CSFF Blog Tour – The First Principle, Day 3

Marissa Shrock with First Principle.image The CSFF Blog Tour wraps up the September jaunt from one participating site to another, all focused on the debut novel by author Marissa Shrock entitled The First Principle. The story is a dystopian fantasy aimed at young adult (twelve to eighteen) readers.

It takes place in a future world after the Great Collapse and the Second Civil War. Because of the unrest in North America, the Council of World Peacekeepers stepped in and created the United Regions of North America, consisting of seven regions which incorporated what had been Canada, the US, and Mexico.

The protagonist is sixteen-year-old Vivica Wilkins, daughter of the governor of the Great Lakes Region.

And now, a closer look at this novel.

A Review

The Story. Vivica is part of the elite class, the ruling class, and as such enjoys privilege. In addition she’s bright, has mad hacking skills which she uses to create a little side business changing student grades, and just recently broke up with her boyfriend, Ben. Not her choice.

She wants to be over him, thinks she is, but can’t help noticing that he’s been hanging with Meredith Alderton—the very girl Officer Martina Ward from Population Management wants to talk to. Meredith refuses to go with her, so Officer Ward publicly accuses her of being pregnant, a crime which mandates termination under the Posterity Protection and Self-Determination Act.

When Meredith tries to run from the room, Officer Ward shoots her with a tranquilizer gun. The incident creates a stir among the students, and they press their history teacher to discuss the termination law, why it came into being, and why it still exists.

Days later, one of the students who protested the law the loudest has disappeared and the teacher has been fired.

Vivica’s mother is in line to be named the next President because the current President is about to retire. Shortly before the Governor’s Ball, Vivica discovers she’s pregnant. She doesn’t immediately tell her mother, and in fact covers up the fact by using her hacker skills when she’s called in for the mandatory pregnancy test.

Vivica, her mother, and their entourage travel to the Capitol where the announcement will be made that Governor Wilkins has been selected to succeed President Hernandez, but as she’s introduced to the crowd, an assassin opens fire. The President is killed and Vivica’s mother, wounded. Vivica herself is not hurt.

The Vice President assumes control of the government and declares the assassination to be the work of rebels—those throughout the United Regions who chafe against laws such as the one which mandates pregnancy vaccines, enforced pregnancy termination, and others which oppress people and keep the poor in their place.

Vivica is convinced that her old boyfriend, Ben, who gave her a copy of the illegal Bible, is a member of the rebels. She wants to warn him, but ends up telling him she is pregnant—and he is the father. He wants her to keep the baby. Vivica struggles to decide what to do. If she leaves and goes into hiding so she can have the baby, she will most likely destroy her mother’s chances of becoming President. And does she want to give up her life just when she might have a chance to influence more young people?

The decision seems to be made for her, however, when her mother calls her into her study and asks her if she’s pregnant. She tries to cover up the truth, but her mother knows somehow. And now Vivica is certain she wants to protect her unborn child.

Can she? That and many other intriguing twists and turns make up the bulk of the story. Telling you any more would certainly be to spoil it.

What Did I Think. The First Principle has much more action and intrigue than I expected. I wasn’t expecting people to die. It is a dystopian story, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Certainly the level of violence increased the stakes.

The world was believably futuristic, though I thought there were some places that could have used a bit more inventiveness. I thought in light of the retina scans, self-propelled vehicles and such, there would be further advances in things like music and make-up and air travel. There was appropriate slang terminology, and nothing distracting. In short, for the most part the world felt as if it was the kind of place our world could become, given the current trends.

Vivica and her friends acted remarkably like sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. The author, Marissa Shrock, is a language arts middle school teacher, and her familiarity with teens shows. At times I would have liked to see the protagonist act out her emotions more. Generally we’re told how she feels. For example, her body guard is killed protecting her mother, but Viv shows very little grief despite the fact that this man was someone she clearly liked and was with every day.

The story was unpredictable and action packed. I didn’t know from one moment to the other what would happen. There was intrigue, romance, danger, betrayal, kindness, faith, courage—all on display through the twists and turns the plot took.

The themes about liberty and protecting new life and faith in Jesus Christ were naturally woven into the fabric of the story. These are powerful and thought-provoking especially in light of the SCOTUS ruling on same sex-marriage and the undercover Planned Parenthood videos.

