Monthly Archives: November 2008

Heroes of Old by Jay L. Young, a Review

heroesofold
Heroes of Old by Jay L. Young, a Review

Book 1 of the Heroes Series

Self-published through i-Universe, 2007.  187 pages.

Worldview: Christian.  Good vs. evil with redemption themes.

Caution: Graphic violence described. Sexual misdeeds are mentioned (not described).

This king-sized tale has been described as “X-Men Meets the Bible.”

Here’s the gist of the story: Peleg, a few generations removed from Noah, is still alive in our era.  Across the millennia he has, over and over again, assembled a group of seven heroes with super powers, gifts from the Lord.  Their assignment is to oppose the Nephilim, or giants, which are briefly referred to in Genesis.  Young has answered the question, “Who are the Nephilim?”

Two parallel stories are told: one of the origins of the evil Nephilim, and the other of a modern Christian teenager named Noah, who discovers he has special powers (actually gifts).  Peleg recruits him for the Faction, which sounds very much like the X-Men.  Young Noah learns that he will have a key role to play in the struggle with the Nephilim–he is mentioned by name in an ancient prophecy.

Because of the self-publishing, this story has an unfinished quality to it–mainly some consistent spelling errors. It would benefit from editing. (I would suggest avoiding Peleg’s first person narration–it spoils the suspense.)

It is a lively, well-told, memorable story that will appeal to my 16-year-old boys, I am sure. In fact, I think it would work best in another medium–as a movie and/or a graphic novel. I can see it becoming quite popular. I hope Young pushes harder for a wider audience.

In fact this book is doing pretty well on Amazon (very well for a self-published book) and is getting favorable mentions by fans on the Internet. But it is only available on the Internet, and so would-be fans like my sons have been missing out.  —Phyllis Wheeler

If you would like to buy this book, consider buying it here to help pay the costs of this blog.

Avatar, the Last Air Bender, a Review

Avatar, the Last Air Bender
The Complete Book 1 Collection: a DVD collection of the
anime cartoon series by Nickelodeon 2005
(Further DVD’s available for the rest of the series, through 2008)

Worldview:  Moral, without an apparent higher power. Eastern flavor; spirits occasionally join the action.

My kids enjoy watching DVD’s of this set of anime animated tales. It’s popular among their peers.  I think it’s time we took it apart.

One review pegs the creation of this series to the advent of Harry Potter, and a demand for more complex, fully-conceived children’s TV.  This series has an overarching story and an eventual final episode that wraps up the loose ends.  It has a well-formed story line.

It portrays a world where there are four nations. They are named after the elements: earth, water, air, and fire.  The conflict is provided by the Fire Nation, which is trying to take over the other nations and has, at the beginning of the series, succeeded in wiping out the Air Tribe–with the exception of Aang, who has been sleeping in a iceberg for 100 years.

Certain individuals in each tribe have super abilities called “bending,” which involve ability to use the element special to their tribe for martial-arts style fighting, or for feats of superhuman strength.  Others don’t have these abilities at all.  Benders in the Water Tribe can gesture to throw ice crystals. Benders in the Fire Nation can throw fire. Benders in the Earth Kingdom can gesture to throw rocks and open cracks in the earth. Air Nomad benders can create winds. There is only one individual who can learn to bend all four, and that is the Avatar.

The Avatar is assigned the task of bringing peace among the four nations.  It appears to be a position somewhat like the Tibetan Buddhists believe about the Dalai Lama.  When an Avatar dies, his spirit goes to the spirit world, and another Avatar is soon born and identified. So it’s sort of a reincarnation cycle. The Avatar dresses like a young Buddhist monk.

The Avatar at any given time has the ability to travel to the spirit world and discuss things with his predecessors. Since he can learn all types of bending, he can become very powerful. But the Avatar in these stories is only 12 years old and has a lot to learn. This is Aang.

It is never discussed where the Avatar’s assignment comes from.  Perhaps the writers of this series are assuming an Eastern sort of God, who isn’t a person at all but rather more of a life force.  In one episode the Moon is shown to be a person, of sorts, or a goddess? It’s not clear. However, my kids aren’t out to worship the moon goddess because of watching this episode. They can tell it is fantasy.

I believe the Eastern idea of morality is really more a matter of tribal loyalty. Instead of a story with bad guys and good guys, there would be a story of Group 1 versus Group 2.  The groups wouldn’t differ markedly except in their allegiances. (If I am wrong, please set me straight!)

But this set of tales is made by Nickelodeon, which is American. The writers are Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. These sound like American names, not Japanese names. I suppose this is why the bad guys, the Fire Nation, really do behave like bad guys.  The primary bad guy Fire Lord Ozai is ruthless, even to his son. My kids told me they think that the Fire Nation behaves like the Japanese did in World War II, trying to take over the world.

