Free Books and Such

If you’ve thought The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice sounds like the perfect book for your daughter or niece or granddaughter or for a prize for the Sunday school class you teach or for the classroom of your teacher friend, I have good news. You can win a free copy. A number of bloggers in the recent Children’s Book Blog Tour are holding drawings and the links are available at Kidz Book Buzz.

And if you’ve followed the tour, you might consider voting for the Best Blogger of the tour (see the poll in the left sidebar).

Speaking of polls, today is the last day for you to vote for the CSFF February Top Blogger Award because it’s scheduled to close Saturday at 8:00 AM (Pacific time? I’m not sure, so to be safe, don’t wait). The one exception would be another tie as we had last month.

starfireBack to free books, by participating in Stuart Vaughn Stockton’s contest introducing his upcoming release, Starfire, you’ll be eligible to win a set of Brandilyn Collins books, a copy of Stuart’s book, a copy of By Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson (see my review at Speculative Faith), and more.

By the way, Volume 3, Issue 2 of Latest In Spec is now available. If you would rather not wait or would rather receive a copy sent to you via email, subscribe by leaving a comment here or at the LIS site.

Back to contests. I’m thinking we’re overdue for another version of The Fantasy Challenge. I’ll need to contact a few authors and see what prizes might be offered. The challenge is going to center on you telling others about the 2008 or 2009 Christian fantasies you think are worthy of some buzz, so let me know what books you’d like to have on the list.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?

(Opening lines from the 1966 Dionne Warwick song “Alfie”)

I can’t help but ask that question about fiction. What am I doing and why am I doing it? The hours I put into writing and the hours someone else puts into reading – what’s it add up to?

Here’s Sally Apokedak‘s conclusion of the middle grade novel we just toured, The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice:

The Year the Swallows Came Early is a beautiful book that gives a deep message with a light touch. Readers will take from it much or little depending on what they are ready to take, but they will grow from reading it. Because the characters in the book grow.

That’s the way I want to write. I want to create a story with a deep message, but I want to do so with a light touch so readers, all readers, will grow as they are ready to. Not because I tell them what to do but because they see the change in my characters. They see something winsome, something worthy, something satisfying, something that rings true and builds on what they know to be so.

From my analysis of The Year the Swallows Came Early I saw an amazing attention to detail that contributed to the creation of “a light touch.”

Now I’m wondering, do deep messages ever really “emerge,” or are those that do so, doomed to be light messages?

Published in: on February 26, 2009 at 2:01 pm  Comments (5)  
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Children’s Book Blog Tour, Day 3 – Theme in The Year the Swallows Came Early

To vote for the CSFF Blog Tour’s February Top Blogger, click here.

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This is the final day of the Children’s Book Blog Tour for the wonderful middle grade novel The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. If you’ve read any portion of my last two posts, you know this is a book I love.

The thing is, the more I examined The Year the Swallows Came Early to write these posts, the more I found to love. But time and space crowded from my review some of the book’s notable strengths. For example, I didn’t include any mention of Groovy’s delightful voice, reminiscent of great fiction such as To Kill a Mockingbird. I didn’t mention the beautiful language, so unforced, so natural to the characters, it’s easy to overlook, though it contributes to the mood, the characterization, and to the themes.

In short, I think The Year the Swallows Came Early is a book that deserves attention because it does so much so well. It’s the kind of book would-be writers would do well to study.

In that vein, I want to look at theme. I mentioned in my review that the themes in The Year the Swallows Came Early, woven into the fabric of the story, comprise one of the book’s strengths. Just a quick warning: of necessity, I will be discussing aspects of the story that might be spoilers, so please consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

Earlier I mentioned “themes,” because in reality, this book says much. At the core is forgiveness, but that’s accompanied by not judging on outward appearances and by the importance of trustworthiness. Yet never are these issues delivered in such a way that the reader feels as if the author is talking to him. In fact, rarely is there mention of the key issues. So how did Ms. Fitzmaurice communicate her themes?