All in all, The First Principle is a quality book. I’m so glad CSFF featured it this month. It was through their partnership with Kregel Publications that I received a review copy. I’m happy to say, unreservedly and without any agreement to write a review promoting it, I highly recommend this novel to teens and to parents of teens and to any readers who love dystopian stories.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out what the other participants in the tour have said.

Insurgent – Not A Review

InsurgentAs you might expect if you read my post on Cinderella, I am choosing not to do a formal review of the movie Insurgent, based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, because it’s been out so long, undoubtedly all the review-ish things that could be said have already been said. No point for me to repeat them.

Rather, I’ll give my rambling, disorganized thoughts as they come to me.

First, I was surprised. I liked the movie a lot more than I expected to. I was glad I saw the first in the series, Divergent, but I didn’t think it was particularly well done. I thought there were plot holes and unexplained world issues. This second installment didn’t have the same problems, I didn’t think.

I still didn’t find myself particularly attached to Tris. She’s lost her mother, her father, any number of friends, is being hunted down, turned away by other factions, abandoned by her brother, made out to be a liar and a criminal, but the person she hates is herself. I didn’t connect with her feelings, I don’t think.

Her self-hatred is an internal struggle that’s played out consistently throughout the movie, but I missed knowing what her external goals were. Mostly Four made the decisions and Tris went along, until she decided to turn herself in and until she decided to stay and open the box. Those were actually spur of the moment decisions instead of goals which she struggled to achieve. In fact, once she made up her mind to act, there really was no struggle preventing her from achieving what she had determined she needed to do.

So there really wasn’t a lot for me to cheer her toward. I wanted her to survive, but I didn’t feel as if I was in her corner, pulling for her to succeed—mostly because I didn’t have a clear idea what “succeed” would look like.

The theme of the story was crystal clear—forgive yourself. It’s a nice sentiment, but the thing is, our offenses aren’t only against ourselves. Tris had killed one of her friends—not out of anger but as a matter of survival. He was acting as a hypnotic drone and didn’t realize what he was doing when he followed orders to kill her. She defended herself and killed him instead.

Was she guilty of murder? No.

The thing was, many other people died, too, and yet it was this one death that haunted her because she knew this guy and called him a friend. His death, and all the others, had far reaching effects. Other people loved and needed him and the others. But the most important thing, according to the movie, was that Tris forgive herself.

So on one hand the deaths of all the others were devalued, and on the other, Tris’s sense of guilt was elevated to a position of primary importance. There was no confession, no repentance—only regret—and yet you know she would do the same thing again if put in the same set of circumstances.

In the end, “forgive yourself” is a false message, which we Christians know, because if forgiving ourselves was all we needed, then Christ didn’t have to die.

But He did die because the only way our actual sins can be forgiven is with the unblemished, spotless blood of the sinless Christ Jesus who became our sacrifice, once for all, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.

At the end of the movie, the big reveal informs the characters and the audience alike that the entire life lived in the city, divided into factions, was a grand, social-engineering experiment to see if they could achieve peace. Supposedly the existence of one individual, a divergent with all the traits of all the factions, was proof that the experiment worked.

I’m not sure how the social engineers figured that one out. It simply wasn’t true. The woman in charge planned to squelch the explanation of their existence in the city and kill the divergents who were supposedly the mark of success. The city, quite frankly, was a shambles. It was a ruins from one end to the other except where the faction headquarters were. I think they forgot “construction workers”—those social engineers—because everything was falling apart.

But I did like the movie. I did. It’s given me some interesting things to think about. ;-)

Published in: on June 18, 2015 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

CSFF Blog Tour-Storm Siren, Day 3

Mary Weber's web site background pic

Steampunk, classic fantasy, superhero fantasy, a fantasy mash up; a slow start, a terrific plot, a surprising twist, a devastating ending—thoughts and opinions abound when it comes to Storm Siren by Mary Weber. And so they should. This book isn’t your run-of-the-mill fantasy or your ho-hum-been-there-done-that young adult novel.

My Review

The Story

Nym is unique—a female Elemental. Her power is over the weather, except it seems more like it’s over her since she can’t control the storms she calls up or the lightning strikes she detonates.

As a slave she also has no control over who owns her or what they’ll want her to do. Until Adora buys her. Now she has a choice—learn to use her powers to help the country of Faelen in their war against Bron, a nation with superior forces and weapons, or die for her crimes.

Choosing what seems to be the lesser of two evils, Nym enters into training with another Elemental. Soon she’s caught up in court intrigue and discovers those who surround her aren’t what they appear to be.

As her abilities progress, the need for her to use them to save Faelen grows urgent. But the question surfaces—is Faelen worth saving?

Now she has a choice to make again, and it’s complicated because of the feelings she’s developing—and struggling against—for her trainer, Eogan.


I think the greatest strength of Storm Siren is Nym’s voice. She is brash and quirky, a bit unafraid, maybe a little fatalistic, but much of the attitude is a cover up for the fear she feels. Not fear for herself, but of herself. She knows she can wreak havoc and she doesn’t want to kill any more undeserving people.

Imagine her turmoil, then, when she’s bought to do just that to a whole army.

Another strength of this novel is the plot twists, the intrigue, the unexpected. It’s hard to know who to side with, what to hope Nym will do because her path is anything but clear.

Another strength is the way Ms. Weber weaves in the backstory through the use of a minstrel’s song, later repeated and expanded during one of Adora’s parties. I suspect much of the Christian worldview comes through in that song.

“The Monster and the Sea of Elisedd’s Sadness” tells the story of Faelen’s foolish king who made a deal with the devil—well, with a monster. In order secure a peace treaty, he agreed to kill the Elementals. Here’s the key section:

” ‘Twas the night compassion forsoooooook us.” He’s singing, referring to the night an agreement was struck between Faelen’s past king and the great, flesh-eating Draewulf. The price of which had been Faelen’s children. “And the big sea, she roared and spit up her foam at the shape-shifter’s trickery and our fooooooolish king.”

I swallow and feel my amusement over how much he’s enjoying himself catch in my throat at what I know comes next.

“The ocean, she’s begging for our salvation. Begging for blood that will set our children free.”

And for a moment I swear I can feel the sea waves calling, begging my blood to set us all free.

Salvation? Blood? Those are certainly Christian images, but Nym is no Christ figure. So how much of the Christian worldview is in this story? Hard to say. Of course, when I say “story” I mean then series in its entirety. At this point, I see hints and suggestions: a great evil that destroys and lies and possesses, one that has been invited in, not declared the enemy he actually is. A people robbed of their children who ought to be their hope and salvation. And blood needed to set them all free.

That’s pretty much the way the world looks to a Christian, but these elements of the Christian worldview operate in the background of the story—at least this first installment of the story. That’s also a strength, I think.


The opening scene is captivating. Nym is intriguing, sassy—a female protagonist who appears to be strong minded though clearly something troubles her. From that point, however, the story slows down for reasons I addressed in my Day 2 post.

I’d like to see Nym take a more proactive approach to her life and situation. I would have been more emotionally invested in her plight, I think, if I’d seen her make plans and try to better her situation rather than accept whatever was thrown her way.


I cared about Nym, but from a distance. I thought the action and intrigue drove the story. I liked the romance and wanted Nym to learn to trust. I wanted her to learn control, too, and I wanted her to be a hero.

All in all, I think readers who like fantasy, who like superhero type stories, who appreciate a well crafted novel, will be fans of Mary Weber and the series Storm Siren kicks off. They’ll be especially happy to learn that book two, Siren’s Fury, releases in June. Now’s the time to get on board with the first in the series.

You might also be interested in connecting with Mary Weber on Facebook or at her web site where I’m sure you can learn where else she hangs out.

Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 7:06 pm  Comments Off on CSFF Blog Tour-Storm Siren, Day 3  
Tags: , , , ,

Review – The Color Of Sorrow Isn’t Blue

The Color Of Grief Isn't Blue coverI’m embarrassed. I planned to post a review of Sharon Souza’s novel The Color Of Sorrow Isn’t Blue on Amazon and figured the easiest way was to copy my review from my own site. But when I did a search for the book, I couldn’t find it. I looked through the Reviews category, searched for the book by title, searched by Sharon’s name. I was so sure I’d written a review. But no. As it turned out, I’d written an endorsement, not a review.

YIKES! I must have had a senior moment. How embarrassing!

