Fantasy Friday Review: The New Recruit by Jill Williamson

Jill Williamson is one of the best writers I know, and the two back-to-back Christy Awards she won pretty much validate the point. I predict that she’ll be in the running again next year with her latest offering, The New Recruit (Marcher Lord Press), book one of the Mission League Series–a young adult contemporary supernatural fantasy.

The Story. Spencer Garmond seems like a typical freshman in high school–girl crazy, half-trying to balance the demands at home with the fun and games he wants for his life. Number one is his love of basketball and his ambition to play in college. And why shouldn’t he have that dream? At six feet five, he made the varsity and is hoping for a starting spot next year.

Standing in his way is … well, perhaps, himself. He gets angry way too often, ends up in fights, and his grandmother, who has raised him since his parents died, won’t take any more of his landing in trouble. He’s cleaned up as best he could, but there’s still C-Roc and then the mysterious men who show up looking for him. Are they there to take him to military school as his grandmother has threatened?

Not quite. The alternative to military school is for him to join a secret group of agents–Christians, with offices throughout the world. He’s to go into training, then participate in an introductory mission to Moscow during the summer.

Except, Spencer doesn’t hang with those churchers. And he has to swear off, well, swearing, and fighting, and drugs, and pretty much everything. Of course, he’s already quit doing drugs and no longer hangs with the gang that ended up in trouble with the law. The fighting and swearing–now those might be a problem, but he’s game to try to stop when he learns his parents once belonged to the Mission League. In fact, his mother wrote him a letter revealing her hopes for him.

Next to basketball and maybe girls, learning about his parents becomes the driving force in Spencer’s life. But the trip to Moscow uncovers more about his own life than it does about his parents’, and the adventures turn deadly so that he’s not worried about losing basketball as much as he is about losing his life.

You can read the first chapter of The New Recruit here.

Strengths. Jill writes compelling stories built around engaging characters. Spencer is a reluctant hero who has a lot of hurt he covers with enough swag to chase away any real relationships. His voice is strong, and he comes across as thoroughly believable in his role as tough guy trying to do better, trying to make it, and not feeling like he fits in with the churchers. His motives are clear, his choices understandable.

The plot speeds by, bolstered by the secrets Jill is adept at keeping from the readers. What happened to Spencer’s parents? Why does Nick hate him so much? What trouble was Spencer in before his new determination to keep his nose clean?

Then there is the suspense, both connected to the overall plot and to Spencer’s inner life. There are even relational questions that surface. On every page there is some question that pulls the reader forward.

The cast is not a small one, but for the most part, Jill did a masterful job giving each person unique, memorable, and sometimes quirky traits that made them seem authentic. Even the antagonists are painted well.

The thematic elements are woven throughout in a way that adds to the story, all without the taint of preachiness. Each character acts in a way consistent with his personality. Those of faith act in a way that is true to life–sometimes knowing and doing the right thing and sometimes not, often in the frantic zeal of not knowing what is best.

The story aptly shows a variety of responses to the gospel–some from unspeakable brokenness embracing faith, and others with advantages and privilege turning their backs. There is no easy believe-ism here, no one-and-done response to the first presentation of the gospel that occurs.

Above all, The New Recruit turns the idea of spiritual warfare on its head. Though this is far from an allegory, nevertheless, the reality of battle becomes strikingly real within these pages.

Weaknesses. This is definitely a story for Christians though the main character is not a believer. This is not a weakness that destroys the story, however, and many readers may actually find they prefer reading about authentic struggles and doubts and fears. Some of the most important thematic threads run through the minor characters’ storylines, so there is plenty of meat for Christians.

Recommendation. I’m enthusiastic about The New Recruit. It’s smart, contemporary (mentioned in text is Angel Eyes a novel by Shannon Dittemore that just released this year), fast-paced, insightful. It’s not brimming with speculative elements, so for those only satisfied with the weird or the dark, this probably won’t be weird enough or dark enough. But for anyone else who loves a fast-paced adventure with a few speculative elements, you will LOVE this book. If you’re a Jill Williamson fan, of course this is a must read. You will not be disappointed!

The New Recruit is currently on tour. Yesterday Christian Teen Fiction Devourer posted an article and tomorrow A Writer’s World will add thoughts about the book.

I received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my unbiased opinion.

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