The 2015 Clive Staples Award


2014CSA_Small copyI guess this is the day for announcements.

Since its inception I’ve headed up the Clive Staples Award For Christian Speculative Fiction. This year the organization sponsoring the award is taking the lead (yea!)

Today begins the process of picking the best Christian speculative novel published in 2014. All the information you need to know is below, but I want to point out the first item on the timetable: Nominations will be open for only two weeks. In other words, there’s not a lot of time to make a decision or to read the book you’ve heard such good things about. The time is now, people! Now!

OK, do I sound sufficiently exercised? ;-) Hope so. We really do have a great list of nominations so far, and anyone can add books that aren’t on the list yet.

So without more blathering, here’s everything you need to know about this year’s award.

RealmMakerslogo

Realm Makers is excited to promote this year’s Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction. We will announce the winner as part of the Realm Makers Awards Dinner on August 7th.

Similar to last year, the final winner will be decided by a panel of judges, so the award becomes a hybrid of “readers’ choice” and panel judging, which combines popularity and critical acclaim in the process. We’re very excited to be able to recognize the book that earns this honor, and therefore, the Faith and Fantasy Alliance is once again committing sponsoring funds to the cash prize that will go to the winner.

The nomination period is upon us and will be conducted via an online poll. If you would like to nominate a book for this award, please read the guidelines below before jumping to the poll.

Nomination qualifications

Eligible books must be all of the following:

  • Containing themes consistent with a Christian worldview, whether implied, symbolic, or overt.
  • Published in English.
  • Published between January 1 and December 31 of the current contest’s year. (For example, for the Clive Staples Award held in 2015, entrants must have been published between, Jan. 1, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2014.)
  • In the science fiction/fantasy/allegory/futuristic/supernatural/supernatural suspense/horror/time travel category, or any sub-genre or mashup of these.

Nomination guidelines

  • Authors, agents, and publishers may not nominate books with which they are affiliated. Likewise, book authors or affiliates may not campaign for votes on behalf of their books. A conservative number of social media posts to make readers aware of the voting process is welcome. The contest committee reserves the right to disqualify any entry if it is determined a book’s affiliates have campaigned for votes.
  • Readers may only nominate books they have actually read.
  • Ebooks and books in hard-copy print are both eligible

Nomination instructions

  • Add between 1 and 3 books you’d like to nominate. Please include the Title, Author, and Publisher (indicate “self-published” if that is the case.)
  • Submit your answers

After the nomination period is over, the award committee will tabulate the votes and declare the semi-finalists.

Readers’ Choice Semi-finalist Voting

Voters will be eligible only if they have read two or more of the books nominated. We want this to be a selection by readers of Christian speculative fiction, not just the fans of particular authors.

Below are standards to consider.

Standards for Clive Staples Award books

  • Quality writing style and mechanics
  • Believable and well-developed world-building
  • Depth of characterization
  • Well-structured, original, and interesting plot
  • Deftness of integration of the worldview into the story’s plot and characterizations

Contest time line:

5-15-15: Reader nomination period begins

5-29-15: Reader nominations close

6-1-15: Semi-Finalists announced; second round of Readers Choice voting begins

6-8-15: Readers Choice voting closes

6-15-15: Finalists announced

7-7-15: Winner announced at the Realm Makers Costumed Awards Dinner, cash prize awarded

Thank you for lending your voice to help us choose the best speculative fiction out there. Spread the word that the contest is open, and good luck to all you authors.

To participate in the nomination process, record your selections (up to three) on this survey: CSA Nomination Survey.

CSFF Blog Tour-Storm Siren, Day 2


cover_StormSirenOne good thing about a blog tour is that you get to compare what different readers think about the same book. This includes views about the writing, the story, the issues engendered, the genre, the characters, the pacing—whatever the bloggers wish to discuss.

A good tour also isn’t a rah-rah club. The participants will give genuine, honest reactions, so there will be positives and negatives. The current CSFF tour for Storm Siren by Mary Weber is no different. Here are some of the observations I’ve made half way through the tour.

First, I’d say there’s a consensus that this book is well written. There seems to be a split decision about the ending, however, and an equal mix concerning the level of darkness in the story. A fourth issue many participants in the tour mentioned was a dynamic opening scene followed by a slow section.

This pacing problem is one I’d like to address because I think it’s all too common and something I think is fairly easy to fix. Here’s how one CSFF blogger described the problem:

After an intense opening sequence, Storm Siren settled into a long, relatively quiet interval that built up the characters and their world, with all its dangers. The shift surprised me, but it didn’t dismay me. I’m not as hyped for action as some readers are; I like the building and the exploring. I like introspection, I love characters, and more to the point, I liked Mary Weber’s characters.