One way she did so was by using what I’ll call book-end symbols. Chapter 1 is entitled “Coconut Flakes” and the metaphor at the bottom of the first page explains it:

And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

While mention of coconut occurs on several other occasions, the most memorable instance is in the last chapter entitled “Caramel”:

Because even though he’d picked that chocolate by pure chance, it just so happened that when I bit into it, I tasted soft easy-going caramel, and no coconut flakes.

So coconut pictures the hard things in life, but by looking at chocolate candies no one can tell if the inside holds coconut or caramel.

The plot reinforces this early image. Daddy, who is taking Groovy to work with him, holding her hand, is arrested. Mama, who seems absorbed with her own needs, shows she’s concerned for Groovy’s life and heart and passion. The minor characters echo the theme. Crazy Mr. Tom is the one who delivers wisdom and who doesn’t look so crazy when he’s cleaned up and off to move into his new trailer. Frankie’s mom, who appeared to have deserted him, comes back to explain what really happened.

Even little things sharpen this point: Mama’s turning to makeovers as a solution to problems, her belief that hot weather was earthquake weather, even chocolate covered strawberries that play such a prominent role in the story.

Another way the themes are woven into the story is through what the characters learn. The importance of forgiveness comes out because of both a negative instance and a positive. The negative is two fold. First Frankie holds a grudge toward his mom, but it eats him up inside, beautifully played out by his popping Tums at times when his mother comes up in the conversation, and beautifully resolved in the end by Groovy’s supposing:

I imagine one day when his mama hugs him, he’ll put his arms around her, too. That these letters she sends are paving the way to family dinners together. That maybe the next time Frankie sees his doctor, the doctor will say, “Frankie, I have good news. You have been miraculously cured of stomachaches.”

Of course Groovy goes through her own dark night of the soul and must come to forgiveness too. The climactic scene is so rich, I wish I could post the whole thing, but here’s part:

Mr. Tom shook his head. “You don’t want what Frankie has. All that anger will turn you to stone … He reached to touch my shoulder and stared into my eyes, then squinted. Not from the sun, which was shining hard off the ocean just then. But from the story he must have seen, and the girl I knew I would become if I chose not to forgive. Because I could see that he knew all about people not showing forgiveness from his wrinkled-sheet face, the way his eyebrows slanted down on the edges, the sadness they whispered.

Again, there is more, more, more, so much more, but I think you get the idea. The themes of this story are integral to it. There would be no story without these themes. They are at the core of the plot, they are what determines how the characters develop. They are reinforced with symbolism and developed through dialogue (one of the things I’ll save to discuss another day). But never does the author turn this back on the reader or spell it out as a universal life lesson. Is it a universal life lesson? The reader must come to his own conclusions.

You won’t want to miss what the others on the tour have to say about The Year the Swallows Came Early:

Children’s Book Blog Tour – The Year the Swallows came Early, a Review

Those interested in voting for the CSFF Blog Tour’s February Top Blogger, can find the necessary information here.

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As part of the Children’s Book Blog Tour, I am happy to feature The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. This is a middle grade novel with a girl protagonist, a coming of age story—quite frankly, not a book I would usually be drawn to. But if you read my post yesterday, you already know the main character quickly drew me in.

The Story. If you visit here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction and have read some of my other reviews, you know I hate to give a story away. Part of the fun of reading, as I see it, is discovering What Will Happen Next. Summaries, by definition, encapsulate the story, but for those of us who don’t want to know how it turns out before we start on page one, summaries can kill our interest before we start. Not everyone feels the same way. Some people (horror! – 😮 ) even read the last page first! If by some (sorry) chance – 😉 – you fall into this category, I refer you to some of the other blogs on the tour that did a good job of summarizing the story: Dolce Bellezza’s Day 1 post or Cafe of Dreams’ Day 2 post. Here’s my shorter version.

Groovy Robinson’s world turns upside down the day her father is arrested, in no small part because her mother won’t answer her questions. At least not at first. When she does explain, she creates more questions than she answers, and eventually Groovy wonders who she can believe, who she can trust. At a point of despair, she discovers that all is not as it seems and people are both more and less than what they appear to be. In the end, she must decide if she can forgive … or not.