So the Avatar is a tale with a moral compass. It is full of well-developed characters, including plucky kids who don’t give up. There is a satisfying happy ending.  But the tale also has some Eastern mythology underlying it. You can decide whether to expose your kids to it.–Phyllis Wheeler

Asking the local librarian to buy Christian books

Well, folks, I have been asking librarians, and discover that librarians do indeed respond to requests from their constituents for purchases. Also, it helps to provide support for your request in the form of positive reviews by others.

Becky Miller of A Christian Worldview of Fantasy blog suggests a particular set of books for my sons (older teens) to read.  I know there are more that I will be wanting them to read too.  So I went to my library Web site, pulled out the email address of the children’s librarian, and wrote her this email:

—-

Hi,
Are you in charge of Young Adult purchases? I am a resident of Webster Groves who is wishing my 16-year-old sons had access to some Christian fantasy fiction.  While there is plenty of fantasy fiction on the young adult shelves, very little of it has a Christian world view, either overtly or subtly.
I would like to suggest purchases for the library’s young adult section  from time to time, including links to reviews, so that you can see that the item I am requesting does have a following.  This would be easiest to do by email.
If you are willing to entertain these, here is the first one:
the Trophy Chase Trilogy by George Bryan Polivka, published by Harvest House.
There are 18 customer reviews posted on Amazon for you to take a look at. The average rating is 4.5 out of 5.
Please let me know what you think.

Phyllis Wheeler

Webster Groves, MO

The Twilight Saga — A Report

The Twilight Saga (in four volumes)
by Stephenie Meyer
Published 2005-2008

This is a report, not a review!

The Twilight Saga is in the news today because the movie for the first volume is now out. The books and movie have created quite a sensation.  Some people are comparing its popularity level to Harry Potter, but actually it doesn’t come close.  It’s appealing to females only, as far as I can tell. So it might be more like the following for the movie Titanic.

Many people call Twilight a fantasy series, but it doesn’t fall within what I am looking for–books that appeal to my 16-year-old sons.  It’s not my intention to read the Twilight books, so I am just going to pass on a little info about them today.

The Twilight Saga is a fantasy series about a girl, Bella, who falls in love with a vampire. The erotic vampire Edward has super-human strength and immortality. He proves irresistible to her. He’s got great self-control and doesn’t do vampirish things to Bella, resulting in a heroic feat of self-denial for the sake of love–a tried and true chick-lit theme.

It’s my impression that the resulting story doesn’t have much depth. But then, neither did the love story in Titanic.  It doesn’t take a lot of depth to draw the bow across the heartstrings.

I asked E., a Christian, age 16, what she thought of it.  “I think it’s a great role model for love,” she said. “They don’t have premarital sex.  They are really committed to each other.”

Here’s a blog post about it from a girl who doesn’t like it:  http://anoxfordcomma.livejournal.com/2491.html

And from a woman who does like it: http://faithwebbin.net/teenz/?p=169 She compares the “star-crossed” lovers to Romeo and Juliet.

And from a Catholic Christian who doesn’t like it: http://spesunica.wordpress.com/2008/11/16/the-twilight-saga-a-critique/

Phyllis Wheeler

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, a Review

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
Book One, The Amulet of Samarkand, Hyperion Books for Children, 2003, 462 pages.

Worldview:  Dark.  In a world where moral behavior is nearly unknown, the protagonist and his genie  occasionally demonstrate moral behavior.  More often, they don’t.

This book is a well-written high-action story that appeals to boys. It is told from two points of view:  the Djinn (genie) Bartimaeus (apparently just a coincidence that this is a Biblical name) and the young magician’s apprentice Nathaniel.  This fantasy world contains a version of London that is vaguely familiar but still very different. It is ruled by powerful evil magicians, who take in apprentices rather than producing children of their own.  Everyone is jockeying for power, including non-magicians.

But in fact all the magicians’ powers depend on their ability to control demons. Using special glasses or contact lenses, they can see the demons. So the magicians don’t have special powers of their own. They just learn incantations while they are apprentices.

Into this mix comes Nathaniel, age 12, a boy genius who mouths off and is disciplined by his master’s magician acquaintance Simon Lovelace. Nathaniel conceives a plan for revenge. In fact, revenge appears to be Nathaniel’s primary motivator throughout the book.

As a result of Nathaniel’s theft of Lovelace’s amulet, Lovelace kills Nathaniel’s master and his wife. Then Lovelace sets out to kill all the magicians in the government.  Nathaniel and Bartimaeus foil him.  In the process Nathaniel does plenty of lying and stealing. Flashes of conscience, coming from who knows where, lead him to own up to stealing the amulet, but don’t keep him from seeking revenge.