And yet I reached a point, reading this novel, where I was just waiting for something to change. (Shannon McDermott)

Others mentioned putting the book aside for a time or reaching a point where the pace picked up. The point is, there does seem to be bit of a lull. Some seemed to think this was a necessary aspect of the book—all the world-building and character-introduction pieces needed to be put in place.

I used to think that a natural lull was part of telling a story. After all, readers need to know who is who and where the characters are, what the places are like, and what’s at stake. While we’re learning all these things, it’s hard to keep the story moving forward.

But here’s the crux of the issue and why I believe the fix isn’t all that hard. All the world-building and character introduction can take as long as they need to with one proviso: the main character needs to have a goal to acquire what she needs or to fix the problem at issue. As long as she’s working toward something, readers will be patient as things unfold because they want to know if her plans succeed or not.

In Storm Siren, the story opens with the protagonist, a teenage girl named Nym, on the slave auction block. One thing that pops out is how feisty this girl is, how easily she reads what others are thinking, and even how much she wants to shield those weaker than she.

She’s interesting—a cross between a vulnerable young girl (she is a slave after all, and one who has been sold fourteen times in eleven years) and a strong, even cocky, resilient, nonchalant character who can handle anything, epitomized in this bit of internal monologue:

Eleven years of repeatedly being sold, and it’s sad, really, how familiar I’ve become with this conversation. Today, if Brea has her way, I will meet my fifteenth, which I suppose should actually bother me. But it doesn’t.

So there’s the issue: what is it that bothers Nym? Readers learn there are a few things, most notably her own anger which triggers uncontrollable destruction. But here’s the problem: Nym doesn’t have a plan to change or better her circumstances or to overcome the unfairness or escape. She’s not trying to enlist allies or work to improve her lot. Rather, she pretty much lets things happen. When things are bad, she toughs them out as best she can and when things are good, she proceeds with caution. But she doesn’t make any plan to overcome.

It’s this “go along” attitude, this lack of initiative, that reduces tension and thus slows the pace. As a reader I was not dragged forward by my desire to know if her plan would succeed because she didn’t have a plan and wasn’t working toward anything. Rather, things were, or were not, happening to her, or around her, or to her friends.

I found these things interesting, but I wasn’t emotionally invested until Nym had a goal and seized on something she believed she needed to do. At that point, the pace of the story picked up.

And now, I encourage you to read some of the excellent posts by CSFF Tour participants who are writing about Storm Siren. Steve Trower, who participates in the tour though he can seldom get books across the pond, wrote an especially funny post based on what he found out about the book on the Internet.

Chawna Schroeder, who is often a tough reviewer, wrote part 1 of her analysis and praised the craft by saying, “Storm Siren provides a phenomenal story with a strong driving plot and unpredictable characters.”

Joan Nienhuis looked at the various elements of the story and observed that there is more going on than winning a war between two countries: “The war is somewhat twofold. One aspect of it is for Nymia’s soul. Will she ever be healed of the pain and horror of what she did as a child?”

Good, thought-provoking reactions to Storm Siren. Be sure to see what others had to say in their posts. The list is at the bottom of the Day 1 post.

CSFF Blog Tour-Storm Siren, Day 1


mary-weberThis month the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring Storm Siren by Mary Weber. Although the publisher doesn’t list this book as geared toward a young adult audience, the Library Journal review labeled it as appropriate for grade 8 and up.

I also haven’t seen any genre label other than fantasy. It’s not dystopian or post-apocalyptic, it’s not fairy tale fantasy or urban fantasy, and it’s not really epic fantasy either. It dawned on me somewhere in the middle of the book that it’s more nearly like a superhero story—a fantasy style X-Men, but without the comic book feel.

There are a number of similarities, at least on the surface. Though I’m fairly ignorant of the X-Men stories, I noted that there’s persecution of the “mutants,” there’s a place where these people with superpowers—in Mary Weber’s world, called Elementals—are being trained so they learn how to control their powers, and there’s a powerful Elemental with borderline telepathic ability who can manipulate others to a degree.

But this story is still a fantasy, so the world has a medieval feel, though there’s the introduction of some weapons technology that plays a key part in the plot. In other words, Storm Siren is a unique blend of superhero and fantasy genres.

sirens-fury-coverThe book has been out since August 2014, and during this time it has garnered considerable attention. There are reviews and author interviews all over the web.

Happily, book two in this series, Siren’s Fury, is scheduled for release in June, so the CSFF Blog Tour comes at a great time to draw attention once again to Mary Weber and to her debut novel.

Recently Weber wrote a guest post for Speculative Faith, sharing a little about the inspiration for her characters and a bit more about her life apart from writing.

The tour is well underway, so I invite you to stop by the blogs of these CSFF participants and see what all they have to say about Storm Siren. As usual, a check mark links to a tour post. You might especially be interested in Julie Bihn‘s comments on costumes and the ending of this first installment in the series or Phyllis Wheeler‘s remarks after reading the book a second time.

The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


thefataltree_coverAnd so, with the turn of the final page of The Fatal Tree, the Bright Empires series, the five-book epic Christian science fantasy by Stephen Lawhead, has come to an end. It’s hard for me to put into words the last installment of such an ambitious project. Part of me wants to give a series review, but I’m inadequate to do so since I read the five books as they released. What details have I forgotten?

And yet, merely reviewing The Fatal Tree feels inadequate. I wouldn’t expect anyone to start with this book, so a review of it as if it were a stand alone seems disingenuous. I think the best way to approach this daunting assignment is for me to give my random thoughts . . . randomly, as opposed to writing a formal review.

With that decided, here goes.

The Fatal Tree continues the story where The Shadow Lamp left off. The ley travelers suspect something serious has happened in the omniverse to upset the way things work. In fact, they believe that in all probability, an anomaly has taken place which has caused the omniverse to slow, leading ultimately to contraction, or the complete destruction of everything.

The main character, Kit, thinks he knows what this anomaly is—an event he witnessed at the Spirit Well. The problem is that a giant yew tree is growing over the place that would give him and his fellow questers access to the Well. Their job is to find a way to the Well and reverse the event in hope that they will also reverse contraction. The yew tree, however, emits huge amounts of energy, enough to kill anyone who touches it.

Some bloggers have mentioned that the quest for the Spirit Well is a shift from the original series quest—to find the Skin Map. The shift took place in book three, however, so from my perspective it would be odd to once again take up the search for the Skin Map. In The Spirit Well the focus becomes the object to which the map led and not the map itself. That Kit found the Well, saw it, and believes he can lead others to it, is a game changer. But problems of one kind or another continue to block him and the others.

Some bloggers also felt as if the high stakes didn’t ring true. I’d have to agree with this thought. The fact that I’m reading a book about the possibility of the end of everything obviously means (were it true and not fiction—a sensation novelists try to create) that the questers were successful which reduces the tension of the story.

Some CSFF tour participants felt the characters weren’t particularly deep or developed. I didn’t think so. Rather, I thought some of the minor characters like Lady Fayth made great changes; others showed their true colors more clearly; several relationships were furthered; but most importantly, an unlikely character changed and an unlikely character took heroic action.

I have to think that Mr. Lawhead’s use of the omniscient point of view may have been the reason some readers didn’t feel the story showed great character development. Without a doubt, it is a writing technique that doesn’t bring readers as close as first person or even close third person.

I was probably more aware of the omniscient voice in The Fatal Tree than I had been in the previous books. With this book wrapping up the many strands of an epic tale, omniscient voice may have been the only way to move from one set of characters in various locations and times to another. Perhaps all the movement drew more attention to the voice, however.

I did wonder from time to time if all the characters and all the movement were necessary. For instance, a good amount of time was spent on one character looking for another. When at last the connection was made, nothing came of it—that is, the encounter ended quickly and badly, and the questers were no closer to finding a way to the Spirit Well.

Along that line, there seemed to be a couple threads for which I saw no purpose. For example, at one point Mina, in trying to reach a certain spot by traveling along the ever less-stable ley lines, landed in a blizzard—with the Burly men’s wild cat. The animal ends up running off, dragging its chain, and nothing is heard about it again. At the same time, Mina sees a pool that doesn’t freeze over, though everything else is ice and snow. She steps into it and is transported to a different place and time.

A pool, I think. And they are looking for the Spirit Well. Might this be connected? A prehistoric version of what they’re looking for? Or a form of it before the yew tree grew? We never visited that pool again, and it didn’t have any apparent connection with the over all quest.

Another subplot had to do with one of Arthur Flinders-Petrie’s descendants, Douglas. He had stolen a book which was supposed to be important in the quest for the Skin Map. The book never factors into the resolution and Douglas has little to do with the main plot line.

In the same way the secret ley travelers organization, the Zetetic Society, which seemed so important in The Shadow Lamp, fades in importance in The Fatal Tree, receiving only a mention from time to time.

All this to say, I liked this final book of the series better for paring down the cast to the most significant characters. And still there was, what felt like to me, an utterly useless thread with Tony Carter and the scientists back in the US who were trying to corroborate that the omniverse was indeed about to contract. These scenes felt by and large, superfluous to me though I understand some found them of great interest and thought they gave the book a greater science fiction feel.

Well, yes, probably. Since I’m not a big science fiction reader, you can see why I felt those sections could have been left out!

I could go on. There’s so much to say about this book, and I haven’t touched upon the key theme—in fact, I don’t recall any of the tour participants discussing this theme either, which is a little disturbing.

Here’s the end before the Epilogue and the author essay in which this theme comes forward again:

“It looks like we’re just in time,” observed Cass, tapping the pewter carapace [of the Shadow Lamp].

“You know there’s no such thing as coincidence,” Kit replied lightly. “Right?”

“Yeah, right,” said Cass. “Let’s go home.”

No such thing as coincidence is a repeated phrase in this book, and it’s not by coincidence! ;-)

This book also contained the greatest spiritual content of the five, and yet it left me wondering. What I had taken in earlier books to be symbols of new birth or of redemption were not. What they were, I’d like to think about some more. And I’d like to understand better what actually happened in the climax. I’ll be re-reading that chapter, most certainly.

All in all, I highly recommend the Bright Empires series to readers who love epic stories and appreciate the writing style made possible by the omniscient voice—Mr. Lawhead has full command of the language and is able to provide rich description of the varied places and eras about which he writes. This series is a unique blend of speculative and historical fiction. Readers who enjoy either genre or both will be swept up in the expansive tale.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a gratis copy of The Fatal Tree so that I could write my thoughts about the book in this post.

The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2


Bright Empires posterStephen Lawhead aimed big when he began the Bright Empire series, a five-book epic Christian speculative story which concludes with The Fatal Tree, this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature. In fact, you might say the series is cosmic in scope, incorporating omniverse theory, philosophy, and theology into his fascinating tale of ley lines travel.

And still, characters rule—the good and the bad. In Day 1 I took a peek at my favorite character, Mina Klug. Today I want to zero in on my least favorite—Archelaeus Burleigh, Earl of Sutherland and story antagonist.

In Book 4, The Shadow Lamp, Burleigh seems at last to reap what he has sown, and I experienced a sense of justice and a bit of relief that now at last the questers could move freely as they sought to set to right the events that threaten the entire cosmos.

How wrong I was, given the nature of ley line travel. Not only do people using ley lines move from place to place, they move from time to time within those places. Hence, Kit and Mina and Cass can come face to face with Burleigh and his gang of thugs at points before their capture.

More interesting to me than this suspenseful twist in the story, is the unexpected thread in The Fatal Tree expanding on Burleigh himself. While he was free, he operated like a selfish, mean-spirited bully, taking what he wanted, manipulating others for his purposes. He was cruel for his own pleasure, impulsive, scheming—a thoroughly evil villain.

But when he lands in the dungeon, when he’s forced into solitary confinement, he suddenly has more time than he wants for contemplation, and his inner life comes alive. His encounter with the character I most admire in the Bright Empires, the baker Engelbert Stiffelbeam, provides the contrast to his life that ignites reflection.

What fascinates me so much is the similarity between Burleigh’s position and that voiced by a number of atheists I’ve encountered in recent online conversations. Here’s an excerpt from The Fatal Tree revealing the character’s thoughts:

[Burleigh] had an epiphany: Engelbert Stiffelbeam was not the problem—it was his Jesus. Why should this be? Burleigh wondered. What difference did it make to Burleigh what the big oaf believed?

The Grand Imperial’s chief baker might also believe in pink-spotted green leprechauns for all he knew; people believed a multitude of ridiculous things up to and including the existence of mermaids, unicorns, and fire-breathing dragons. But those deluded beliefs did not inspire in him the same visceral disgust. And just like the imaginary unicorns that haunted the dells and hidden glades of folklore, Jesus was merely an irrelevant nonsense. The brutal indifference of the world proved that much beyond doubt; and Jesus, God’s insipid Son, was a phantom, a figment, a myth. In actual fact, the whole of religion everywhere, so far as Burleigh could discern, was a rag-tag bundle of superstition and make-believe: wholesale foolishness concocted by lunatics, peddled by charlatans, and swallowed by the ignorant benighted masses.

Burleigh had always held that organized religion amounted to a kind of madness, a collective insanity embraced by the weak and powerless because it allowed them some small degree of comfort, a grain of solace in the face of the harsh reality that their lives were meaningless, existence had no purpose, and there was no good, wise, all-knowing God looking out for them. The naked truth was that existence had no significance beyond the random shuttling of mindless forces that had produced a blob of sentient matter that was here one day and gone the next. (p 147, emphasis added)

Burleigh voices the same attitudes as ones I’ve encountered from contemporary atheists:
* Jesus is a myth
* religion is a form of superstition
* morons came up with the idea of religion
* frauds and deceivers push religion on people
* the masses swallow religion because they’re stupid
* the truth is, life is meaningless
* there is no kind, all-knowing God
* life came about by chance
* a person is here today, and gone tomorrow, the end

I can’t help but wonder if atheists today were to have an encounter with someone like Engelbert Stiffelbeam, who forgave because Jesus had forgiven him, who gave because Jesus had given to him, and if those atheists would reflect on their lives as Burleigh was forced to do, would they re-evaluate their position?

