CSFF Blog Tour – Dream Treaders by Wayne Thomas Batson, Day 3


DreamtreadersCover3So today is technically the day after the tour for Dream Treaders by Wayne Thomas Batson—I’m counting on a little grace, what with the computer issues I dealt with earlier this week (which mostly seem to be resolved. I’ve even been able to make the rounds and see what other participants are saying).

The consensus seems to be that this middle grade/young adult contemporary fantasy is first rate, an enjoyable story well suited to its target audience. I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more discussion about dreams and their significance or the weightier themes the story touched upon. I personally think the meat in this story is one of its strengths. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Review

The Story. Archer Keaton is an apparently normal though conscientious student by day. By night he is a dreamtreader, one of three tasked to patrol the world of Dream, standing in opposition to the Nightmare Lord.

When a new boy comes to school in the last month of the school year, everything in Archer’s daily life changes. His best friend, Kara Windchil, seems smitten by Rigby Thames, but so do most of the rest of the students. Still, it smarts that Kara no longer sits with Archer on the bus or talks with him or texts him.

Things in Dream are not so great either. An increasing number of tears in the fabric separating Dream from the Temporal—the real, though temporal world, as opposed to the real, though eternal world of the hearafter—have begun to appear. What’s more, the other two dreamtreaders are missing.

And off the story goes.

Strengths. There’s much to like in Dream Treaders. For one, Wayne Batson has a wonderful ability to portray young teens truthfully and accurately. He does not treat his teens in a condescending way or write as an adult who is living through his characters or, with one exception, create teens based on how an adult expects teens to act. Rather, they seem to come alive and each is a unique individual. The quirks and foibles of one are completely different from those of the other characters.

The premise of this story is also fresh and interesting. Yes, as noted in an earlier post, there are dream stories or stories centered on the fight to control the mind, but this one takes a different approach and gives it some really strong elements—people capable of lucid dreaming, with the ability to think into being whatever they need, but also with rules they must follow if they are to avoid dire consequences.

The plot of this story is not particularly new, but it is well executed. It’s apparent from the beginning what Archer wants, and it’s easy to pull for him, to hope he succeeds, to worry when he makes a bad decision. The pace is fast but not dizzily so.

The theme is expertly woven throughout the story, not in a subtle way exactly, but naturally so that the important truths arise from the characters and not as an aside the authors tells the reader. And the truths are important. In yesterday’s post I dealt with the concept of an anchor—a thing that ties a lucid dreamer to reality. The point becomes clear that those in the real world also need anchors—solid, reliable constants to keep us from drifting away from truth. Coupled with the fight to overthrow the Nightmare Lord, there’s a lot of grist for the reader to digest.

Lastly, the worldbuilding in Dream Treaders is stellar—both that of Dream and of Dresden High. They seem like real places and are easy to visualize without having the action come to a stop while paragraphs of description paint the picture. Rather, Wayne Batson skillfully incorporates the details of setting with the events of the story.

Weaknesses. When I read the first chapter, I closed the book and realized I’d been entertained but didn’t really care. When I came back to the book and read chapter two, everything changed. The fact is, chapter one takes place in Dream and chapter to in the real world. Chapter one is immediate action; chapter two shows the main character in relationship with others. In short, once I got to know the character, I cared.

I don’t know if switching the order of the chapters would work or not. I do know, for me as a reader, getting to know the character was like throwing a switch from not engaged to engaged and caring.

There was one character, though, I think Wayne Batson missed—Archer’s brother Buster who supposedly was in love with all things Best Coast (though I think he called it West Coast ;-) or maybe even California). The problem was, he used slang that was fashionable in the 1980s or ’90s at best. I (living on the West Coast) haven’t heard a lot of those slang terms he used for a generation. His character, in other words, seemed forced and artificial—an adult’s idea, gleaned from old TV shows, most likely, of what a kid in California must be like. Fortunately, Buster had a very small role, and most people not living on the West Coast may not even notice the weirdness of his portrayal.

Recommendation. I think Dream Treaders is a triple (with nobody out) if not a home run. It’s a great book for middle grade boys, a reading group that is highly under served, in my opinion. I applaud Wayne Batson for such a wonderful story (and Thomas Nelson for publishing it). I think this one is a MUST READ for the target audience. I think readers of all kinds will enjoy it.