Strengths. Certainly characterization has to rank high on the list of good things to like in this book. Not just Groovy, either. Although Groovy’s father spends nearly the entire book in jail, I come away feeling like I know him so well. Groovy’s mother takes center stage more and also comes into clear focus as a believable character—one with her own problems and quirks and needs, but also as one who loves her daughter very, very much.

Best friend Frankie is also beautifully drawn, especially because his story mirrors what Groovy experiences. (I’ve seen this done, or should I say, overdone, in an obvious, distracting way, but Ms. Fitzmaurice avoids stumbling here. In fact, Groovy having identified Frankie’s problem earlier makes her own situation and decisions much more poignant).

Then there are the minor characters like Pastor Ken, Marisol, Felix, Luis, and Mr. Tom who add much more than background color. They are integal to Groovy’s development. And they are each believably drawn.

As much as I liked the characters, I give equal praise to the story. I kept reading because there was tension, and conflict. I had questions I wanted to discover answers for. I cared about Groovy and wanted to know how things turned out for her. Ms. Fitzmaurice did a masterful job telling a masterful story.

This book is also a great example of weaving themes into the story. Without whipping out an explanatory speech, Ms. Fizmaurice showed Groovy’s changes, her mother’s changes, her father’s changes, and ultimately Frankie’s changes, all reinforcing themes of love and trust and forgiveness and mercy and not judging from outward appearances.

I even have some favorite lines. Here’s one:

And here’s what I thought: I wished I’d never found what was in that box because feeling mad at Daddy was a million times worse than feeling sad.

Little truth statements like that, observed as from a child’s perspective, are powerful.

Weaknesses. I’ve got one tiny thing here. I wouldn’t normally mention it, but I don’t have anything else, and I believe in giving a balanced review. Early in the story, afternoon fog rolls in. It’s mentioned on page 43 and again on 48, 56, 58, 60, 61, 63, 72, and 90. Then that same night, with no warning, Groovy and her mom are walking home and look up at the stars. Groovy says all she could see was the Little Dipper though she knew her mom could name all the stars. My first thought was, what happened to the fog? Maybe a wind came up, but we aren’t told so. It’s a small thing, but it jerked me out of the story for one brief moment.

Addendum. Well, now I have to backtrack on the weakness. A closer reading shows that I shouldn’t have been surprised by the stars being out: “… she raised her fists high toward the lone stars peering through the leftover fog in the dark sky.”

I even thought about this after posting the review, how the fog had mirrored Groovy’s confusion and lack of understanding why her dad had been arrested, then after her mother tells the story they come out to a starry sky. If I hadn’t missed the “leftover fog” line, I would have thought the use of fog quite mood enhancing. The weakness was mine, not the story’s.

Recommendation. Needless to say, I think The Year the Swallows Came Early is an outstanding book. It is a must read for women, for girls, for middle grade children. I highly recommend it to dads.

Take time to see what others on the tour are saying:

Buzzing Kids’ Books – The Year the Swallows Came Early

Announcements. I have an unusual number of these, so please bear with me. There is actual content below.

First, I participated in an email discussion about Christian speculative fiction, initiated by Mike Duran. He has posted the first part today at Novel Journey. (Warning: the discussion has taken a turn on a statement I made about what CBA’s target audience—women. Evidently my remark was controversial. Well, I hadn’t intended it to be so, but I’m pretty sure the comment I left, is! 😮 )

Second, I posted a review of an upcoming Marcher Lord Press release, By Darkness Hid at Speculative Faith which I hope you’ll take time to read.

And lastly, you’re invited to vote for the CSFF Blog Tour’s February Top Blogger.

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The Children’s Book Blog Tour, of which I am a member, is featuring Kathryn Fitzmaurice‘s debut novel, The Year the Swallows Came Early.

Tomorrow I’ll give a full review of the book, but today I want to think a little bit about what makes a character draw readers in, perhaps even become memorable.