There’s no formula for a person changing their belief system, certainly. God has used far less than the acts of kindness Engelbert Stiffelbeam performed for his enemy, and such acts do not insure a positive change of heart, as Burleigh proves.

But what if? Isn’t it the Christian’s place to be Engelbert Stiffelbeam to the Burleigh in our lives?

And now, see what others on the CSFF Blog Tour are saying about The Fatal Tree by clicking on the links provided in the Day 1 post.

You might especially be interested in seeing Julie Bihn sporting Skin Map-like tats as the Illustrated Woman, or in reading a review by Audrey Sauble or Rachel Starr Thomson or Rebekah Loper. Then there is the always thoughtful Calvinist perspective offered by Thomas Clayton Booher.

The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1


thefataltree_cover The Fatal Tree, this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, brings to a close Stephen Lawhead‘s intriguing Bright Empires series, a science fantasy centered on ley line travel—similar to, but not the same as, time travel.

The series is a cosmic undertaking with cosmic implications. And still, I’m struck by how important character is, especially to my interest in the story.

My favorite character—though not the one I most admire—is Wilhelmina Klug, most often known by her nickname, Mina. In book one of the series, The Skin Map, she started as my least favorite. She seemed mean-spirited, needy, demanding, a bit cynical. As it turned out, she didn’t thrive in her own time period, but given a change of circumstances, her innate abilities began to surface.

As The Fatal Tree opens, Mina is capable, resourceful, take-charge, clever—the definition of a strong heroine. Her change during the four previous books, enforced on her by her circumstances, is believable and even inspiring.

It also raises a question: can someone be born in the wrong era? Of course, I don’t really believe this because that would suggest God made a mistake. He doesn’t. But perhaps our temperament might be better suited to a situation different from the one in which we live.

For example, I think of a young woman named Katie Davis who was living in Tennessee, attending high school and doing typical high school things—she was homecoming queen, went shopping at the mall with her friends on the weekend, had a boyfriend. But when she took a three week mission trip to an orphanage in Uganda, she found her niche.

In the next seven years she moved to Uganda, adopted thirteen girls, and started her own mission organization, Amazima Ministries. Apparently she “belongs” to a different place and time from the one in which she was born.

Mina is like that. In contemporary London, where she was working, where she and Kit Livingstone, the other protagonist of the Bright Empires series, had a serious relationship, she was stifled. Transported to nineteenth century Prague, she thrives.

And still, she’s not the character I most admire. But I’ll save that for another day. Now I suggest you jump over to Meagan @ Blooming with Books’ first tour post to read a wonderful, concise summary of the previous books.

Afterward start the tour! Check out what the other CSFF tour participants have to say about The Fatal Tree and the Bright Empires series. Keep your eyes open for Skin Map-like tattoos which may abound. Stop back here and report any you happen to spot.

Launch Day – Golden Daughter by Anne Elisabeth Stengl


You’ve seen the cover already. Now you have a chance to buy the book or ebook. Award-winning Christian fantasy author Anne Elisabeth Stengl released Golden Daughter today, the latest in the Tales of Goldstone Wood series.

She held a Facebook Launch Party chat tonight, with the promise of some nice prizes for those participating and sharing about her book (I already bought a copy, so I’m not actually posting this for prize points). The reason I mention this is because points for sharing are good for twenty-four hours, so anyone can still jump in and get their name in the mix to win free books.

And now a little bit about the book. Published by Rooglewood Press, this young adult novel is 584 pages long (so you get your money’s worth), and has already garnered some nice reviews. Here’s the intro:

BEYOND THE REALM OF DREAMS
IS A WORLD SHE NEVER IMAGINED.

Masayi Sairu was raised to be dainty, delicate, demure . . . and deadly. She is one of the emperor’s Golden Daughters, as much a legend as she is a commodity. One day, Sairu will be contracted in marriage to a patron, whom she will secretly guard for the rest of her life.

But when she learns that a sacred Dream Walker of the temple seeks the protection of a Golden Daughter, Sairu forgoes marriage in favor of this role. Her skills are stretched to the limit, for assassins hunt in the shadows, and phantoms haunt in dreams. With only a mysterious Faerie cat and a handsome slave—possessed of his own strange abilities—to help her, can Sairu shield her new mistress from evils she can neither see nor touch?

For the Dragon is building an army of fire. And soon the heavens will burn.

Golden Daughter excerpt

Published in: on November 10, 2014 at 7:01 pm  Comments Off on Launch Day – Golden Daughter by Anne Elisabeth Stengl  
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If It’s Friday, It’s Time For Fantasy


GoldenDaughtercoverI haven’t discussed fiction much of late, at least not here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, though I still post about fiction in general at my editing site and about Christian speculative fiction every Monday at Speculative Faith. It feels like it’s time to get back to my blogging roots for a day. ;-)

When I first started blogging, Christian fantasy was almost an anomaly. Only a handful of writers were putting out true fantasy with Christian underpinnings. Donita Paul and Bryan Davis burst on the scene to join Stephen Lawhead and Karen Hancock, but back in those days fantasy primarily meant stories written in a medieval-type setting that included the equivalent of magic.

However, as the fantasy genre expanded in the general market to include urban fantasy, dystopian fantasy, fairytale fantasy, and more, the stories Christians wrote also ventured away from the classic form.

In addition, new authors have emerged—Jill Williamson, Andrew Peterson, Anne Elisabeth Stengl, Patrick Carr, R. J. Larson, John Otte and more recently Nadine Brandes, Ashlee Willis, and Mary Weber.

Over this time, publishing has changed, too. More and more small presses featuring Christian speculative fiction have come into being. First was Marcher Lord Press founded by the visionary Jeff Gerke. But others soon followed: Splashdown Books, AltWit Press, Castle Gate Press, and others.

This past year Jeff Gerke sold MLP to agent Steve Laube. The house now operates as Enclave Publishing and has just hired a director of sales and marketing. One of the goals for Enclave is to get their books into bookstores, something that can only enhance their visibility, even as the digital market expands.

Publishers with a long standing “no fantasy” policy have broken from their mold and are now joining the ranks of others with a growing group of fantasy authors.

By fantasy, of course, I mean this broader, more encompassing genre, which fans of Lord of the Rings might not recognize. Is this a good thing?

I absolutely think it’s a great thing. All types of fantasy stir the imagination. Dystopian or post-apocalyptic fantasy or science fantasy may not tell stories about sword-wielding, dragon-fighting heroes, but they still create a different world and show a struggle between good and evil. This latter, after all, is the single most important fantasy trope.

Interestingly, the once familiar good or evil fantasy creatures have been turned on their heads. Hence dragons may be good, and in the case of Donita Paul’s minor dragons in her DragonKeeper Chronicles, even cute and cuddly.

Still there remains an identifiable evil that characters must choose to fight. In Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands series, for instance, there was no one villain but a system readers can equate with the world system that finds solutions to life’s problems by escaping into entertainment and pleasure.

Despite this expansion of the genre, epic fantasy seems to retain its popularity, as evidenced by the great success of first time novelist Patrick Carr’s A Cast of Stones and the following two books of the Staff and Sword trilogy.

And I haven’t yet mentioned self-publishing. With the changes in digital publishing, a writer can now publish their book with ease. Finding a readership remains the great challenge, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more and more viable stories out there among the self-published.

One of the functions Speculative Faith plays is to catalog Christian speculative fiction in the Library. Any book written with an overt or symbolic or suggestive worldview pointing toward some aspect of Christianity—regardless of publisher—may be included in the database. It’s a great tool to use to find books that might fit the genre or audience age a person is looking for.

Other developments have also enhanced Christian speculative fiction, not just fantasy—specifically the Realm Makers Conference which is planning for its third year in 2015, and the Clive Staples Award which will be entering its fifth year of operation.

My hope, of course, is that readers are finding these great fantasy books. If publishers are to continue producing them, readers need to buy them.

I’m happy to report I bought a fantasy today—Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s soon to release Golden Daughter. How about you? What fantasy have you recently purchased or read?

Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


Rebelscover

Rebels by Jill Williamson – The Review

Of necessity the following will contain some spoilers, though I will make every effort to keep them to a minimum.

Also, in conjunction with CSFF, I received a free review copy of Rebels from the publisher. This review is in no way influenced by that fact.

The Story. At the end of Outcasts, brothers Mason and Omar have been captured after their rescue operation. They’ve been slated for liberation, whatever that is. No one seems to know.

The rest of the Glenrock community under Levi’s leadership is now free—free to live underground with the Kindred, a group of people who have built a separate culture apart from the rebels and from the Safe Landers and who want nothing to do with outsiders. At least that’s the attitude of some, including the Kindred’s matriarch.

Levi’s next goal is to free the women of Jack’s Peak, their neighboring village, being held in the Safe Land harem where they are to act as surrogates. Once all the people from the villages are together, he wants to find a way out of the Safe Lands.

