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Lost Mission by Athol Dickson, a Review


Lost Mission by Athol Dickson, a review
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2009, 345 pages
Genre: “Magical realism” according to the publisher. I will call it supernatural suspense. Suitable for teens and adults.

There are two alternating story lines, each with its protagonist, that unfold as the book progresses. One takes place around 1772 and the other in modern times. Both story lines focus on the same location near Los Angeles.

The two stories, while seemingly not similar at first, become more and more alike. A small three-paneled painting is common to both stories, as is a certain character, described as an Indian with shining hair, who I think must be an angel.

In 1772, three Franciscan friars and some Spanish soldiers set out on a missionary journey northward from Baja California. They eventually start a mission in a desert spot near an Indian village. We readers know from the beginning that the mission fails and that just one of the three friars, Fray Alejandro, and an Indian miraculously survive the fire that burns the place down.

The sad tale of the failed mission unfolds as the book progresses. The other two friars, keeping secrets, are at cross purposes. The superior of the three routinely mistreats the Indian converts. Through it all, Fray Alejandro works on his assigned task, painting the three-panel altarpiece painting, but oddly cannot make any headway.

In the modern tale, a devout young Mexican woman, Lupe, feels called to travel to the US and confront Americans with their wickednesses. She’s a missionary to the lost in the modern U.S. Miraculously she survives walking through the desert to California, carrying two panels of the three-panel painting (given to her by the village priest). We readers learn that the painting shows something extraordinary–apparently Lupe’s own face is in it, along with faces of others.

The other two main characters connect with Lupe in Orange County, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Eventually we can figure out that these two characters, a rich man and a preacher, are given parallel personalities to the wayward friars in the earlier story.

As I read the modern day and historical stories, I tried to guess the outcome for the modern story and the reason for failure for the historical story. I must say, I missed the mark widely for both. I did figure the painting had something to do with the outcome, and that was true.

Both stories contrast grace and redemption to punitive, limited, prideful versions of faith. The book will cause a wise reader to stop and take stock: am I acting like a prideful pharisee? Where am I unrepentant? What are my own sins that I, a sinner, am too blind to see?

This complex book is intended for adults and would make a fine read for teenagers as well. There are even some discussion questions included at the end.

Full of symbolism and parallels, this work is a reach feast for a reader, hard to put down and wonderful to savor.–Phyllis Wheeler

This review is part of the Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour.

Check out the author’s websites:

Author Web site
Author blog

Check out what others on the blog tour are saying about this book:
Brandon Barr
Keanan Brand
Amy Browning
Valerie Comer
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Timothy Hicks
Jason Isbell
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Dawn King
Rebecca LuElla Miller
New Authors Fellowship
John W. Otte
Donita K. Paul
Crista Richey
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler
KM Wilsher

Curse of the Spider King, Day Two of CSFF Blog Tour

This month’s blog tour of Curse of the Spider King, a middle-grade Christian fantasy book, is drawing unprecedented participation. Maybe the outstanding cover art drew in the reviewers? Or the fact that many reviewers already know and love these authors? Below is a list a list of blog-tour links to posts on the book.

What did the bloggers think? Nearly all of them really liked this book, myself included. Some had questions. John W. Otte wonders where the Christian faith is, along with a couple of others. Jason Waguespac has a similar question. He had communicated with author Wayne Thomas Batson a while back about overused plot lines in fantasy fiction. They discussed one: a “chosen” child enters the fray and saves the day. In that exchange, Batson had indicated his next series (this one?) would turn that overused plot line on its head.

In my review posted yesterday, I had wondered whether the stage was set for the elves to turn to Ellos, cry for help with one voice, and be rescued. Batson responded in a comment that that was a very interesting speculation on my part. So perhaps we’ll see something like that in the coming books.

The depth of characterization in this book really is amazing, and in the author interviews posted on the blog tour I found out why: both authors spend their lives ministering to teens, and know their issues well. One is a youth pastor, and the other teaches middle school. To see the interviews, check out the links below that are marked to include an interview.

You may also want to check out the promotional site for this book, which has a viral marketing setup via its discussion board, “the underground,” that apparently successfully encourages readers to spread the word.

+ Brandon Barr
+ Amy Browning interviews the authors!
+ Valerie Comer
+ Amy Cruson
+ Stacey Dale
+ Shane Deal
+ Jeff Draper
+ Emmalyn Edwards
+ April Erwin
+ Karina Fabian
+ Ryan Heart also interviews the authors!
+ Timothy Hicks
+ Jason Joyner
+ Julie
+ Krystine Kercher
+ Melissa Lockcuff
+ Rebecca LuElla Miller
+ Nissa
+ John W. Otte
+ Cara Powers
+ Chawna Schroeder
+ James Somers
+ Robert Treskillard discusses the viral marketing
+ Jason Waguespac
+ Phyllis Wheeler
? Jill Williamson
+ KM Wilsher

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

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.

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

The Alchemyst by Michael Scott, a Review

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel
by Michael Scott, Delacorte Press, 2007, 369 pages.

Worldview: Darwinian atheism.

Style: A high-action, imaginative story with memorable characters that will draw your kids in.

Review: An Elder Race used to live on the earth, while humans were still hanging out in trees. These elders, who have magical powers, are divided into Dark Elders and others. The Dark Elders would like to return to power, enslaving or killing the human race. Their puppet is the human villain, Dr. John Dee.

This story has a strong hook: it mentions the Immortal Nicholas Flamel on the cover. Flamel is one of the characters in the Harry Potter stories, but he wasn’t invented by J.K. Rowling. Instead, Rowling took a legend and based a character on it. Scott has done the same. Scott’s cover also looks faintly like one of the symbols featured in the Potter books (the Deathly Hallows).

Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel are legendary French individuals, born in the 1300s, supposed to have found the secret of immortality. In Scott’s tale, Flamel becomes mentor to American teenage twins Josh and Sophie Newman as the result of a struggle described in the opening scene of the book. In the struggle, Dr. John Dee and his henchmen rob Flamel of his magic book, except for two critical pages.

As the story unfolds, Dee is pursuing Flamel and the twins. The twins find out they have powers and are the subjects of a prophecy about powerful twins. Flamel takes Sophie to an Elder One to have her powers awakened. Josh has to wait till the next book (when his powers are awakened by a Dark Elder).

The central characters are clearly the twins. They are motivated by loyalty to friends and to each other, a tribal sort of morality rather than a Biblical one. One of the main themes involves the question of Josh’s attraction to the dark side. We’ve heard this one before. The kids lie to their parents about where they are. The author excuses this by implying the parents wouldn’t believe them.

This book and its sequels will probably draw the attention of your teen at some point. My 16-year-old fantasy fan was drawn to them. Be sure to discuss the atheist viewpoint.–Phyllis Wheeler thumbsdown

Pendragon Series by D.J. MacHale, a Review


Pendragon: the Merchant of Death (Book 1 of a series)
by D. J. MacHale

Aladdin Paperbacks, 2002, 374 pages

Worldview: A moral universe with no discernible higher power.

Style: High action.

Review: This tale describes a story taking place on another planet, Denduron. It is mostly told by the protagonist, Bobby Pendragon, a 14-year-old American boy who strangely enough takes the time to write to his best friend Mark and girl friend Courtney, who remain back home, whenever he has the opportunity. The reader reads the letters along with Mark and Courtney.

Bobby is taken to Denduron through a wormhole gateway by his Uncle Press, who embroils him in a conflict between two factions who live there. One of these factions has enslaved the other. Meddlers from other worlds, called Travelers, are both good guys and bad guys. One, the oddly named Saint Dane, is a hugely evil bad guy who is abetting the conflict. Others, including Press and Bobby Pendragon, are trying to stop Saint Dane. Bobby starts off as feeling himself to be very incompetent, and gradually picks up some courage and competence as the story unfolds. He and another young Traveler, Loor, work together to foil Saint Dane. Saint Dane excapes to another planet through a worm hole. We suspect that will be the setting of the next book, with a similar plot: foiling Saint Dane, this time in a different world.

The story has many imaginative aspects as well as interesting characters. However, it fails to move me on several counts. One is the breezy teen-speak that Bobby uses for most of the book. It’s just not that easy to read. Another is the improbability of the plot resolution. Once Saint Dane is removed, the warring factions simply stop their conflict and begin to help each other. This is a feud that’s been going on for longer than Saint Dane was present. So why would removing him completely solve it? It’s not clear to me.

Another irritation was that some plot elements are left dangling, to be resolved in future books I suppose. These are major plot elements having to do with who Bobby is. We are told near the end of the book that the family that raised him is not his real family, and that Uncle Press is not his uncle. Bobby’s family has vanished, so he can’t come back to “second earth” and live a normal life. He is stuck being a Traveler now.

Despite these irritations, I do recommend this book for young readers. The high action is sure to please, and the moral compass of the work is sound.–Phyllis Wheeler

If you would like to buy this book, please buy it here to help pay the expenses of this Web site.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, a Review

Artemis Fowl
by Eoin Colfer, Hyperion Books for Children, 2001, 277 pages

Worldview: Amoral. The “good guy” is a criminal. This is bound to confuse younger readers.

Style: A young adult novel with plenty of action to keep readers turning pages.

Review: Artemis Fowl is the name of a 12-year-old genius who is also a criminal mastermind. As the high-action story unfolds, it becomes clear that Artemis is, in fact, the hero–we find ourselves cheering for his nefarious plots. This is a confusing position to put a child reader into!

We also cheer for his victims, who are morally upstanding members of the fairy police. Artemis eventually makes friends with these members of the fairy police, so that the book emphasizes tribal or friendship loyalty as a supreme virtue. It puts other moral no-nos, such as thievery and deception, on the “naughty but OK” list. There are two successful thieves in the book whom the author clearly likes: Artemis and a dwarf. Also, the word “damn” appears in the book. In addition, the author makes up a fairy swear word and has his fairy police using it all the time.

Your children will probably check the Fowl books out and read them, if they have library access. My kids all have. The reason is that, despite the amoral framework, this book is a good read. The characters are memorable, there is plenty of action, and the story has a zany science-fiction quality to it.

Artemis and his bodyguard Butler are seeking to kidnap a fairy and hold it for ransom, in order to enhance the depleted family fortune. Turns out the fairies have mostly left the surface of the earth to colonize the center of the earth, driven below-ground by human activity. Their advanced technology allows them to travel back and forth to the surface.

Artemis and Butler manage to kidnap a fairy police woman named Holly Short. Ransom is eventually paid, and partly stolen by the dwarf thief At the end, Holly is released, Artemis is rich, and so is the dwarf. On the way, Holly has saved Butler’s life and that of Butler’s sister. And she heals Artemis’ depressed mother. All’s well that ends well. Or is it?

This imaginative story will draw your teen in. Be sure to discuss the world view.–Phyllis Wheeler thumbsdown