Eleanor Robinson, AKA Groovy, is just such a character. I found she drew me into the story on the first page:

We lived in a perfect stucco house, just off the sparkly Pacific, with a lime tree in the backyard and pink and yellow roses gone wild around a picket fence. But that wasn’t enough to keep my daddy from going to jail the year I turned eleven. I told my best friend, Frankie, that it was hard to tell what something was like on the inside just by looking at the outside. And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

So here’s what I learned about Groovy, even before I knew her name. She considered her house perfect. Her father went to jail. She has a best friend who evidently is a boy. She thinks about things more deeply than you’d expect an eleven year old to think and even came to a wise, truthful conclusion. And she doesn’t like coconut.

Only that last part is a negative, as far as I am concerned. That her father went to jail makes me feel sad for her, and curious about why. That she has a boy best friend makes me think she’s not a spoiled-princess type. And that she’s likable enough to have a best friend. The coconut thing, I think she’s just wrong, but I’m willing to let that slide because I know there’s a whole set of people out there who don’t like coconut.

A little further into the story, I learn that Groovy had a special relationship with her father and that her mother loves her. I learn that those two facts seem to be in conflict and maybe in doubt. That she suddenly feels like she doesn’t know one of her parents as she always thought makes her even more sympathetic.

I also learn that she has One Great Desire and a particular talent. Before too long, she comes to realize that others have a similar passion to hers and this changes the way she perceives those of like mind. OK, I’m trying intentionally to be circumspect because I don’t want to give away too much of the story. The point is, Groovy doesn’t have a closed mind.

Eventually she shows that she is also kind, that she appreciates others for their kindness. In other words, she’s aware of others at the character level.

Is she perfect? Not at all. She makes some independent decisions that lead her into a real tailspin, and while it looks for a time as if she might get stuck, she makes another change that is probably the best of all, one that just might make her a memorable character.

I invite you to see what others on the Children’s Book Blog Tour have to say about The Year the Swallows Came Early:

February CSFF Top Blogger Award

Well, choosing a CSFF Top Blogger is getting ridiculously hard! The posts about Cyndere’s Midnight this month are excellent, from top to bottom. Plus we have so many who are eligible—sixteen who posted all three days of the tour (though mine automatically isn’t eligible) and forty total participating blogs.

Last month I gave a week to let readers peruse all the posts, but I don’t think we gained voters, so this month I’ll put the poll up right away. Maybe with the material fresh in visitors’ minds, it will be easier to vote.

One more thing. Since there are so many deserving blogs, consider which in your opinion displayed originality and creativity and depth. Maybe that will help.

Also, the poll isn’t set up for fifteen slots. I narrowed the field down (sometime I should get the author to help with this), but if I didn’t include the blogger you think most deserving, you can vote in the “other” category and leave a comment specifying who you wish to vote for. (And if you wish your vote to be private, email me or leave a comment asking me to email you).

Without further blather from me, here are your finalists and the links to their posts:

Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 10:31 am  Comments (4)  

A Theology of Art

In his comment to yesterday’s “Fiction Is …” post, Ken linked to an interesting article, one of three blog posts actually, by Trevor Cairney, a university administrator in Sydney, Australia.

As I read Dr. Cairney’s questions and comments about the lecture series presented by Professor Trevor Hart from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, on the topic God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective, I realized I in fact had my own theology of art.

Actually I revealed much of it in yesterday’s post. Here are the salient points with elaboration on some:

1) God made us in His own image, and in part that means we are creative. At one point Professor Hart talked about artistry as obedience, but I don’t think that’s true. First, I don’t think the idea of doing art to be obedient is something Scripture teaches, but in addition, I don’t see God commanding us to be who He made us.

He gave us a will and emotions and intellect. He made us relational and He made us creative. All these things need to be brought under submission to Him, but it’s not like we have to work at thinking in order to be obedient. Or work at feeling in order to be obedient. Likewise, we don’t need to work at art in order to be obedient.

However, I also think it’s important not to limit the concept of creativity to the fine arts. Is an architect not creative? Or a chef? A hairdresser? A basketball player? A carpenter? A florist? An inventor? A gardener? Of course some people don’t express their creativity in their profession but may in their hobby. And some may not create at all. But this latter fact doesn’t mean they don’t have the capacity to create.

