on the run, there’s credible tension. Will he escape? Will he run to the wrong people? Will he act in the predictable ways those who are watching expect?

The writing itself is strong so that I could lose myself in the story. The theme is tied to the good vs. evil struggle central to the plot. In that respect there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of depth to the story. Thomas must learn who he can trust and how he can prove himself trustworthy.

Weaknesses. I’m enjoying the Merlin’s Immortals series, and Martyr’s Fire is no exception. My only complaints have to do with depth and length.

I feel as if there’s much more to explore about the characters, but the book moves at a brisk pace and each person has his or her secrets, even from the reader, so it’s hard to feel deeply connected.

The theme as well, while not trivial, seems fairly plain. Thomas doesn’t wrestle with doubt or despair. His course is sure and trust the main issue. It’s good, but easy. Perhaps for the young adult audience it’s aiming for, the theme is not too simplistic. Still, I’d hope for more depth.

As far as length is concerned, all the Merlin’s Immortals books are not much over 200 pages–short for any novel, but especially short for fantasy. That young adult readers were devouring the 600+ page Harry Potter novels shows the capacity of this audience. I’d rather see two 400 page novels than four 200 page ones. But that’s my preference as a fantasy reader.

Recommendation. Any Christian who has shied away from fantasy because of a fear of magic has no excuse when it comes to Sigmund Brouwer’s Merlin’s Immortals series. Like the first two, Martyr’s Fire eschews magic and explains the trickery that appears supernatural as a use of little known natural phenomena. Those who enjoy legend will particularly enjoy this series. I recommend this book especially to younger readers or those hesitant about fantasy because of magic.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Review – Chasing Hope by Kathryn Cushman


I’m a sports nut. I also love good stories. Imagine how much I love a novel about an athlete. Chasing Hope by Kathryn Cushman is a wonderful story which just happens to feature a female athlete. What’s not to love? :-D

Chasing Hope coverThe thing is, Cushman is a talented writer who delves into the lives of her characters, often setting two opposites in juxtaposition so that their contrariness clashes. (See my reviews for her previous novels: A Promise to Remember, Waiting for Daybreak, Leaving Yesterday, Another Dawn, and Almost Amish.) By doing so, she allows them to grow, or to fail, however they choose. Chasing Hope is vintage Cushman.

The Story. When Sabrina Rice was twelve she knew what she wanted to do with her life. Just as Eric Liddell had, she wanted to win a gold medal and use her fame to tell others about Jesus Christ as a missionary. Ten years later, she’s on a different tack, heading into the corporate world. Apparently at twelve, she’d misunderstood God’s call because her hope for Olympic gold is a mere memory–one she tries hard to forget.

She’d done well to move past her dreams until Brandy Philip runs into her world, both at school and at home. There’s no avoiding the girl when Sabrina’s Nana begs her to intervene for the girl to help her stay out of juvenile hall.

Brandy has one talent–she can run. Fast. Sabrina knows the running world and is in a position to put in a good word for her, perhaps more. If she’s willing. The question is whether or not she can deal with the memories and doubts that come along with fulfilling her Nana’s requests.

Strengths. Cushman’s greatest strength is delving into her characters and pushing their emotional buttons by putting them into relationship with others who expose them for what they are.

In Chasing Hope the protagonist must confront herself because of a relationship with the guy she’s noticed and who’s begun to notice her; with her Nana who she loves dearly; with the granddaughter of her Nana’s friend who she pretty much detests; and with her parents who have differing ideas about what she should do with her life.

The result is a layered story with varied facets which make the main character seem like a real person, grappling with real doubts and questions, creating an invite for the reader to ask them as well. As a result, the story seems almost interactive.

The details of the running world are convincing. If there are errors, I didn’t pick up on them. The training regiments, the competition, the need for a runner to push herself beyond the point she thinks she can endure–the entire running milieu seemed realistic.

The story hung together beautifully, with one question after another driving the reader to keep turning pages. Why had Sabrina’s hope for Olympic gold died? What would she decide to do about Brandy? Why did she keep secrets from her love interest? Why was she trying to bury her past? What would become of Brandy? On and on, the questions are all delightfully enticing because Cushman makes the reader care about these characters.

The theme of the story is equally strong, never preached, perfectly wrapped inside the character development, and thoroughly Christian. No mistaking–this is Christian fiction.

Weakness. Reviews are always better when they are balanced, and more credible when the reviewer points out flaws instead of glossing them over. I know this, and I’m trying, but I honestly can’t come up with anything. Nothing pulled me from the story as I read. Nothing jumped out at me as I thought back over the story in the days after I finished reading it. And nothing comes to me know as I evaluate the elements. I’ll be interested to see if other reviewers managed to come up with something I’m not seeing.

Recommendation. This book is for Christians, and it confronts a question many committed believers ask. The protagonist is a woman, but she’s an athlete, so I have no doubt men can “get” this story, but I suspect women will make up the majority of the readers. Too bad. I think guys struggle with God’s calling on their lives just as much as women do. I think this is a must read for Christians. Non-Christians can definitely enjoy the story, but the main conflict will probably seem inconsequential to them.

In conjunction with the release of Chasing Hope, Cushman has a great sweepstakes going. I’ll give you details tomorrow.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher without charge with no requirement that my views would be favorable.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,587 other followers