Well, I thought I needed to remedy the matter at once. I wrote a short review on Amazon and now will give a more complete analysis here. First, this is the endorsement I wrote. I’m not experienced writing these so I don’t know how much of it was worth quoting. But this reflects my thoughts shortly after I finished reading the book:

The Color of Sorrow Isn’t Blue by Sharon K. Souza is a powerful story, real and raw. Souza’s writing is beautiful, but it is also true. I don’t know of a novel that does a better job showing the depth of grief and the nearly insurmountable job of climbing out of the pit it creates. There are no pat answers in this story—only the reality of friendship and a gradual realization of God’s constancy. This book will touch the heart of anyone who has experienced the pain of loss and show that doubting and despair don’t have to be the end game.

Interestingly, my review on Amazon was quite different. I no longer see the book as something that will touch the heart of people who know the pain of loss. Now I understand more clearly, we all know the pain of loss to one degree or another. Consequently, this book is for everyone. So, without further ado. . .

The Story.

Bristol Taylor’s daughter is gone. Disappeared. In a moment of seeming safety, a simple, understandable choice opened the door to the unknown, and Bristol has suffered the pain and regret and guilt ever since.

A year later she can’t face the inevitable media regurgitation of those painful days and weeks and months and wants to escape. She plans to head off to her stepmother’s “beach house”—a twenty-foot trailer situated not far from the beach.

To her surprise her sister, best friend, and stepmother refuse to let her face the anniversary alone. Instead the weekend turns out to be anything but the escape Bristol had planned.


First, I suppose people might call this book a “character driven” novel. I mean there’s no dramatic car-chase scene, no passionate romance, no cops chasing down clues. Instead, the horror has already happened and this is a book about dealing. How do you go on when the worst has happened, or might have. In reality, there’s this thread of the unknown which adds uncertainty to Bristol’s loss and robs her of closure while draining her of hope.

It’s also a book about relationships—Bristol and her husband, Bristol and the three women who determine to see her through another day of crisis, Bristol and God. So, yes, you’d have to say character is front and center.

And yet . . . There is no lack of action and more importantly, no lack of tension. Bristol has a goal which she maintains throughout. She thinks she knows what she needs, but it’s clear fairly soon that she’s wrong. It’s not as clear whether or not she’ll turn from the course she’s determined to take. I mean, she’s determined!

So this story is not slow-paced. In actuality, it’s structured in a unique way, with what happened before liberally interspersed with what’s happening now. In some ways it’s a little like changing points of view.

In one section the story is the remembrance of a busy, happy, proud mother about life with her loving husband and their beautiful daughter. Then the story swings back to the present where husband and wife are nearly estranged and their daughter is gone. Together these two narratives weave the entire story together until the reader understands on a visceral level what Bristol has lost and why.

Besides telling a terrific story, Sharon has done so using beautiful prose. Bristol is an artist and she sees life as an artist does. Sharon has captured that aspect of her protagonist without slowing the story for long descriptive paragraphs. Rather, Bristol’s artistic nature colors her voice.


I don’t have much here. For a very short stretch, I wasn’t sure I liked Bristol. She had my sympathy right away, but it was clear something wasn’t right between her and her husband. It was early in the story and I didn’t have a clue why she seemed to be pushing him away. I knew that was the wrong thing for her to do, but I didn’t know her enough to be in her corner hoping she’d realize her folly.

As it turned out, the story went far deeper than I expected, very quickly. Why she acted the way she did became clear and it added one more thing Bristol had to work through—if she could. By the end, my heart was breaking for Bristol.

But that early reaction . . . well, I remember it months after reading the novel. In fact, I remember the entire story almost as if I finished it yesterday. That’s how powerful it affected me.

So, no, I can’t do a good job balancing my review with what could have made it better. I mean, I generally like a fairly straightforward, chronological telling, but I wouldn’t change a thing in the way Sharon chose to tell this story, the past and present threads woven together in such a way that the unique structure actually became a strength.

OK, here’s one. I didn’t ever quite have the setting clear in my mind—where was this trailer in relation to other structures and how close was it actually to the beach? I remember wondering in a place or two, but actually those could have been in the story and I missed them because I was focused on something else. Ultimately the logistics didn’t confuse me or disrupt the story.

That’s all the “weaknesses” I’ve got.


