Martyr’s Fire by Sigmund Brouwer – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


Martyr's Fire coverAs usual, I’ve saved my review of the CSFF feature for the final day of our tour. Martyr’s Fire by Sigmund Brouwer is book 3 of the Merlin’s Immortals series.

The Story. Martyr’s Fire continues the intriguing story about Thomas and his quest to become king of Magnus. Except, he’s already king. In a surprising reversal, he finds himself exiled and on the run because the Priests of the Holy Grail win the hearts of his people and seek to imprison him. He must avoid capture, escape the city, and find allies to help him oust the usurpers.

But who can he trust? There’s Isabelle, the beautiful woman working covertly for the Druids who wants him to join this powerful religion, and Katherine who duped him from the beginning, though she was instrumental in his conquering Magnus. There’s also her companion, the enigmatic Hawkwood, and now the outlaw Robin Hood. Can he trust any of them or do they all wish to bend him to their will and steal what he values most?

Strengths. Sigmund Brouwer has created delightful characters. I want Thomas to succeed. I want him to trust the right people, and I want them to trust him.

The reversal in this book was handled in a believable way. What I feared would seem like a repeat of Fortress of Mist was actually an unfolding of the secrets and mysteries (some) initiated in the previous books.

As Thomas is on the run, there’s credible tension. Will he escape? Will he run to the wrong people? Will he act in the predictable ways those who are watching expect?

The writing itself is strong so that I could lose myself in the story. The theme is tied to the good vs. evil struggle central to the plot. In that respect there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of depth to the story. Thomas must learn who he can trust and how he can prove himself trustworthy.

Weaknesses. I’m enjoying the Merlin’s Immortals series, and Martyr’s Fire is no exception. My only complaints have to do with depth and length.

I feel as if there’s much more to explore about the characters, but the book moves at a brisk pace and each person has his or her secrets, even from the reader, so it’s hard to feel deeply connected.

The theme as well, while not trivial, seems fairly plain. Thomas doesn’t wrestle with doubt or despair. His course is sure and trust the main issue. It’s good, but easy. Perhaps for the young adult audience it’s aiming for, the theme is not too simplistic. Still, I’d hope for more depth.

As far as length is concerned, all the Merlin’s Immortals books are not much over 200 pages–short for any novel, but especially short for fantasy. That young adult readers were devouring the 600+ page Harry Potter novels shows the capacity of this audience. I’d rather see two 400 page novels than four 200 page ones. But that’s my preference as a fantasy reader.

Recommendation. Any Christian who has shied away from fantasy because of a fear of magic has no excuse when it comes to Sigmund Brouwer’s Merlin’s Immortals series. Like the first two, Martyr’s Fire eschews magic and explains the trickery that appears supernatural as a use of little known natural phenomena. Those who enjoy legend will particularly enjoy this series. I recommend this book especially to younger readers or those hesitant about fantasy because of magic.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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Martyr’s Fire by Sigmund Brouwer – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2


The Truth About Miracles

Martyr's Fire coverOne of the interesting things about Sigmund Brouwer’s Merlin’s Immortals series, of which Martyr’s Fire is book 3, is that there are no speculative elements in this speculative novel.

Don’t misunderstand. Merlin’s Immortals is correctly identified as part of the speculative genre since it falls into the category of legend. But where other iterations of the King Arthur legend embrace a thread of the supernatural or the miraculous, Merlin’s Immortals explains away what every day people assume to be miraculous.

In book two, for example, the hero of the story capitalizes on a well-known prophecy (which later the reader learns was actually intentionally planted among the people) by creating through “technology” the “miraculous” thing the commoners were looking for.

In Martyr’s Fire, the Priests of the Holy Grail make use of a bit of chemistry not widely known in that day to produce what they called miracles. In other words, both sides (and there is a “third side” about which the same is true) appear to have power beyond the natural, but in fact are simply making use of the natural to exploit the beliefs of the populace.

I find this to be interesting and suspect the idea of no magic or miraculous power falls comfortably inside the theology of some Christians. A segment of evangelicals believes that certain miraculous spiritual gifts have ceased (so that no one today prophesies or can heal, for instance), and it could be that this idea has expanded so that some do not believe miracles happen any longer.

In addition, some are uncomfortable with the idea that Satan and his demonic forces have power. Consequently, they would rather read stories in which evil forces have only conjuring abilities not supernatural might.

I myself am comfortable with either. I don’t need magic or miracles in the stories I read, but if they are there, I enjoy them.

This different approach to magic/miracles makes me wonder. What are miracles?

C. S. Lewis wrote a small book on the subject and he says this in his opening chapter.

Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. (Lewis, Miracles, p. 3)

He proceeds to demonstrate that experience is useless when trying to prove the existence of miracles. In the same way, history can’t be relied upon because the same “they were fooled” argument can be made.