Meanwhile, Omar and Mason go through the liberation procedure and end up in the Lowlands with all the other liberated people—strikers, who received three x’s for crimes they committed, and everyone over forty, including the older citizens of Glenrock and Jack’s Peak.

Here everyone is assigned to heavy tasks which produce all the food and drugs and other commerce for those in the Highlands and Midlands. In essence they are in a penal colony.

Mason and Omar must first survive in the brutal prison environment, but they are as determined as ever to find a way to reunite their people and leave. But how? There is no way to communicate with the others to let them know they are alive.

Strengths. The list here is long. The series as a unit had incredible coherence—what was true in one book was true in the next and the next. A bit of backstory in one book becomes the central motivation of a character in the final book.

The parts all fit. This was especially impressive to me because I had so many questions at the end of Outcasts and saw no way they would all be answered in one more volume: who were the hooded, secret guild members, what was liberation, what would happen between Omar and Shaylinn, between Mason and Ciddah, would Mason find a cure for the thin plague, would Omar stay in the Safe Lands if everyone else found a way out? Questions, questions, questions. How could all these moving parts fit together and be resolved in one more book? Jill did a remarkable job to make it happen.

Further, the characters continued to develop and grow—even Levi. More than one CSFF tour participant has commented on how much they didn’t like Levi.

I never felt animosity toward him. He was the one who had to deal with the dead bodies of the men who had cared for him and mentored him and served as examples for him. Besides, Jemma loved him.

True, at first he didn’t do well as the elder of his people. He brought the same bullying tactics to the job as his father had used, but he learned. His change is most clearly shown by his agreeing to act as the Owl in Omar’s absence and his admission later to Omar himself that the subversive, secret message bearer of truth was a good idea.

Omar, of course, changed the most, but Shay grew up and learned to accept herself, even stand up for herself when she needed to.

Mason grew too, most clearly seen in his admission that he’d been arrogant to think he could find a cure for the plague on his own. In many respects, the Safe Lands were good for Mason because he finally got to use the abilities he had and to live the way he thought was right. He still had challenges, though, and found himself more dependent on God’s mercy at times than he ever had been before.

In short, all the characters grew and changed. But what’s more, they each seemed so real. As tour participant Meagan said, “I will miss them all and hope that at some point in the future we may revisit this land as they recreate what they once had.”

That’s one of the highest compliments an author can get, I think, because truly these characters became so real, they seem to be out there somewhere, living their lives, and it would be great to be able to “catch up.”

The story itself was full of intrigue and conflict and danger and suspense. But one thing I noticed. Through it all, there were partial successes and reasons for joy—the liberation of the Jack’s Peak women, the birth of Shaylinn’s babies, Mason getting to task in the medical facility, and the brothers finding their mom. The moments of hope offered a counterbalance to all the fear and loss and oppression, so the story had a great rhythm, not a monochromatic note of despair until the end.

I also thought the story shouted through the action and events which worldview is strongest and best, though clearly there wasn’t a black and white choice (how’s that for a bit of confusion—can’t say more without giving too much away). In the process, some of the hardest issues teens face today were addressed—suicide, drug addiction, illicit sex, friendship and betrayal, forgiveness, lust, guilt, and more.

But adults weren’t left alone either. The truth reveals that Levi’s dad abused his wife, and Levi’s bullying and Jordan’s anger are clearly shown as counter-productive. As Levi changes, another legalistic figure moves to the forefront—Tovah, matriarch of the Kindred. Except, as much as it’s tempting to hate her for how she treats the outsiders and how she tries to fence in her boys, she’s the one who steps in to help Shaylinn when she needs it most.

In short, no one is a caricature, not even Lawton, who does much of the evil he does out of a sense of self-preservation.

Weaknesses. The book isn’t perfect—I don’t think too many are. ;-) But the minor things I might quibble over aren’t worth detracting from the high quality of this story. OK, here’s an example. As Levi made his plans to escape the Safe Lands and return to Glenrock, I wanted to shake him—don’t you realize, they’ll just come and get you again? You couldn’t stop them the first time. What makes you think you can ever go back to your village and continue to live in such close proximity of the Safe Lands again?

See? Not a real issue because . . . well, because of what happened instead. :-D

Recommendation. The Safe Lands series is a must read for teens, for adults with teens, for Christian writers who want to see how to write believable fiction with a subtle Christian message that isn’t preachy, and for readers who enjoy a good story. (Yes, I’m a fan!)

Merlin’s Nightmare – A Review


Merlin's NightmareLast month I promised my review of Merlin’s Nightmare, book 3 of the Merlin Spiral by Robert Treskillard. Today I’m happy to provide said review.