I can only say, The Color Of Sorrow Isn’t Blue is a memorable book, a powerful story, completely void of preachiness or easy answers or platitudes. It’s honest and the questioning touches your soul. Because sorrow is such a universal experience, I’m tempted to say, this book is a must read for everyone. But I know women will like it more than men. It’s really a woman’s book because it tells the story of the mother, of the wife. Guys could gain a lot. I just don’t know how much they’d understand. Oh, not intellectually. They could understand the words, but I don’t know if they’d understand the emotion. I mean, a big part of the story has to do with a wife submitting to her husband. Guys should read it, but I don’t know if they can get it. But there it is. A must read for women who enjoy good literature.

Exodus Movie – A Review

Moses004I was trying to think of some clever way to say, Exodus: Gods And Kings is a bad movie, but it honestly isn’t worth the effort. I suppose many people have already either seen it or made the informed decision to stay away. I, on the other hand, wanted to see this one because I missed Noah. Bad as the reviews were of the latter—or controversial—I still had wanted to make my own assessment.

Exodus wasn’t even good enough to be controversial.

Some time ago, I read a good article by Brian Godawa stating that Christians were foolish to think atheists could make good movies of Bible stories. They don’t believe in the truth of the supernatural as the Bible records it, so they will always mythologize it to fit their own tastes.

The problem is that in actual practice, “non-believers” by definition do not believe in the sacred story. Therefore, they will by necessity rewrite the story through their own non-believing paradigm, whether more subtly (Exodus) or more explicitly (Noah). Most people know this as “spin.” News flash: Every storyteller spins according to their paradigm or worldview. (“Can Atheists Make Good Bible Movies?”)

Based on that post, I was ready for the strange things atheist director Ridley Scott did with the supernatural events in the Exodus story—which, if you know your Bible, is present from start to finish. Well, let’s say I was ready for everything but the . . . ah, portrayal of God.

I suppose Scott was going for the antithesis to the cliched grandfather-ish image so often associated with God. His depiction was a boy about eight years old, with a strange accent. The problem was, this god was never clear what he wanted Moses to do; he never equipped Moses with the rod of God, never had him tell Pharaoh to let His people go. Rather, in the end, Moses declares the Hebrews are his people, not god’s.

Add in the fact that a disbelieving Moses first encountered God after he’d been injured in an avalanche. Throughout, there’s the lingering suggestion that Moses was simply delusional.

But I could handle that and chalk it up to a lesson about how atheists view a Bible story filled with God’s presence and the miraculous.

This movie, however, did not succeed as a movie either. What was it, a love story? No. The romance was fleeting at best. Was it a brother versus brother story as we’re led to believe at the beginning? Well, not really. Moses did not confront Pharaoh before each plague and demand that he release the Hebrews. And there was no great conflict between the two at the end. In other words, there was no resolution to their conflict.

Was it a coming of age story? That might be the closest, but it’s a bit odd to have such a story about a forty year old man, though Moses looks much younger in the movie and only passed nine years in the wilderness after he fled Pharaoh’s palace.

That and any number of other things took some getting used to. For instance, Moses consulted a map when he led the people from Egypt—no cloud by day or pillar of fire by night to lead the movie Hebrews. And when they got to the Red Sea with no visible crossing, Moses was sure he’d made the worst mistake of his life. Of course a way opened, but not on dry land. I kept wondering when the dry land would appear. It didn’t. The sea just got shallow enough for them to wade across.

Not only did the movie lack focus, which in the real version is centered on God’s actions on behalf of His people in answer to their cries to Him for relief from the oppression under which they suffered, but Scott’s version of Exodus was paced far too slowly and dragged on far too long.

All this to say, I’m glad I only paid $2 to see the movie. It was worth that much, but I couldn’t recommend it to anyone thinking about buying the DVD. Unless you simply want to see how an atheist mind handles Biblical truth, this movie really isn’t worth the time it took to watch it.

Published in: on February 9, 2015 at 7:38 pm  Comments (9)  
Tags: , , , , ,

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.

Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


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  

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

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

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

The Review

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

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

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

And off the story goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Until That Distant Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in: on May 15, 2014 at 10:56 am  Comments Off on Review: Until That Distant Day  
Tags: , , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,514 other followers