2) God created a beautiful world, but it was also utilitarian. From my perspective, God is an amazing economist. He created lavishly, but as scientists have discovered, even the smallest, seemingly unimportant creatures add and detract to the world in ways that make them irreplaceable. In Eden God made trees that were not only pleasant to look at but that had tasty fruit and that could make one know good and evil. All in one package. He didn’t waste His materials.

3) Creation (art), then, is not lessened if it also has a utilitarian function, but enhanced.

4) My purpose on earth is to make disciples, to glorify God, to be in relationship with Him, to be salt and light to the lost and dying. Consequently, my art, when it is at its best, should not only be beautiful but should fulfill some part of my purpose.

All this brings me full circle to what I said yesterday: My contention is, the best art always says something meaningful. That it doesn’t convey an overt message shouldn’t be misconstrued: despite the bill of goods Modern Philosophy tried to sell us, the purpose of art, especially written art, is still communication.

Published in: on February 20, 2009 at 1:39 pm  Comments Off on A Theology of Art  
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Fiction is …

C. S. LewisDuring the just completed blog tour for Cyndere’s Midnight by Jeffrey Overstreet, I read two notable statements that spurred my thinking about fiction. One was Jeffrey’s comment to yesterday’s post about themes. The other was a Quote of the Day in the sidebar of one of our blog participants (I neglected to note who). The quote was attributed to C. S. Lewis, so I did a little research to verify that he actually said this. Apparently it is a line from one of his lesser known works. Which is fine. The key is, he said about poetry what I believe about fiction:

Every poem can be considered in two ways–as what the poet has to say, and as a thing which he makes.

– C.S. Lewis in A Preface to Paradise Lost

Through the discussions I’ve had in the on-line Christian writing communtiy and the articles I’ve written and the comments I’ve received, through personal conversations and emails and blog posts by other writers, I’ve come to the conclusion that most Christian fiction writers see fiction as either a means to say something or as something the author makes.

The first group generally has overt Christian messages and may be accused of being too preachy. Authors in the latter group stress their creation of a story as art and are often accused of being too secular.

As I see it, the problem is that today’s Christian writers—and today’s Christian writing conference instructors—apparently see fiction in only one way, not the two C. S. Lewis said are present in poetry.

For some of us, writing is a means to declare the truth about God to a lost and dying world. We see the power of story and believe it is a way to connect with people in our culture who may never consider the claims of Christ through any other avenue.

For others of us, writing is a form of art. It is something we can do only because we have been made in God’s image and the very act of creating is an act of glorifying Him. Consequently we want to make the best possible piece of art we are capable of, and “preachiness” doesn’t fit into the paradigm of excellence.

But couldn’t C. S. Lewis’s statement about poetry also be true about fiction?

I understand that “commercial fiction” isn’t looking to write timeless stories, but why not? We have a timeless message. Isn’t it possible to write a rip-roaring tale that will be around a hundred years from now and still be enjoyed as a rip-roaring tale, one that said something universally meaningful? Look at Gone with the Wind or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

My contention is, the best art always says something meaningful. That it doesn’t convey an overt message shouldn’t be misconstrued: despite the bill of goods Modern Philosophy tried to sell us, the purpose of art, especially written art, is still communication. Why else would an author want others to read what he puts out there? (And anyone who said, For the money, hasn’t been around the publishing industry very much. 😉 )

Of course, there really is “commercial fiction” that isn’t aiming to tell or to create. It exists to entertain, nothing more. It’s the “pulp fiction” of old, but evidently Christians want a clean version of it. I suggest we stop calling these stories “Christian.” They aren’t. They are clean stories. I think there might be a big market for them, beyond the Christian audience. But that’s another subject for another day.

How “Christian” Is Auralia’s Thread?—CSFF Tour, Day 3

In my review yesterday, I considered bringing up the topic of the Christian content in Jeffrey Overstreet’s enticing novel Cyndere’s Midnight (WaterBrook Press), second in the Auralia’s Thread series. As it was, my review turned into a much longer post than normal, so I opted not to bring up the subject. Besides, it’s not like I’ve been shy about my opinions about Christian fiction.

However, the topic came up in Steve Rice’s third Cyndere’s Midnight tour post in which he examines the perceived weaknesses of the book. Here’s a flavor of his position:

The second feature is secularism. This is related to the first. If you won’t submit your imagination to God, you will inevitably conform to the world. That’s why these stories are so reliably secular and politically correct. It’s also why they can be mistaken for the work of the unsaved.

I wrote a long comment in response, then decided to post it here instead of rewriting it in the form of a normal article. I hope you read Steve’s entire post first, then my response which follows:

Steve, I mostly agree with you. Mostly. If you read Robert Treskillard’s interview with Mr. Overstreet, you read his ideas about theme. He compared his stories to sermons in this way: a preacher has something he wants to say so thinks up an illustration, but Jeffrey envisions a scene, then sees where that takes him.

It is this backwards writing that I rail against. It’s like Christian writers have been brainwashed into thinking that the inclusion of an intentional theme automatically makes a work preachy. It doesn’t! Poor execution may make it preachy, not the mere presence of a theme.

One reason I like the recent Christianity Today article, “Sci-Fi’s Brave New World,” was that it unmasked the truth that those writing from worldviews contrary to Scripture do, in fact, have clearly identifiable themes—ones inconsistent with Christianity.

But at the same time, those themes are woven into the story in such a way that readers “get them” without having been told them.

Is this subterfuge? I don’t see it as such because good literature requires themes to be woven into the story seamlessly, not announced. Consequently, I think it is entirely possible for a story to be a light that not all readers will see.

Some readers, for example, didn’t realize Aslan was a type of Christ until the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out and others started talking about the Christian symbolism.

Some stories may present Christ in such a clear way that people will come to Him simply by the reading, but other stories may attract readers to Him by causing them to ask questions they in turn search to have answered.

That being said, I thought there was some strong, unmistakably Christian imagery in Cyndere’s Midnight, but then I was wrong about the Keeper [being an intentional type of God the Father] in Auralia’s Colors, so what I saw may not have been intentional.

I started asking myself what the book was actually saying. Was it that art could free a person from his debase self? But what changed Jordam? Yes, his encounter with Auralia affected him and that’s what drew him to her colors and eventually to the well where Cyndere was. But it was the water of the well that healed his wounds.

Is this intentional symbolism? Is that too subtle to mark the book as Christian?

Well, I’d like to see where the next couple books take us, then we might have a clearer picture.

Oh, and the religion that Cyndere hates, as near as I can figure, is false religion. (But who knows, there is a vocal group that decries all religion. Is Cyndere’s Midnight one more Christian voice lashing out at Christianity? I don’t see it. Nothing in the story resembles Christianity and I have no problem with a story that exposes false religion as … false.)

Please take time to look at the other Cyndere’s Midnight tour posts because next week we’ll once again be voting for the Top Blogger Award. Click on the check marks before the participants’ names in my Day 1 post to access specific articles.

In particular, I recommend you read Jason Joyner’s interview with Mr. Overstreet in which they also discuss Christian fiction.

Cyndere’s Midnight—A Review: CSFF Tour Day 2

cyndere-coverCyndere’s Midnight (WaterBrook Press), the blue strand in Auralia’s thread, is the second in a four-book adult fantasy series by Jeffrey Overstreet. While this story is definitely a continuation of events that took place in the first book, Auralia’s Colors, more than one person has said that reading the first of the series is not necessary to appreciate the second.

The Setting. The story takes place in a land known as the Expanse. Four distinct houses (or is it three?) formed from one family, as I recall, but one, the Cent Regus, fell into ruin when their people devolved into beastmen.

The Story. Cyndere, heir of the throne of House Bel Amica, is depressed because all those she is close to—her father, her brother, and now her husband—have died. In her despair she returns to the outpost where she had shared happy days and dreams with her soon-to-be husband. There she plans to honor his memory and end her life.

Her plans change, however, because she encounters a beastman, but not one like the others. He is Jordam, and he revives in her the dream she shared with her husband to reach out and restore the beastmen of House Cent Regis. For various reasons, Cyndere and Jordam flee and go into hiding. But in taking this step, Jordam has had to break from the life he has known. As part of this change, he determines he must warn Cal-raven, king of the surviving members of House Abascar (who fled from the ruins of their city because of a cataclysmic event), that beastmen led by his brother are planning an attack.

Because Jordam is a beastman, Cal-raven doesn’t believe him and tries to kill him. Injured, Jordam makes his way back to Cyndere. She tells him it is time for her to return to House Bel Amica. As they near the outpost, they face conflict from both sides … and that’s where I’ll stop.

There’s actually a lot, lot more—many side turns and suggestions of story to come. There’s the fact that Cyndere’s brother apparently is still alive and the suggestion that the queen of Abascar is too. That the savagery of the beastmen comes from an elixir called Essence. That a priest of the moon spirits seems to be the force behind the beastmen organizing to attack the House Abascar survivors. And of course there is Auralia, the young girl who started the whole thing by defying the House Abascar’s prohibition of owning colors to create and give color wherever she went, only to die in the devastation of Abascar. There is also the mysterious ale boy and the Keeper who protects him as it did Auralia. So the thumbnail sketch I’ve given of the plot is not much more than the obvious ingredients, like saying pizza is made of cheese and tomato sauce on a flour-based crust. Yes, it is, but there’s more.

Strengths. I went into more detail about the story so that my comments in this section and the next would make sense for those who have yet to read the book. Cyndere’s Midnight is not “just” a fanciful adventure. There’s more going on under the surface. One key is the power of color to salve the beastman’s heart. And to help Cyndere heal, though her midnight comes by confronting the dark colors and dealing with her pain.

But another, easily overlooked, is the water from the well outside the outpost that has the power to heal.

On the other side, there is deception, a thirst for power, and betrayal.

All these intricacies keep this story from being predictable and create suspense built on the intrigue. And depth. There’s a lot to think about in this story.

Weaknesses. My biggest concern is a common one, something I’m beginning to think is endemic to Christian fiction. I didn’t care about the characters. Not deeply, anyway. In this book, I think there are several reasons. One is that I expected the story to be mostly about Cyndere, but it really is mostly abut Jordam. An alternative title might have been Jordam’s Dawn. But I know why it wasn’t. The encounter Cyndere has in Auralia’s caves with the dark colors the girl painted is a key to the theme of the story. But the fact remains, I expected Cyndere to be a bigger part in the story.

Another reason I didn’t connect with the characters, especially early, was the numerous points of view. Cyndere’s; even her dead husband, Deuneroi’s, in a flashback; the ale boy; Jordam; Jordam’s Same Brother; his Older Brother; Cal-raven; the wizened gatherer who raised Auralia; Ryllion, a Bel Amican officer; Emeriene, Cyndere’s lady-in-waiting and friend; and more. Others may not feel the disconnect like I do when there are so many characters through whose perspectives the reader sees the story. For me, it creates a problem in identifying with the central character.

I also think the story loses a lot of excitement, tension, and suspense because it isn’t consistently told in a linear way. There are places a chapter ends with a suspenseful event, but the next chapter opens after the event has been resolved and the reader learns how in the form of the character’s thoughts. Would some of the artistic quality be lost from the book if the story were told in a more linear manner? Perhaps, but I think holding onto the suspense and creating more tension is vastly superior in storytelling, so in my way of thinking, it would actually make it more artistic, though less artsy.

Recommendation. I think Cyndere’s Midnight is an important contribution to the Christian fantasy genre. It is obvious the “Christian” part isn’t allegorical or overt. Frankly, that’s something I’ve longed to see. I’m waiting to see just how Jeffrey proceeds in the next strand. I highly recommend this book to readers who lean toward literary fantasy or epic fantasy.

Be sure to visit the other blogs participating in this tour. See Day 1 for the list and links to the posts. For an excellent discussion of Jeffrey’s writing be sure to read Brandon Barr’s post “Examining an excerpt from Cyndere’s Midnight.” For a review that takes a closer look at characterization, see John Ottinger’s excellent post which includes this line about Cyndere: “She manages to be both female and a hero, without having to become just like a man to do it.”

Published in: on February 17, 2009 at 11:30 am  Comments (6)  
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