The Story Eighteen years have passed since the end of book 2, Merlin’s Shadow. Merlin and his beloved Nataleyna married and besides their stepson, Arthur, they have two children of their own. They make their home in a secure valley away from those who want Arthur dead and from the enemy forces seeking to overrun Britain.

Arthur has grown up under Merlin’s watchful eye but also under the tutelage of some of the best swordsmen and horsemen in the country. Now some are counseling Merlin to reveal to the young man his true heritage—that of rightful High King. Merlin wants to wait until the man who betrayed High King Uther, Arthur’s father, has died. He concedes, however, that Arthur is ready to take part in the coming battles with the invading Picti in the north.

However, Arthur sets off ahead of the army, only he and the two friends with him mistakenly are going south to join a different force gathering to meet a different threat—that of the Saxonow.

When Merlin realizes what Arthur has done, he goes after him. He successfully overtakes him, but events manipulated by his evil sister Mórgana turn Britain into chaos. The Picti overwhelm the army in the north and besiege the safe haven which had been Merlin’s home, a strong king of Britain becomes Mórgana’s werewolf puppet, and the Saxonow outnumber the Briton forces ten to one.

In the midst of what looks to be sure ruin, Merlin tells Arthur who he really is. After a long night of soul searching and dealing with the fact that the man he thought was his father had lied to him for eighteen years, Arthur accepts his role.

The question is, will the other kings and warriors accept him as well? In fact, will there be anything left of Britain for him to rule?

Strengths. In many respects, Merlin’s Nightmare is more of a stand-alone than it is book three of a series. Separated by eighteen years from the events in the last book, this story introduces Arthur, one of the point of view characters, as an adult.

However, as in the first two books of the series, the pace of Merlin’s Nightmare is non-stop. There is action and adventure throughout. Because the story of Arthur is familiar, there aren’t real story surprises, but there continues to be suspense and intrigue connected with the “how does he pull it off” question.

There are also interesting relational dynamics in this story which aren’t typical in other Arthurian legend books, most notably Merlin’s relationship with his wife and other children. Arthur’s change from a wild-colt of a son to a strong-minded leader is handled believably. While the transformation happens rather suddenly, the events of the story require him to assert himself, so this aspect of the story doesn’t feel forced or artificial.

A strong thread of good versus evil continues to run through the story. There’s no doubt that the real conflict is spiritual not merely a fight against a person or a people group. While it is a fight for the survival of Britain, the goal is more than existence. Arthur and the men with him strive for a freedom they’ve known before and that will utterly disappear if they lose to the evil forces conspiring against them.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the realistic setting. From the maps to the text, the story feels almost like a historical novel rather than a re-imaged legend. This quality can only come through solid research. Though the historical underpinnings offer veracity to the story, they do not overwhelm it or take it into dry or irrelevant territory.

Weaknesses. While Merlin’s Nightmare is the final book of the Merlin Spiral, it is not the end of the Merlin story. In fact, the conclusion feels more like this is the first book in a series rather than the last. Many readers won’t mind this and in fact will be delighted to learn that the story continues in a second series entitled the Pendragon Spiral.

More germane to the issue is what I perceive as a problem of goal. Throughout the story, I struggled to like Merlin because he did not seem to be an active participant. He wanted to take Arthur north to fight the Picti, but ended up going along in the opposite direction. He didn’t want to travel with Gogi and his daughters, but merely sulked and/or kept to himself. He didn’t want Arthur to go to the parlay with the Saxonow, but did nothing more than spy. He himself wanted to return home but did nothing but pine for his family.

In other words, there was no plan that the main character was working to achieve. He wanted things that he was powerless to bring about, and he made no plan to change his circumstances.

In fact, he and Arthur were often at odds. I kept wanting the strong and wise adviser to the High King to show up, but he didn’t.

Perhaps I was a victim of the many other legend books. Perhaps I wanted something different from the main character other than the believable responses to the circumstances in this book.

I did want something heroic, and not just in the nick of time. I wanted something heroic as part of the fabric of the character. But Merlin still seemed to doubt too much, to depend too much, to follow instead of guide. He didn’t make things happen. He reacted.

But this story is Merlin’s Nightmare, after all, so it could be I expected something the book never promised.

Recommendation. As part of the re-imaging of the Arthurian legend which Robert Treskillard is weaving, Merlin’s Nightmare is essential. I see it as the bridge book between the early events chronicling how Merlin saved Arthur and the later events chronicling how Arthur saved Britain. A must read for those who are hooked on stories about King Arthur. They will love this new look at the legend.

Published in: on September 24, 2014 at 12:47 pm  Comments Off on Merlin’s Nightmare – A Review  
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