In fact, this is the very approach Sigmund Brouwer uses in his Merlin’s Immortals novels.

Lewis claims that a belief in miracles relies upon a philosophical understanding of God. He defines miracle as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power,” so first a person must believe “there exists, in addition to Nature, something else which we may call the supernatural” (Miracles, p. 5).

I’m with Lewis on this, and identify with those he calls Supernaturalists. Some religious people, pantheists, he explains, do not fall into this category:

Speak about beauty, truth and goodness, or about a God who is simply the indwelling principle of these three, speak about a great spiritual force pervading all things, a common mind of which we are all parts, a pool of generalized spirituality to which we can all flow, and you will command friendly interest. But the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character. . . .The popular “religion” excludes miracles because it excludes the “living God” of Christianity and believes instead in a kind of God who obviously would not do miracles, or indeed anything else. (Miracles, p. 81, emphasis mine)

In short, miracles are nothing more than God intervening “to produce within Nature events which the regular ‘going on’ of the whole natural system would never have produced” (Miracles, p. 55).

Does God intervene with frequency? Some say yes and others no. My thought is, He can intervene as frequently as He wishes, in small ways or in large. He can intervene by altering time or matter or space–meaning He can cause “coincidences” because people arrive simultaneously with no such intention, water can become wine, and a resurrected body can pass from one place to another in the blink of an eye.

In fiction, I’m happy to read about supernatural power, even if it’s called magic or good magic, because I believe it reflects reality. God is all powerful. What can’t He do!

On the other hand, I don’t need to read stories that show supernatural power. I’m also aware that God works within Nature just as surely as He intervenes to alter it.

Brouwer has chosen to write a speculative series sans supernatural power (at least to this point). He’s done a credible job, and it’s an interesting concept. Perhaps readers who object to fantasy because of the magic will find this series to be right up their alley.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist, Day 3


Fortress of Mist coverAs I mentioned Monday, I decided to review The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist together because they are parts of one grand young adult fantasy story–Merlin’s Immortals by Sigmund Brouwer.

The Story. Young Thomas is an orphaned boy growing up in an out-of-the-way abbey where he is treated more like a slave than a charge of the church. His nurse, who he discovered was actually his mother, cared for him until he was eleven, teaching him to read and pointing him toward his destiny–one day he would conquer the unassailable fortress of Magnus and reclaim the throne taken from his father.

Goaded once too often by one of the monks, Thomas makes a violent break from the abbey and begins his quest. As part of his plan, he frees a Knight Templar from the executioner’s noose. In the process he also frees two other prisoners–a pickpocket and a beautiful young woman who appears to be deaf and mute.

As Thomas struggles to gain control of Magnus, he discovers there are those who promise to help him, even empower him, if he will but join their ranks and turn over to them the legacy left to him by his mother–books of knowledge that give him a decided edge over his enemies. But are these Druids enemies or friends? And who are the Immortals? On what side is his new friend, the apparently disfigured young woman serving in the candle shop who he defends?

Strengths. Sigmund Brouwer is a wonderful writer. He has created intriguing, believable characters. Thomas is wise beyond his years, an observer of human nature, kind-hearted. The secondary characters are equally interesting and well-drawn.

The plot has lots of intrigue and avoids the fantasy curse of predictability. There are surprises and twists and (unfortunately) cliffhangers. And romance for those of us who think a good romance belongs in every story. 😉

The setting is well drawn, with sufficient sensory detail to transport the reader to England during the Middle Ages. There is also a distinct thread running through the story exploring faith in God at the same time that it exposes the corruption of the church during this period.

Weaknesses. The Orphan King started slowly. It had moments of suspense, but drifted into confusion too often, I thought. Rather than opening with the main character and grounding the reader in what he wanted, one of the factions vying for his allegiance made the first appearance.

Much of the story involved William, the Knight Templar who didn’t trust Thomas, though they appeared to build a bond. His unwillingness to give Thomas any information that would help him understand what he’s up against was galling.

The story picked up in the latter half and continued at a crisp pace throughout Fortress of Mist. Anyone interested in this series should not judge it by the beginning of Book 1

I mentioned yesterday that this is a fantasy series that, so far, is missing one of the main fantasy tropes–magic. Rather, scientific activity that may have appeared as magic in that day, replaces traditional fantasy magic. So the prediction of such a thing as an eclipse appeared to those without knowledge about the way the sun and moon work, as though the person making the prediction had the power to darken the sun. Mr. Brouwer’s use of science in a superstitious age instead of magic was innovative and clever. Some readers may find it a refreshing departure from supernatural power. Others may be disappointed that the speculative elements are so thin.

Recommendation. If you lean toward historical fiction, you’ll especially enjoy The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist. I quickly connected with Thomas and wanted to see him succeed at every turn. I was most frustrated when people I believe to be good refused to help him because of their own doubts. Thomas rightfully had doubts, I thought, but those who were in a position to help him … not so much. Still, that bit of frustration is in no way a deal breaker. I’m happy I found these books and recommend them to fantasy fans and highly recommend them to fans of historical fiction.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist, Day 2


csff buttonYesterday I introduced Books 1 and 2 of Sigmund Brouwer‘s Merlin’s Immortals series–The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist–as classic epic fantasy. The only problem is, one of the key fantasy tropes is … well, sort of missing. What we have is a fantasy with the promise of magic but no actual magic.

The protagonist sets his sights to conquer a secretive, fortified city built by none other than the wizard Merlin and rumored to protect magical secrets. There’s the promise of magic.

But throughout the story there is largely a scientific explanation for anything that looks to the people in the story as magic–potions, acid, technology, acrobatic trickery, scientific knowledge. It’s interesting, but I have to wonder if Mr. Brouwer is intentionally skirting the kind of magic the wizard Gandalf displayed in J. R. R. Tolkien’s books for fear of offending his Christian readership.

I suppose I’ll never know. Still, I thought it might be appropriate to re-post my thoughts on magic from two years ago, largely answering the question, Is magic un-Christian? Here, then, is “Standing Up For Magic,” a re-do.

The first definition for magic in the Oxford American Dictionaries is this: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

My question, then is, Do we Christians not consider God “supernatural”? But … but…but … God’s work is miraculous, not magic, someone may well say. And the Oxford American Dictionaries would agree that God’s work is miraculous: “occurring through divine or supernatural intervention, or manifesting such power.”

But isn’t miraculous simply a more narrowed term, specifically referencing the divine? Magic, on the other hand, does not exclude the divine.

However, I don’t want to get too caught up in semantics. Let’s agree that the Bible does warn against magic and witchcraft and other sorts of divination sought from powers other than God Himself.

In contrast, God’s powerful works are called miraculous and prophetic.

The point that is noteworthy for fantasy writers and readers, however, is this: the Bible makes it clear that both God and Satan have power. Not in equal measure. Satan is no more omnipotent than he is omnipresent, though I suspect he’d like Man to think he is both.

Make no mistake. God’s power trumps Satan’s, and it’s not even a fair comparison. Satan may not get this because it seems he keeps trying to go up against God, as if he can outmaneuver Wisdom or out-muscle Omnipotence.

Moses_rod_into_snakeBe that as it may, we can’t deny that he has power and it is supernatural—beyond Man’s abilities. Pharaoh had his magicians and so did Nebuchadnezzar, and seemingly they were used to these conjurers producing what normal folk could not. Their power was not from God, however.

Moses, with the rod of God, went head to head with Pharaoh’s magicians, if you recall, and God’s power dominated. Nebuchadnezzar’s sorcerers could not tell their king his dream, let alone the interpretation of it, but God’s man, Daniel, could.

But back to fantasy. If supernatural power—good and evil—is real, then why should Christian fantasy writers pretend that the evil forces in their stories don’t have real supernatural power? Why should we pretend that those siding with good have no supernatural power?

Fantasy, after all, gives a story-long metaphor for the real world. Why would we want to give Christians—young adults or adults—the idea that there isn’t actually supernatural power of any kind by doing away with magic in our stories?

It seems to me it’s important to address the source of power and the reality of power and the proper attitude toward power—all which fantasy can address. Unless, of course, a Christian story must be scrubbed clean of supernatural power.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist, Day 1


orphan-king-coverThis month the CSFF Blog Tour has the privilege of featuring both books 1 and 2 of Sigmund Brouwer‘s young adult fantasy series, Merlin’s Immortals: The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist. What a deal! Especially because as many fantasy series are, Merlin’s Immortals tells one story in numerous phases.

Originally I’d considered posting separate reviews for each of the two books, but I’m rethinking that idea. It’s hard to separate one from the other. Yes, there is a degree of resolution at the end of The Orphan King, but there are as many questions as there are answers. Continuing on with Fortress of Mist is natural.

Merlin’s Immortals will delight fans of classic, epic fantasy. Swords, knights, castles, a journey, mysterious magic, and the wizard Merlin. And yet, despite the familiar, The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist read like no others.

It is this ability to create a new story with familiar tropes, that makes for great fantasy, from my perspective. But more on that in my review. For now, I encourage you to see what others participating in the CSFF tour are saying about Merlin’s Immortals.

Gillian Adams
Julie Bihn
Jennifer Bogart
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Janey DeMeo
Theresa Dunlap
Victor Gentile
Nikole Hahn
Jeremy Harder
Ryan Heart
Janeen Ippolito
Becky Jesse
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Megan @ Hardcover Feedback
Anna Mittower
Eve Nielsen
Nathan Reimer
James Somers
Steve Trower
Phyllis Wheeler

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