Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book Reviews: Magogs and Mither Mages

So what kind of books do I read in the break room of a Christian Bookstore?  Why, books about wizards, werewolves, and dragons, of course.  Not that this is anything different from what I read normally, except it's odd to suspend one's disbelief in a store where belief is required.  Fantasy literature and religion have often gone together, what with C.S. Lewis and Tolkien having founded the idea of modern day fantasy.  And interestingly enough, both the books I have recently read have touched upon the idea of the Christian church within a world where magic exists.

I first picked up Donita Paul's Dragonspell from Lifeway's bargain stacks.  The series centers around Kale, the perfect depiction of a fledgling soul, and her growth from slave girl to a keeper of dragons.  The book screams Christian Allegory, so much more than Lewis' Narnia series.  Aslan was the figure of Christ in the land beyond the wardrobe, and Paul does an adequate job of creating "Paladin,"  a human teacher with benevolent powers.  The story is enjoyable and well crafted, although I miss a more subtle angle that Lewis would have taken.  When an author takes it upon herself to be a creator of a world, the very role that God had in this world, everything must be created from scratch.  To place such an obvious character as Paladin in a fantasy world is to disrupt the total transformation of the world from a Fantasy realm to one constructed by an author just to make a point.  The world becomes secondary to a Sunday School teacher, using make-believe to illustrate a point.  C.S. Lewis was a master in balancing the two ideas, which is why the books can be read as Christian Allegories or as fantasy novels to entertain readers of any age.  Knowing that Donita Paul's works are Light Allegories with an obvious message and audience, it does not detract from the enjoying the books.  I look forward to reading the rest of her works, as I have found the rest in the bargain stacks as well.

It's not often that you store your book in the same locker as the person who wrote it, and I have the pleasure of knowing Steven Warnock, who works with me at Lifeway and has written The Magog Gambit, a work with vampires and werewolves and hosts of undead creatures.  However, before getting an image of Taylor Lautner in your head, it is very much more than the silly brooding teenage tomes that have attracted so many readers today.  Warnock has taken the idea of Faerie, the parallel world of magic and wonder that co-exists with our world, and placed not only the elves and nymphs in it, but the modern day vampire and zombie as well.  Using the real world as a place of fantasy is both easy and difficult, as it gives the reader an obvious place to start out, in this case, Covington, Georgia.  The problem, however, arises when you have to explain all works of supernatural causes within the framework created.  Eoin Colfer did a great job in Artemis Fowl, and Steven has also managed to balance religion and magic in our own world.

The novel centers around Jordana, a college student going to a small college in Covington, and a professor, Gideon Shaw, who just happens to be much more than he seems.  Of course, a supernatual book would be nothing without romance, banter, and a ton of action, all of which this book has.  The thing that impressed me most was the pace of the book through dialogue.  Almost all description of characters and setting is done through the banter of the characters.  It is a skill that Orson Scott Card does tremendously well.  His book Speaker for the Dead is a clinic on character development.  It is this quality that Steven has done quite well.  The people are fleshed out and instantly empathized with, even the bad guys, which can be cardboard cut-outs of evil in some books. The dialogue moves along at a clip which made The Empire Strikes Back so interesting (well, if it weren't for the Degobah interludes), between Han and Leia.

Since Steven might read this, I found two parts of the book to be a little confusing.  So I'll criticize a little. The Prologue needs a little work, as I was confused in parts, as if there was a system, rules of "how things work" that I didn't know about, and that if it were a new author that I did not know (and knowing how self-published authors often are) I might be tempted to give up on it.  It would be a great shame for that flaw to keep readers from discovering such an entertaining work.  The second spot, and this is being picky, is the first fight in the park with Dark Word agents.  They're all named.  Every stormtrooper didn't have a name, and no one is expected to know Ensign Jimmy's name when he gets eaten by a carnivorous flower on Star Trek.  I felt it would have flowed a little better if only the main guy would have a name, and the rest just be, "the thug with the knife."

I've never read a book by someone I've actually known, and so there were some interesting parts of the story where I recognize someone from real life in the book, or where a character says something and I think, "That's something Steven would say," forgetting that he actually *wrote* the book.  I was reading a book by a good author, not "Steven's Book" or "a self-published book that only will be read by his friends." Because that's not the case.  It deserves to be given a wider audience, and when the publishers of those silly vampire novels get a hold of this one, they'll want to publish it, too.

And speaking of Orson Scott Card, I then read The Lost Gate.  When it comes to reading OSC, I usually read his books in only a couple of days, and when I go to the kitchen to get food, I walk back wondering what amazing TV show I was just watching.  Then I realize that it was a book, and the images were in my head.  He is my favorite author, and I'm very eager to see how the filming of Ender's Game comes out.  On that side note, I've heard many different reactions on the casting of the characters.  Some have said that the actors are too old to play the parts (and this has always been a problem with books about children that are not always *for* children.  Take A Clockwork Orange, for instance. The main character was only 14 at the start, yet a very adult Malcolm McDowell played the main character.), while some of the rejected scripts had given Ender a girlfriend.  I happen to approve of the cast right now, and hopefully they won't butcher the story, especially since OSC had to approve the final script.  But I digress...

Perhaps it was the film that affected his book The Pathfinder, because his usual amazing work was flat on this one.  I couldn't finish it.  Which is why I hoped that his foray into the world of Faerie, of magic and wizardry, wouldn't turn out that way.  I waited a year or more before actually reading it.  Thankfully Card is back up to his usual brilliance with this work.

The challenging thing about a first novel in a series is how to create the world and portray it in such a way that the reader becomes comfortable with it.  With Crichton's Jurassic Park, I had to keep a list of who everyone was, so complex were the first few chapters.  I have never started reading Jordan's Wheel of Time series because I've heard from a lot of people that the first book is so painfully slow and difficult.  Now Card has to create a world, characters, a complete magic system, and make it into a story that today's readers, with their e-books and their attention deficit disorder lifestyles, will take the time to be familiar with.  I've had friends that never watched the original Star Wars movies because they were too slow, didn't hold their interest.  Orson Scott Card creates a book with two worlds, two different sets of characters, settings, a complex "gating" system, and does it with ease. Only at the end are their passages of complex magic theory that is a little difficult, but by then, we have the knowledge to understand it.  Critics will say that Danny, especially when he's in Washington DC, delivers soliloquies of moral reasoning, of a nature that most adults wouldn't do nowadays.  But readers of Card understand that his child characters are brilliant, and that their thought processes, which Card elaborates to a large degree, fits in with the story.  I thoroughly enjoy an author who will put his or her beliefs on the page, to merge ethical thought with fictional characters.  I guess that's why Ayn Rand's characters were so thrilling for me. 

As this is obviously the first of a large number of books, I hope that it will be as wonderful as the Memory of Earth, Alvin the Maker, and Ender series were to read.  I would even be up for this becoming a TV series, much like Martin's Game of Thrones is now on HBO.  But for now, I'll just wait for the next book to come out, and with baited breath.