Review: Until That Distant Day


Until That Distant Day coverUntil That Distant Day is a historical novel, with a strong thread of romance, written by Jill Stengl, an accomplished author who has previously published a number of romance novels. This particular book is an example of excellent Christian fiction.

The Story. Set in France during the Revolution, the story, told in the first person, opens with the main character, Colette deMar, recounting how she, a rather rebellious sort from childhood, happened to come to Paris.

As befitted her nature and her companions—the brother she was closest to, Pascoe, involved himself as an administrator of one faction of the revolutionaries—she led the women of their section. This involvement meant attending meetings and even demonstrations intended to force the king to accept the authority of the republican assembly.

As the revolution became increasingly violent, however, Colette pulled away from her involvement, and consequently from Pascoe. At the same time, she became increasingly involved in the life and family of her employer, Dr. Sebastian Hillard, a deputy to the National Assembly.

Pascoe, though he had once aspired to be like Dr. Hillard, had a falling out with him and pressured Colette to leave his employ. And so began the great conflict Colette had to resolve or live with on a regular basis.

There is much more to the story: Colette’s other two brothers who are living in Paris–seventeen year old Claude and twenty year old Étienne–Colette’s work as a midwife, her role as companion to Dr. Hilliard’s dauther, her charitable work with the poor in her section, and her love for the home she found where she worked.

Each part weaves together into a whole, undergirded by the events in Paris during the critical summer on 1792 when fear and extremists took over the revolution.

Strengths. Without a doubt, Until That Distant Day is a character driven novel. The plot is certainly interesting, and there’s lots of action, but what makes this story shine is the beautiful depiction of Colette. This protagonist is an interesting young woman, rebellious, hungry for respect and kindness. She has secrets—has reason to warn Dr. Hilliard not to trust her discernment or discretion. She herself has learned to be wary of her passions.

Throughout the story Colette’s strong and compelling voice drives the narrative. The story is interesting because she is interesting, and as a reader, I wanted to know what would happen to her.

The characters weren’t simply central to the story. They were the story. The real conflict centered on how or if they would change, and each of them was so firmly in relationship with the others that the change in one affected change in the others.

Another strength of this novel is the detail incorporated in the story, undoubtedly a result of expert research. Whether the spices used to prepare various foods, the smells of the goat’s pen, the sounds from the blacksmith forge, the feel of the heated kitchen, or the sights of the doctor’s crooked wig, this novel firmly planted the story in 1792 France. Nothing was pretentious or window dressing. All the details were a necessary part of moving the story forward, but they also anchored it firmly in the historical setting.

The thematic development of Until That Distant Day was another strength. The antagonism toward God, the apparent hypocrisy of one avowed atheist, the questions about suffering and evil and God’s place in all of the unfolding developments were handled in a natural, believable way. Taken as a whole they painted a theme grounded in truth but delivered within the confines of the historical setting.

Weaknesses. I don’t know if these are genuine weaknesses, but I had these reactions. At one point I was losing respect for Colette because she seemed too easily charmed. As an independent, rebellious woman, I thought she’d stand up for herself more, that she wouldn’t let herself be manipulated so easily. However, she also self-identified as someone lacking discernment, so in truth she acted in a way that was consistent with her character. I just didn’t like it. But it was short lived and actually served the conflict well.

The other was the use of various French words and phrases. At one point, I wondered if so many were necessary, considering that the characters undoubtedly spoke completely in French, yet the story is written in English. Why not have all of it told in English, I thought. And yet, the French served as a reminder of who these characters were. Most of the meanings I could guess at. Some I would have looked up if I’d realized there was a translation guide in the back. (It’s one of the negatives of reading on an electronic device—not being able to page through the book. And of course I had paged right past the Table of Contents that clearly listed the guide).

Recommendation. From start to finish, I enjoyed Until That Distant Day. More than once since I finished the book, I’ve thought I’d like to know what happened to this character or that. At one place I also thought how perfectly this book showed the flip side of events in one of my favorite novels, The Scarlet Pimpernel. To be honest, the feel of the two books is similar.

I found Colette to be a fascinating character, and I found myself thinking about the French Revolution from a perspective I’d never considered before.

