Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Last Guardian by Shane Johnson, A Partial Review

guardian

The Last Guardian by Shane Johnson, A Partial Review
Published 2000 by Waterbrook Press, 498 pages
Genre: Christian suspense, apocalyptic literature, fantasy, rated pg-13 (by me) for violence

I can see that this is a book a lot of people are going to like. A reader suggested it, so I checked it out of the library.  (!)

The problem is that I can’t stand suspense. I’m not a Hitchcock fan, or anything like that.  So I kept putting the book down when the suspense level got too much for me. Finally I decided not to finish it.

HOWEVER, if you are a Christian suspense lover, you may well love this book. So I am going to put it on your radar screen.

The book is based on the Biblical young earth. Before the disaster that we call the Flood, it was a warm world, like a greenhouse under a pink sky which somehow held plenty of water in suspension. Dinosaurs and mammoths lived in forests of fern fronds. People were there too. Evil was overtaking them.

There were fated to be 12 guardians of a holy object, who one after the other guard it until they are able to pass it off to the next guardian.  Finally the eleventh guardian doesn’t find a successor. An unseen hand lifts the relic from his grasp before he dies at the hands of enemies.

Soon afterward, the Word of the Lord brings megadisaster on the planet, which writhes in pain, water, and mud.  Most everyone and everything dies. Creatures are entombed, fossil beds laid down. (Noah we presume is somewhere on the other side of the world, saving remants.)

Now it is close to the present day. A modern doctoral student, TG Shass, is hiking with his friend and is caught in a thunderstorm rapelling down a rock face. Somehow he disappears for three days and reappears 2000 miles away.

The ancient relic is his now, and stays with him even when he tries to leave it with some scientists to study. So he is the 12th and last guardian. Evil spirit-creatures are now stalking him.

This is where I put the book down!

Characters are well developed. The lyrical detail is woven in. Suspense is built with little foreshadowing comments. It’s masterfully written, I can see. I assume TG moves from little faith to much more faith as the book progresses.

I know the book takes TG to another world called Noron. That’s because there’s a map of Noron at the front of the book.

So, I dare you!  Check it out! Don’t be a wimp like me. And tell me if you liked it!–Phyllis Wheeler

Some Thoughts

An author recently sent me a middle-grade fiction book to review. I read it and declined to review it. But I wanted to offer some thoughts on it.

The book, which I am not going to name, has the rousing approval of the reviewers of the world. It has a mainstream publisher. The reviewers find it hard to put down, and a great study in character development. One called it “an action-filled survival story aimed at middle grade readers.”

It is all those things, but it’s also very dark. It reminds me of Lord of the Flies, actually. There is such a bleak view of human nature, and not enough in the way of redemptive themes–although there is one character who prays and whose influence is for the good. In fact I cannot imagine my sons picking this up and reading it for fun. They’d read it if a teacher made them, of course, and would identify the themes, and the character development, and so on. All that is very well done.

I love books that aim for joy.

I am hoping to review books that my kids would read for fun. So I’ll let the other folks review the ones the kids would have to read for school.

Swords of the Six by Scott Appleton, a Review

swordsofsix

Swords of the Six by Scott Appleton
Book One of The Sword of the Dragon
Flaming Pen Press, 2009, 281 pages

Genre: Christian fantasy, young adult/adult (no sexy stuff)

This book is the story of six young women who are daughters of a white dragon. The dragon has mysterious creative and healing powers. A created being, he calls on a benevolent Creator for help, as do his daughters.

The protagonist is Dantress, one of the six young women. She is adventurous even as a child, and willing to risk all for those she loves.

As the story develops, she and her sisters are given a mission. They leave the blessed palace where they grew up and go into the realms dominated by evil to perform an errand. As dragons who look like humans, they have special powers.

Next, the white dragon sends the six to live in the woods on the edge of lands inhabited by humans. What happens next is a love story involving Dantress and a local hero, Ilfedo.

The tale actually sets the stage for another, larger, work featuring Ilfedo. This
will start with the next book in the series.

It takes a while to discern the rules governing this fantasy world. Apparently, the
Creator governs everything but has given plenty of supernatural powers to the white dragon. Regular humans don’t have any magical powers at all, and live in a realm dominated by evil wizards, who do.  The white dragon keeps tabs on what is happening in the humans’ realm, occasionally tearing a hole in the sky at his palace and appearing in the other realm, often just in time to rescue the good guys, but sometimes a tad too late.  There are also very evil dragons, black and green, along with the sorcerers.  It’s a pretty dark world. But because of the white dragon, not overwhelmingly so.

What did I think?

The book is certainly imaginative, with plenty of details–life in a palace
containing a tree that is habitat for fairies;  transparent ceilings that let you just
look up to see the weather. Life in Ilfedo’s woodland cabin is also pretty cool–it too
opens to the sky at times.

It’s a moral book, with treachery identified as the evil that it is. It’s also a
book about grace, with those who committed evil left given the chance to turn away from their deeds.

Characterization is solid, I found.

And so this book does what it set out to do, namely setting the stage for a larger work. Accordingly, I am left, at the end, wondering what will happen next. However, this first book lacks what I was expecting: a cohesive overarching conflict that is resolved at the end of the book.  It is really a chain of several stories, all of them needed to set the stage. So it seems more like a prequel than an opening for a series.

Nevertheless, it is a tale with a rock-solid foundation in the loving God that I know through Jesus Christ. And I am indeed waiting for the next one!–Phyllis Wheeler

Lawhead On Tour

I decided to look at what the other Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy bloggers are saying about Stephen Lawhead’s novel Tuck.

Jill Williamson offers a nice summary of the previous two books in the series.  This is a good place to start.

I was amazed to discover that this series has a “sound track”! Here is what Rachel Starr Thompson had to say:

“I also recommend paying a visit to the independent record label Ark Music , home of Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning. Before I ever read The Paradise War , I listened to the music inspired by it — and Johnson and Dunning have been writing and releasing music based on Lawhead’s work ever since. It’s gorgeous stuff.”  It’s eerie music. You can check it out on the Ark site.

Beth Goddard has an interview with Lawhead, da Man. It’s not recent, but hey, it’s very detailed, and tells you what is thinking about his characters.

Since the bloggers on this tour are Christians (many of them writers of Christian science fiction and fantasy), and since this book focuses on Tuck, a priest, there is plenty of conversation about Tuck’s faith, and the faith of the other characters.   Keanan Brand found Tuck’s faith to be woven into the story, not preachy. Tim Hicks calls Tuck “a firm believer in the power of prayer.” Nevertheless, he’s ready with his staff when battle arrives.  “Through it all, Tuck is a pacifist before the fight and a head-basher during it,” says Steve Rice.

It’s not just Tuck who has faith. Other characters are doing their best to live out their faith too.  Becky Miller points out that the false religious ideas and the true ones are presented side-by-side, with no heavy-handed comment from the author–it’s up to the reader to discern. John W. Otte finds the variety of Christian viewpoints to be enriching.

Rachel Starr Thompson has such a way with words. She said it this way:

“Faith is a very real force in Tuck. Nearly every character claims it, be he villain or hero, priest or Norman soldier or Welsh king. Most believe themselves to be on God’s side—or at least sincerely hope they are—and most are wrong in some respect. God is on His own side, after all. But the men and women of Lawhead’s eleventh-century Britain never make the modern mistake of thinking that God is not involved at all.”

So, what genre are we in? Lawhead seems to have moved from fantasy to historic fiction in recent years. What is he up to?  Brandon Barr answers that question with a quote he fished out of Lawhead’s Web site: “I don’t see strong boundaries between SF, fantasy or historical novels, at least not as I’m writing them. Regardless of the particular genre, I am trying to evoke a sense of wonder through the story.”

Everybody agreed that the story is a worthy one, written by a master.

Check out the posts of the others!

Brandon Barr
Jim Black
Keanan Brand
Rachel Briard
Grace Bridges
Valerie Comer
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Alex Field
Beth Goddard
Todd Michael Greene
Ryan Heart
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Jason Joyner
Kait
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Dawn King
Terri Main
Margaret
Melissa Meeks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Caleb Newell
Eve Nielsen
Nissa
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Epic Rat
Steve Rice

Crista Richey
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Robert Treskillard
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler
Jill Williamson

Tuck by Stephen Lawhead, a Review

tuck

Tuck by Stephen R. Lawhead
Book Three of the King Raven Trilogy
Published by Thomas Nelson, 2009, 443 pages
Genre: Historic legend, Christian, young adult (high action, no sexy stuff)

Is this a fantasy book? Not really. There is only one character who has attributes that are truly larger than life: the Banfaith seer, Angharad. She appears to be several hundred years old, a Celtic seer in the tradition of Merlin, but of course her age isn’t pinned down, so who knows?

Are Arthurian legends fantasy?  This book falls in the Arthurian vein, in that it is speculating about the possible history behind a legend.

Tuck is the final book of the King Raven trilogy, which is a long, wild yarn spun to answer the question, who might Robin Hood have been? Apparently the traditional location, Sherwood Forest, isn’t very conducive to a good semi-historical tale, at least as far as Lawhead is concerned.  Now Lawhead, who has spent much of his career exploring Celtic culture and myth, is entertaining us by bringing his broad knowledge of the Cymry (Welsh) to the Robin Hood legend.

What if Robin Hood and his longbowmen were really Welsh resistance fighters, seeking to counter the heavy hand of William the Conqueror’s son William Rufus?  Lawhead bases his three-volume tale on this supposition.

The first book, Hood, stands mostly in the point of view of Bran, the Robin Hood character. (Rhi Bran y Hud is what he is eventually called by his countrymen.) The second book, Scarlet, revolves around the point of view of Will Scarlet, who joins the outlaw band living in the ancient woods of the March, the eastern borderland of Wales. And the third, Tuck, contains much from the point of view of Father Aethelfrith, whom the legend calls Friar Tuck.

There are other familiar characters from the legend too: maid Marian becomes Merian, Bran’s headstrong beloved. Little John becomes Iwan. The evil sheriff of Nottingham becomes the ruthless Norman Sheriff de Glanville. And, like in the legend, the outlaw band members are adept at guerilla tactics, shooting the longbow, repeatedly besting their adversaries. Those adversaries come after them in far larger numbers as knights on horseback, carrying sword and spear. They nearly always lose. But the band of outlaws living in the woods suffers from hunger and privation, so they are not winning, either.

As the story progresses, Bran becomes more and more adept at fooling others–he is a trickster who masters the art of illusion. He’s using it to further his quest to gain his rightful throne as a petty Welsh king, and to aid his suffering countrymen where he can. Bran also leans heavily on his spiritual advisor, Angharad, and consistently makes decisions based on mercy rather than vengeance. It is Biblical thinking we hear from Angharad and Bran.

Meanwhile, William Rufus, Baron Neufmarche, and other Normans have been ruthlessly enforcing their domination and taxation on the poor citizens of Britain and parts of Wales.  Their characters in previous books seem uniformly villainous and bullying. Double-crossing is the way they operate.

Will the band of outlaws succeed in convincing the Norman king that he should live up to his previous agreement and install Bran as his vassal?  Will a daring excapade in the north of Wales convince Bran’s kinsmen to come to his aid? Read it to find out!

And what do I think?

It’s a great and riveting tale.  Not only did the fantasy lovers in my household want to read it, but the historical fiction lovers too. What a gas, to reimagine Robin Hood in this totally different way.

However, the way that the plot resolves doesn’t seem believable to me. In particular two characters, the impetuous Merian and the cold William Rufus, act in a manner that seems out of character.  Another character, Baron Neufmarche, also does some surprising things, but his change of heart is developed enough to be believable.

Also, Bran’s character in this book seems less real than in the previous books. He is just too successful at duping the enemy Normans, and too good at turning the other cheek. It’s as if he’s stepping into the realm of legend although he is still alive.

These reservations didn’t detract much, though.  I heartily enjoyed reading this trilogy. It’s so good and satisfying to me to read a great tale with a solid Biblical worldview as its foundation.  And who knows? Maybe Robin Hood really was a Welshman. Maybe Lawhead is onto something. But I guess we’ll never know.–Phyllis Wheeler

Take a look at what others on the Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy blog tour are saying about this book in the next three days:

Brandon Barr
Jim Black
Keanan Brand
Rachel Briard
Grace Bridges
Valerie Comer
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Alex Field
Beth Goddard
Todd Michael Greene
Ryan Heart
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Jason Joyner
Kait
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Dawn King
Terri Main
Margaret
Melissa Meeks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Caleb Newell
Eve Nielsen
Nissa
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Epic Rat
Steve Rice
Crista Richey
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Robert Treskillard
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler
Jill Williamson

Stephen Lawhead’s Web site

The Legend of the Firefish by Polivka, a Review

firefish

The Legend of the Firefish by George Bryan Polivka, a review

Book One of the Trophy Chase Trilogy

Published 2007 by Harvest House Publishers, 347 pages

Genre: Christian fantasy/high seas adventure, young adult/adult  (Protagonists are in early adulthood. But teens would certainly enjoy it.)

This is a fantasy book in that it is set in an invented place, Nearing Vast. The people groups are invented, and so on. But this is a world that is somehow also a part of ours; Jesus of Nazareth is present, and so is his church. The God of heaven and earth responds to prayers.  “Coincidences” happen that are too strange to be coincidences.

Packer Throme is the son of a simple fisherman. Because of a simple act of kindness when he was a child (keeping another child from dying of exposure), he is given the gift of an education–the child he saved turned out to be the crown prince.

With his education, Packer tries seminary but gets thrown out after an altercation of some kind.  Next he studies with the greatest swordsmaster of Nearing Vast.

He returns to his fishing village, where the young Panna Seline waits for him.  But he isn’t planning to stay. He simply wants help stowing away on a pirate ship that has paused nearby.

You see, he has heard that this particular pirate ship, the Trophy Chase, isn’t pirating any more. Instead, it’s hunting the Firefish, a sea dragon of legend whose meat has great value.  Throme wants to learn the secrets of hunting firefish and bring them to his village, so the fisherman can do more than eek out a living.

Throme makes it onto the pirate ship but manages to make an enemy out of Talon, a master swordswoman who is the ship’s security officer. The captain asks Talon to leave the ship, but not before she has tortured Packer and learned about his village and about Panna.  She heads for shore, murder in her heart.

Does she succeed in killing everyone in the village, including Panna? I’ll tell you a bit more: Panna sets out on an adventure trying to follow Packer, and her path meets Talon’s.

Meanwhile, out at sea, the Trophy Chase heads into deadly peril in pursuit of the firefish.  Will the ship return?

I really like this book. There’s plenty of action. Characters are memorable, not sterotyped. The lore about sailing a tall ship seems genuine. The fantasy parts of the story, especially about the habits of the firefish, are well-woven. There’s no magic, but there certainly is a fantastic beast: the firefish.  Polivka lets us get right inside its head.  In fact, he does a fair amount of hopping around with his point of view, but it is well handled; I didn’t find it confusing.

The main characters have flaws like the rest of us, but they lean on the Lord as the story unfolds and pray for help, and God answers. The ruffian who appears to be a bad guy at the beginning comes around in the end. In fact, Polivka makes it clear that there is hope for bad guys, too. Non-Christians who have reviewed this book have not found it preachy or heavy-handed, and that’s a good thing, too.

In short, this is a great book. Don’t miss it.  And if you live in St. Louis, you may be able to check it out from the Webster Groves Public Library.  I asked the librarians to buy more Christian fantasy fiction, and they bought this one for us. — Phyllis Wheeler

PS:  I have now read the other two books in the Trophy Case Trilogy, found them to be wonderful as well.  The most amazing thing about these books is that I am totally unable to predict where the story is going to go.  Polivka has a very original mind!  And is a great storyteller.  So read them and be uplifted.-PW, 6/18/2009