Nathaniel’s character doesn’t seem to change as the plot develops.  In fact, at the end he is placed under the tutelage of another evil magician, and we wonder whether any flashes of conscience will redeem him in the future.  Bartimaeus is able to persuade Nathaniel to keep his word and release Bartimaeus from service, but only with great difficulty.

Bartimaeus’s character starts out as undeniably demonic, wishing evil on all the human race. He’s also got irreverent wit, a bit like the genie in the movie Aladdin.  Bartimaeus’parts of the book are told in the first person, so we can see his thoughts.  But eventually he softens up somewhat. At the end he even commends Nathaniel for having a conscience, and tells him to guard it.  Now, where this character change came from isn’t obvious.  The high-action tale doesn’t show why a demon would change in this manner.

This is another high-action fantasy tale without merit.–Phyllis Wheeler thumbsdown

Master of the genre: J.K. Rowling

The Masters: J.K. Rowling

The third and final fantasy master of our time I am naming as J.K. Rowling, for her Harry Potter series.  However, I hope you discuss worldview and witchcraft with your teens when you talk about these books.

When the Harry Potter books first started coming out, many Christians were concerned that these books would draw kids into the world of Wicca and ouija boards by making witchcraft appear desirable.  It wasn’t crystal clear then whether Harry, the young wizard, was really on the light side. Or was he learning the occult?

However, as the series matured, it became apparent that Rowling’s is another fantasy world, not related to the principalities and powers discussed in the Bible. Like other fantasy works, there is a deeply evil (and memorable) bad guy. There is also a young, fumbling protagonist who works for good and who eventually gets more adept at it. It is clear that Rowling’s worldview is a moral one.

Along the way, Harry Potter does use incantations and so on, which are bound to make us Christians nervous if we are aware of the Biblical ban on witchcraft in Leviticus 19:26 & 31. This would be a great thing to discuss with your teens: what exactly is it that God is forbidding in consulting mediums and necromancers? Where is the idolatry?

At the same time, Harry’s use of words as instruments of power is an echo of Biblical truth.  God creates using words.  Jesus is described as the Word made Flesh. There is something we can learn or re-learn here, and that is that our words, what we say, really do matter.

Another reason some Christians object to Harry Potter is because he attains some great powers. Is he becoming godlike?  Will this aspect lead our kids astray somehow?

Well, the Superman comics portray someone with godlike powers as well. I used to love reading Superman comics when I was a kid.  IT was fun to imagine being able to fly and so on.  But of course I knew it was fiction. So do Rowling’s readers.

Rowling’s genius is in her broad array of memorable characters.  There are Hagrid, the half-giant who loves strange monsters; Dumbledore, the wise schoolmaster; and many more.  Rowling’s world is the work of many years of imagining characters and details. In my opinion this puts her in a similar league to George Lucas. —Phyllis Wheeler

Master of the genre: George Lucas

The Masters: Lucas
I am naming the second of the three fantasy masters of our time as George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars film series.

Lucas has a magnificently large imagination.  He also had the genius to tap into the imaginations of others. Lucas is unique in that he drew a broad framework and then allowed others to add their imaginative input. This took the form of a variety of details in the films, with animals and aircraft and everything in between carefully imagined and portrayed.  It also took the form of books–the set of books he authorized for the time period after the fall of the Empire, as Luke and Leia enter adulthood. The assistance of others gave Lucas’ work a breadth that it would not have had otherwise, unless he had devoted his life to the story as Tolkien did. Lucas’ resulting set of tales spans many centuries and worlds.

In contrast to Tolkien, Lucas is not a Christian. His galaxy long, long ago and far, far away has a deity of sorts, the Force, which can act for good and for evil. It appears that Lucas is offering an Eastern idea of God, which sees the life force as equally good and evil, yin and yang.  This is also not a personal God as we Christians truly know Him to be.

But we all know “the force” isn’t real. This is fantasy, a backdrop for the story. Lucas isn’t trying to sell his audience on a new religion. Lucas’s characters behave in moral ways, good guys fighting against overwhelming odds to defeat evil in the end.  Then there is Lucas’ keynote plot twist:  that the ultimate evil villain turns out to be the father of the young hero.  This tale has picked up a lot of resonance in our culture.

Master of the genre: J.R.R. Tolkien

The Masters: Tolkien

The fantasy genre is an old one–it started with myths and fairy tales at the dawn of time.  We humans love stories that play out the moral struggle within each of us as a struggle of the forces of good and evil, shown on a larger stage. How much better if the struggle contains memorable fantastic creatures and characters!

I see three masters of the fantasy genre in our time.   All of them created an amazingly complex fantasy world with a solid, believable, detailed history to support unforgettable characters and situations.  The first one I am going to talk about is J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien is my favorite.  He was a Christian. The worldview of his work echoes his faith–Middle Earth is a moral world governed by a benevolent deity.  The weak are able to succeed in the battle against evil where the strong cannot. But this is only with the help of apparent coincidence, for example the assistance of Gollum in destroying the One Ring. We Christian readers know this is no accident.  In addition, unseen benevolent forces resurrect Gandalf and send him back to finish his work.  Against all odds, good triumphs over evil.

The most unique feature of Tolkien’s work is the detailed historical backdrop he invents for Middle Earth, including languages. Readers of The Lord of the Rings experience the history of Middle Earth in hearing tantalizing songs that describe heroes of earlier ages without complete explanations. The heritage of song provides the illusion of a real world. And the characters speak in several languages, which certainly seem to me to be reasonably complete tongues.

Tolkien worked most of his life on some aspect of the story of Middle Earth, beginning in childhood by constructing the language that eventually became one of the Elvish tongues. His work is a towering achievement for a man with persistence, focus, and vision. What a blessing he has been to me and to many others!

Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton, a Review

Endymion Spring
by Matthew Skelton
Delacorte Press, 2006,392 pages

World view: Moral. The author seems to have the odd idea that children are morally pure.

Style:  This is a slow-paced book about a book with plenty of description, some of it with beautiful metaphors. It is really three stories: two about two different boys interacting with a magical dragon-skin book, and the third about the modern boy’s family, which is having relationship problems.

This story is mostly set in the modern world in Oxford, England, where Blake, an American boy, and his sister and mother have come for a time.  But it has a counterpart in the 1400s in Mainz, Germany, featuring another boy.  This boy’s name is Endymion Spring. Endymion Spring is a mute apprentice to the famous inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg.

Johann Fust is Gutenberg’s investor.  In this story he is a major villain; the author suggests that he was the person who became Dr. Faustus in legend, the fellow who sold his soul to the devil.  Fust stole a dragon skin, which has transformed itself into pure and magical paper.  Words and riddles appear on it. But Fust is unable to read them. He needs to find a child to read it for him. (The dragon skin reveals itself only to someone who is not trying to get it. This is always a boy.)

Fust tries to trick Endymion into reading the dragon skin paper for him. Fust wants the dragon skin because it contains “all the secrets of the universe,” and will make the reader”be like God,” Fust says.

The modern-day villain tries the same thing, tricking Blake into locating the book and putting its several pieces together. Then the villian tries to steal it.

This book is great reading for someone who appreciates a nice metaphor and doesn’t mind wading through a lot of description and slow-moving events that don’t advance the plot quickly, including dinner parties.  The cover definitely attracted the librarian in our local library, who commented on it.  I left it laying around my house, though, and none of my teenage sons picked it up.–Phyllis Wheeler

There ARE New Christian Fantasy Authors Out There …

Did you ever wonder why your kids aren’t finding much in the way of Christian fantasy books in the library or the bookstore?  There’s plenty of fantasy reading to be found, but the worldview requires lots of discussion, shall we say.  There are plenty of Christians who are fantasy fans. There’s a wonderful legacy left by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. So why is there so little Christian fantasy easily available?

Snooping around the Internet, I found Marcher Lord Press, which specializes in publishing Christian fantasy books.  The founder, Jeff Gerke, tells his story: he was editing fiction at traditional Christian publishing companies, and was unable to satisfy his yen for the weird.  The companies, he said, target consumers who love chick lit.  That’s who buys books at Wal-Mart and Christian bookstores, apparently.

It’s true. My sons who are Christian and who are fantasy fans do not look for books at Christian bookstores or at Wal-Mart. They look in the library and in the big chain bookstores.  So any books the traditional publishers might publish will not reach my sons.

So it remains to ask these questions: why aren’t libraries buying recent Christian fantasy books?  And why aren’t Borders and Barnes and Noble local stores stocking them?

Marcher Lord Press and other similar outfits have decided to go directly to the consumer using the Internet.  They sell through Amazon and other online bookstores, and through their own Web sites.

It remains to be seen whether this is a way to reach kids like my 16-year-old sons. So far, I’d say they aren’t Internet consumers. None of them has a credit card. They know how to check prices on e-Bay. That’s about it.

I looked on Amazon for the top-selling Christian fantasy books. The top one, featuring a soccer mom as main character, falls more or less in the chick lit category and is in fact published by a mainstream Christian publishing house, Navpress.

The second one in line is self-published and sold over the Internet only (like many similar books). It would likely appeal to my teenage sons: Heroes of Old, first in the Heroes series by Jay L. Young, which apparently has quite a following. This book is described as a cross between the Bible and the X-Men. This author is definitely not available in our library, nor in the local Barnes and Noble.

There is a disconnect here. The marketplace isn’t providing for the teen Christian fantasy market.

For one thing, i think we need to lobby our libraries to buy the best Christian fantasy books. They’re certainly buying the non-Christian ones. We need to demand our share of those library dollars!–Phyllis Wheeler