In other words, I am so glad I read this book. I think readers (people who enjoy reading because it’s just fun to learn about people and places and times that are different) will enjoy Until That Distant Day. I think the book is a Must Read for those who love historical fiction, particularly stories set in Europe during the eighteenth century.

CSFF Blog Tour – Numb By John Otte, Day 3


Numb-CoverThis month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature is a rare science fiction novel, written for adults and published by Marcher Lord Press. Numb by John Otte, a Christy Award finalist, is a stand-alone, though some reviewers believe there is room for a sequel, should John care to revisit this world again. I admit, I love the universe he imagined, but this story seems well-ended to me, and I don’t have any particular need to see these characters again. But since I’m already opinionating, I suppose I might as well get right to my review.

The Story. Crusader is the perfect assassin: dedicated to the cause, loyal to the authorities over him, determined to complete his missions, and completely numb. He doesn’t feel emotion and he doesn’t feel pain. What’s more, he believes God has gifted him with this numbness so that he can take up the sword of judgment and wield it against those his superiors have marked as deserving of death—heretics, infidels, traitors, and the like. Above all, Crusader is good at what he does. In fact he’s the best the Ministrix has.

Imagine the uncertainty, then, when Crusader discovers, first, that he cannot complete his latest assignment—to assassinate an engineer named Isolda Westin—and second that some Ministrix agent has set him up and intends to kill him.

His inability to plunge the knife into Isolda’s heart is perhaps the most troubling thing Crusader faces. Something within him refuses to follow what he knows he must do. But why? And why is he, the most loyal, most accomplished Ministrex agent, now a target of the very leaders he has served these past ten years?

With these questions at the heart of the plot, Numb jumps into a tale of intrigue, suspense, action, and romance.

Strengths. There is so much to like in this story, but I think my favorite is the worldbuilding. It’s a little rare, I suppose, to put the element that most often fades into the background as the aspect of the story I liked best, but for me, the sense of place, without being bogged down by a lot of techno terms or details I didn’t care about, made the whole story more enjoyable. I thought there was just the right amount of science/technology mixed with the right amount of facts about the governments that dominated the populated universe to give me a feel for what the characters had to contend with.

Furthermore, the inventiveness seemed believable—a logical outcome of the way technology is advancing and of the way governments are behaving today.

I also thought the central theme was wonderfully woven into the story. Nothing seemed forced. The characters themselves, as a natural part of who they were and the predicament in which they found themselves, dictated the theme. It was never delivered in a heavy-handed manner, though I guess you’d say the “faith elements” were overt.

I liked the characters as well, though I have to admit, when Isolda appeared in chapter three, I felt quite relieved. I wasn’t sure about spending an entire book in the head of a numb assassin, no matter how justified he was in his own mind for doing what he did.

The plot was exciting, built as it was on intrigue. There were fight scenes, chase scenes, betrayals, rescues, hypocrites acting hypocritical and spies acting nobly. There were plenty of twists though the plot never became convoluted. Important elements were properly foreshadowed, so little felt as if it didn’t belong.

But that brings me to the next part of this review.

Weaknesses.

      SPOILER ALERT

Perhaps the only part of the story I didn’t find believable was the sudden attraction Isolda had to first one assassin, then the other. To her credit, she didn’t realize that Balaam, who appeared to be her rescuer, was actually there to kill Crusader and kidnap her. But here’s the thing—she showed definite signs of attractions to a complete stranger. Then when he is killed, she quickly shows interest in the agent who defeated him—the one who she knows is there to kill her.

This tendency to be easily won over to a man could have been a character trait of Isolda’s, except she had no such response to the one guy she actually had known for some time and the one she had shared experiences with and who seemed quite willing early on to protect her.

In short, the contrast between the way Isolda reacted to Gavin and to Balaam, then Crusader, made her actions a little hard for me to believe.

      END SPOILER ALERT

Apart from that plot point, I had no problems with this story. The writing was straightforward, the characters well defined, the surprises plentiful.

Recommendation. I’m happy there’s a quality Christian science fiction novel to go along with the growing number of excellent Christian fantasies. John Otte has done a wonderful job giving readers an enjoyable story that also provides sufficient meat to chew on. I highly recommend this book to all readers. It’s a must read for fans of Christian science fiction.

As it happens, all John Otte’s books, including Numb, are discounted at Marcher Lord Press. However, these prices are only good through April.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,640 other followers

%d bloggers like this: