Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


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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. 😀

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!)

CSFF Blog Tour – Captives by Jill Williamson, Day 3


CaptivesSafeLandscoverAnother set of interesting posts in the CSFF Blog Tour for Captives by Jill Williamson, including an enjoyable interview with the author. Be sure to check out the other blogs featuring this intriguing, in some ways, disturbing, young adult dystopian fantasy.

From my perspective, Captives is an example of what Christian speculative fiction should be. There’s been some recent discussion at author and friend Mike Duran’s site about speculative fiction. In the concluding paragraph of his post, Mike says

if Realm Makers [the recent conference for Christian speculative fiction] is about simply reproducing CBA-style fiction for speculative readers, I believe we’ve failed. (emphasis in the original)

Later, in one of his comments, Mike adds

Without some type of extensive vision, which would include, for lack of better words, a “theology of Christian spec-fic,” we’re just mimicking ACFW, replacing Amish / Romance fans with spec fans. In order to compete with other professionals cons or associations, I believe we would have to address some of the same issues Christian fiction faces re: culture, theology, and art.

Further on he calls for “more intellectual rigor”and then goes on to say

I believe the Christian publishing industry needs a Fiction Reformation of sorts. Our “theology of art” keeps us beholden to an ultra-conservative readership and stymies creativity. While I don’t believe Christians should ever have to apologize for their beliefs, I do think Realm Makers could benefit by actively distancing themselves from the existing industry and its strictures, determine to represent a larger swath of beliefs, and have a bit more of a “broad tent” approach regarding authors and audiences.

Because I’m invested in speculative fiction, fantasy in particular, this discussion has been of considerable interest to me. I’m also a Christian, believing the Bible to be true and authoritative and inspired by God Himself. From some people’s perspective, I’m hamstrung as a fantasy writer because I have this box constructed by my theology that keeps me hemmed in.

I’ve refuted that notion from time to time, but as I read Mike’s remarks, I realized I don’t want to be in a “broad tent” with “a larger swath of beliefs” if that means cozying up to falsehood.

I guess you’d say my theology of art means that I aim to show truth through the means of beauty. Not that I write about beauty or that my writing must be poetic and lyrical (though that isn’t a bad thing, either). Rather, the novel art form needs to be “pulled off” well. The story needs to be entertaining, the characters well-developed and properly motivated, the setting fully created, and the theme tightly woven throughout.

Which brings me to truth. What Jill has done, in my opinion, is show this world, our world, as it is by creating the dystopian world of her story. Shannon McDermott put it this way:

the dual worlds of this dystopia are not too unlike the dual worlds of our present time.

The world is not as dissolute or libertine as the Safe Lands; the Christian community is not as strict or isolated as Glenrock. Yet the parallels may be drawn long.

The Christian community, like Glenrock, has a sternness – you could almost say a harshness – that stands against the looseness of worldly ways. “Take the straight and narrow path, or you’ll go to hell;” “Don’t do that, don’t go there, don’t even think about that.” A Christian is called by the unyielding will and holiness of God to a web of commands and duties.

And the young, brought up in that web and looking out, see the world – all awhirl, glittering with lights and flashing with colors. It promises all you could ever want.

So the Safe Lands were to Mia and Omar, and they believed the promise. But as the whole book shows, the beauty of the world is shallow, and beneath the foam of pleasure is an ocean of despair.

The lessons of Captives – how one can be corrupted by bad company, how the small falls make the large ones easy, how deceptive the world’s seduction is – are good for anyone.

So here’s the thing. Jill showed the fallacies of both worlds and of the different characters. She also did it within the “strictures of the CBA,” meaning that she didn’t use cussing as we know it, she didn’t gratuitously linger on the violence, and she didn’t have graphic sex scenes. Does that make her story lacking in “intellectual rigor”?

She created a story that qualifies as a “beautiful novel,” in the sense that it excelled in each of the structure elements. It also was a truthful novel–truthful about our world and truthful about God’s truth (which we really ought not to see as two different things, in my opinion). So what intellectual rigor is missing?

In the end, I guess I’m saying, I think it’s a false assumption that a Christian writer can’t honor conservative mores and still create quality literature. I think it’s a false assumption to say that “CBA fiction” all falls into the category of lacking intellectual rigor. It’s no more true than that all general market fiction achieves intellectual rigor.

But here’s the thing. Only the people who read Christian speculative fiction are in a position to know whether it is “second class” because of the strictures to which it must adhere. I for one didn’t find Captives wanting in any way compared to the last three general market young adult fantasies I’ve read.

I think this book says a lot for Jill Williamson as a writer, but I also think it says a lot for Zondervan and their new Blink imprint. This “isn’t your grandma’s fiction.”

CSFF Blog Tour – Captives by Jill Williamson, Day 1


CaptivesSafeLandscoverToday, over at Spec Faith, I started a series I’m calling Books I’m Excited About. I made Captives by Jill Williamson my first post. Here’s the bulk of that article, revised and reposted for tour enjoyment. 😉 You can also read my full review, posted here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction last April.

Captives is the first of The Safe Lands series, published by Zondervan and now part of their young adult imprint, Blink, launched last April.

It is a dystopian fantasy, a genre Christian publishers have only recently embraced. I realize that dystopian fiction in the general market is winding down, but the movies made from those books–starting with the Hunger Games–are just peaking, so I suspect the interest in the genre will continue for some time. In that respect, The Safe Lands is a timely series.

There’s also the Christian aspect of Williamson’s series. How does Christianity fit in with a dystopian world? The Left Behind books gave one answer. In some respects that series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye might be considered the forerunner or the catalyst for the recent apocalyptic and dystopian novels. They showed one interpretation of the Biblical record of the events leading up to the return of Christ and the end of the world as we know it. Because of their great success, it seems publishers woke up to the fact that people are interested in the future, dark as it might be.

The-Sword-coverAnother series, sadly not of the “get excited” variety, which is a post-apocalyptic dystopian, though it reads much like a medieval story, is the Cheveis Trilogy by Bryan Litfin (The Sword, The Gift, The Kingdom). Litfin’s handling of Christianity is distinctly different from Left Behind, and Captives is distinctly different from the Cheveis Trilogy.

It’s also different from, though with occasional similarities to, Swipe (Thomas Nelson), the middle grade series by the mysterious Evan Angler (Swipe, Sneak, Storm). Swipe, of course, has similarities with, but greater differences to, Left Behind.

In other words, how Christianity fits into a Christian dystopian fantasy is anything but pat. There is no one “right way,” no standard treatment, no prescribed formula.

Williamson has chosen to show Christianity primarily by way of contrast. It’s an intriguing and effective method, I think, which also rendered anything that might have been construed as preachiness, unnecessary. At the same time, I don’t think Christians will complain that the “faith element” is missing or obscure.

One thing readers should be aware of is that Captives is perhaps a grittier novel than many from Christian publishers. Besides making the story feel more real and relevant, however, the non-gratuitous grit served as the contrast that underwrote the theme. In other words, it was necessary and effective and in no way exploitive.

Readers should also be aware that Captives is the first part of a continuing story. I don’t know how many books are in the Safe Lands series, but it’s apparent that the story problem is resolved only in part at the end of this first installment. I thought it was a satisfying conclusion, though, not one of those contrived cliffhangers that seem to be somewhat in vogue these days.

In short, I’m excited about Captives. It is well written, Christian in an organic sense, filled with unexpected twists and lots of action, and peopled with interesting characters in a clearly drawn, futuristic world.

But compare my thoughts with what other participants on the CSFF Blog Tour have to say about the book.

As usual, check marks indicate links to tour articles.

Fantasy Friday – The Kingdom Review


As part of the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance, I received a review copy of The Kingdom by Bryan Litfin from the publisher, Crossway. This is the final book in the Chiveis Trilogy, following book 1, The Sword and book 2, The Gift.

The Story. Continuing where The Gift left off, The Kingdom tells the story of Anastasia and Teofil, two exiles from Chiveis living in a post-apocalyptic Europe.

For the most part Christianity had vanished because the Bible had been lost, but through Ana and Teo’s efforts, that changed, and in The Gift the entire Bible was recovered. Now, in The Kingdom their mission is to take the Holy Writings first to lands of the Beyond, but ultimately, back to their native country.

Evaluation. Writing an epic story is hard and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion, harder. There are only so many times that the hero can overcome the antagonist before these confrontations lose power. Without the stakes being raised, each new conflict seems predictable and redundant.

Unfortunately, The Kingdom falls prey to these lurking predators. At the same time, the characters are much the same as they were in the first volumes of the story–not actually a good thing since I found them to be “thin. Their motives are clear but not in the least complicated. The changes in their goals or moral fiber happen quickly, even easily, and often over night.”

Plot problems are solved in the same quick, easy way, which is why the stakes remain low–there is no sense that failure is actually a possibility.

There’s inconsistency in the intriguing setting, too. While the Bible had been lost for decades, once its found, there is no trouble translating it into various languages in a matter of weeks and of printing out multiple copies, though their world is without basic technology.

And while the Bible had been lost in the post-apocalyptic age, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Pope, and various abbeys survived. Yet apparently nowhere among these was there knowledge of Jesus, His death and resurrection, or promised return.

In many ways I feel a little heartbroken. I am still excited that another Evangelical Christian Publishing Association house chose to invest in a fantasy series. I’m also happy that they chose a post-apocalyptic story since this side of the genre has been popular in the general market. At the same time, the story had many elements that made it feel like familiar fantasy–a good thing for fantasy lovers like me.

However, the sharp edge of promise was dulled by mediocre execution. As much as I want to be a fan, as much as I have prayed for Mr. Litfin to do well and to succeed, I find myself more relieved to be finished than pleased I read the trilogy.

Mine is just one opinion, of course, and I know for a fact that others who read the book in conjunction with the CFBA tour had a much different take on it than I did. See for example Megan who reports that she loved the book.

You can also read the first chapter of the book and/or watch the impressive trailer Crossway put together to showcase the book: