Archive for February, 2013

Review: The Enchanted Castle

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 28 2013

A biographer of C.S. Lewis once called a collection of preparatory schools a testimony to the fact that English parents do not enjoy the company of their children. However that is, the old system did separate parents from children; such separation is generally, in children’s fantasy books, a precursor to magic.

In The Enchanted Castle, Jerry, Jimmy, and Kathy were stranded for the summer at a boarding school. A free romp in the woods led to the discovery of a cave, which led to the discovery of, well, an enchanted castle. A princess ushered them in and showed them a magic ring, though one was realer than the other.

The Enchanted Castle was written by Edith Nesbit and published in 1907. It bears the charm of nineteenth century literature in that the storyteller is not in a hurry, and takes time to explore the story’s ideas and enter its world. It bears the faults of nineteenth century literature in that the storyteller takes too much time; one episode followed another, and I was beginning to wonder if they were going anywhere when, finally, they did.

The cast of the novel is limited, and all the stars are children. Indeed, the density of the adults at times strained credulity. A skeptic is a skeptic, and sometimes people have trouble believing their own eyes. Yet if you keep on showing wonders to various people, eventually someone must inquire further; otherwise, it’s only literary convenience.

The book gets no closer to religion than statutes of Hermes and Psyche. It is, simply but completely, clean, and the author goes to lengths to emphasize the need for truth-telling, although not to temporarily alive Ugly-Wuglies.

I will say now that there is nothing childish about this insistence on goodness. Yet more distinctly adult is the notion of the price of fulfilled wishes. Nesbit also evokes with surprising effectiveness the ghastly, independent animation of the Ugly-Wuglies, and the children’s horror and fear of it. Existential doubt, though hardly in, is still in.

The Enchanted Castle is a story mainly of adventure and humor, but other things are mixed in – a little romance, a little horror, love and loss. The magic borders into wonder, and the book has the sort of ending that pays you back for every moment you spent on it. The Enchanted Castle is technically a children’s book, and it’s fit for children; it’s also fit for adults.

CSFF Blog Tour: Other Mills

Literature | Posted by Shannon
Feb 20 2013

Yesterday I mentioned G. K. Chesterton’s opinion that pagans practiced demonic rites because they knew they were terrible. Today I will provide excerpts from The Everlasting Man where he wrote this.

This passage also touches on the issue of magic in Christian fiction, which Becky Miller raised in her post. I believe that Christians who categorically reject all “magic” in fiction are misguided, but not as misguided as people who breezily accept all magic without a thought. Witchcraft, under all its various names, is a great evil, and also a great danger. If we are going to handle it properly – even in reading and writing fiction – first we must understand it properly.

Chesterton wrote of the fictional King Dives: “The mills of God grind slowly, and he works with other mills.” And the root of both witchcraft and human sacrifice, as Chesterton illustrates in The Everlasting Man, is a desire to work with other mills.


Whether it be because the Fall has really brought men nearer to less desirable neighbours in the spiritual world, or whether it is merely that the mood of men eager or greedy finds it easier to imagine evil, I believe that the black magic of witchcraft has been much more practical and much less poetical than the white magic of mythology. I fancy the garden of the witch has been kept much more carefully than the woodland of the nymph. I fancy the evil field has even been more fruitful than the good. To start with, some impulse, perhaps a sort of desperate impulse, drove men to the darker powers when dealing with practical problems. There was a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them. And indeed that popular phase exactly expresses the point. The gods of mere mythology had a great deal of nonsense about them. They had a great deal of good nonsense about them; in the happy and hilarious sense in which we talk of the nonsense of Jabberwocky or the Land where Jumblies live. But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work but the work would really be done. A man did not exactly go into the wood to meet a nymph; he rather went with the hope of meeting a nymph. It was an adventure rather than an assignation. But the devil really kept his appointments and even in one sense kept his promises; even if a man sometimes wished afterwards, like Macbeth, that he had broken them.

In the accounts given us of many rude or savage races we gather that the cult of demons often came after the cult of deities, and even after the cult of one single and supreme deity. It may be suspected that in almost all such places the higher deity is felt to be too far off for appeal in certain petty matters, and men invoke the spirits because they are in a more literal sense familiar spirits. But with the idea of employing the demons who get things done, a new idea appears more worthy of the demons. It may indeed be truly described as the idea of being worthy of the demons; of making oneself fit for their fastidious and exacting society. Superstition of the lighter sort toys with the idea that some trifle, some small gesture such as throwing the salt, may touch the hidden spring that works the mysterious machinery of the world. And there is after all something in the idea of such an Open Sesame. But with the appeal to lower spirits comes the horrible notion that the gesture must not only be very small but very low; that it must be a monkey trick of an utterly ugly and unworthy sort. Sooner or later a man deliberately sets himself to do the most disgusting thing he can think of. It is felt that the extreme of evil will extort a sort of attention or answer from the evil powers under the surface of the world. This is the meaning of most of the cannibalism in the world. For most cannibalism is not a primitive or even a bestial habit. It is artificial and even artistic, a sort of art for art’s sake. Men do not do it because they do not think it horrible; but, on the contrary, because they do think it horrible. They wish, in the most literal sense, to sup on horrors. That is why it is often found that rude races like the Australian natives are not cannibals; while much more refined and intelligent races, like the New Zealand Maories, occasionally are. They are refined and intelligent enough to indulge sometimes in a self-conscious diabolism. But if we could understand their minds, or even really understand their language, we should probably find that they were not acting as ignorant, that is as innocent cannibals. They are not doing it because they do not think it wrong, but precisely because they do think it wrong. They are acting like a Parisian decadent at a Black Mass. But the Black Mass has to hide underground from the presence of the real Mass. In other words, the demons have really been in hiding since the coming of Christ on earth. … In the ancient world the demons often wandered abroad like dragons. They could be positively and publicly enthroned as gods. Their enormous images could be set up in public temples in the centre of populous cities. And all over the world the traces can be found of this striking and solid fact, so curiously overlooked by the moderns who speak of all such evil as primitive and early in evolution, that as a matter of fact some of the very highest civilisations of the world were the very places where the horns of Satan were exalted, not only to the stars but in the face of the sun.

Take for example the Aztecs and American Indians of the ancient empires of Mexico and Peru. They were at least as elaborate as Egypt or China … Swinburne, in that spirited chorus of the nations in ‘Songs before Sunrise,’ used an expression about Spain in her South American conquests which always struck me as very strange. He said something about ‘her sins and sons through sinless lands dispersed,’ and how they ‘made accursed the name of man and thrice accursed the name of God.’ It may be reasonable enough that he should say the Spaniards were sinful, but why in the world should he say that the South Americans were sinless? Why should he have supposed that continent to be exclusively populated by archangels or saints perfect in heaven? It would be a strong thing to say of the most respectable neighbourhood; but when we come to think of what we really do know of that society the remark is rather funny. We know that the sinless priests of this sinless people worshipped sinless gods, who accepted as the nectar and ambrosia of their sunny paradise nothing but incessant human sacrifice accompanied by horrible torments. We may note also in the mythology of this American civilisation that element of reversal or violence against instinct of which Dante wrote; which runs backwards everywhere through the unnatural religion of the demons. It is notable not only in ethics but in aesthetics. A South American idol was made as ugly as possible, as a Greek image was made as beautiful as possible. They were seeking the secret of power, by working backwards against their own nature and the nature of things. There was always a sort of yearning to carve at last, in gold or granite or the dark red timber of the forests, a face at which the sky itself would break like a cracked mirror.

CSFF Blog Tour: Fortress of Mist

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 19 2013

Thomas has the city of Magnus, and other things his enemies want even more. He is not entirely sure who his enemies are, much less where they are, but they keep leaving him signs. The slaughtered bulls were a pretty clear hint.

He has other hints – hints of help from the people who would be his friends, if they weren’t so suspicious. Caught between a conspiracy and a secret, Thomas is left to grope for answers. The war provides some distraction, though.

In Fortress of Mist Sigmund Brouwer continues the story of the Druids, the Immortals, and Thomas. With the setting-up accomplished, the plot is brisker and more enjoyable. Two of my favorite characters melted into the background. Thomas was, I think, worse as a character for the knight’s disappearance. The dynamic they had developed in the first book – the knight committed to helping Thomas, yet testing and teaching him – was good for him and good for the story.

In stories generally, and in fantasy even more so, male characters tend to outnumber female ones. Merlin’s Immortals is no exception. Yet the female presence seems unusually strong to me. Of both the Druids and the Immortals, it is a woman who is most active and most interesting in the story. Thomas’ teacher, who put him on his quest, was also a woman.

As far as I have seen, there is no real magic in the series. The “potions” and supposed sorcery are only natural tricks made to appear supernatural. The books affirm, however, that the Druids practice human sacrifice, and it is almost impossible to combine that with a studious rejection of genuine witchcraft. I think it is true, as G. K. Chesterton wrote, that pagans practiced such demonic rites not because they were ignorant of how terrible they were, but because they knew. The potent horror of blood and fire was meant to evoke the horrible power of dark forces. It is hard to imagine people who would sacrifice to demons but seek power only from scientists.

I don’t mean this as criticism of the book. The scientific magic is the freshest and most ingenuous element of the series, and we don’t know much of the Druids yet. But come the next book, it will be time to. The hints, along with the game of distrust, have about run their course.

Fortress of Mist is a better book than The Orphan King; I expect the third book will be better yet. Few mysteries have actually been solved, and you know, closing the book, that the characters have a long, and very interesting, way to go yet.


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

CSFF Blog Tour: The Orphan King

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 18 2013

We have all heard that knowledge is power. But few have ever known it, or demonstrated it, as well as Thomas. An orphan, and in effect little better than a slave, yet he has power. He has a rare ability, the ability to read. Rarer yet, he has books to read.

Rarest of all is the sort of books he has. With these books, he could conquer kingdoms. For these books, others would conquer kingdoms. And they would do anything they had to, to get them from Thomas.

The Orphan King is the first book of the Merlin’s Immortals series, written by Sigmund Brouwer. It is set in England, in the year 1312, and surrounded by the facts of the day – from the name of the king to hunger to the brown charity cloth of monks. This historical structure, together with the scholarly and even scientific nature of Thomas’ power, gives the book more realism than fantasy usually enjoys.

The characters are nicely done – from the loathsome Geoffrey to the world-tested knight to the irrepressible Tiny John. Thomas, as is common for royalty and especially protagonists in fairy tales, is not as vivid as his supporting cast, yet he still stands as a good character. His attempt to buy horses, and the knight’s intervention, was a fine moment for both of them.

Sigmund Brouwer proved adept at evoking both people and places. But he had, as a writer, a habit of explaining things – either in dialogue or in the narration – where, and sometimes when, he ought not to have. Some explanations could have been demonstrated through the story; others were not needed at all. Readers did not need, for example, Thomas’ thoughtlessness in asking after Isabelle to Katherine pointed out so thoroughly.

The Orphan King is a story of mystery more than magic, of deception and doubt more than action. The novel raises many questions and leaves the most interesting unanswered. And though it takes place seven centuries ago, the story seems to look back to things that were ancient even then. The pieces are intriguing to any fantasy reader – Merlin, and an old fortress thick with secrets, and Druids, and Immortals. If you care to put them together, pick up The Orphan King and begin.


And now, for the intrigued, we have links:

The Orphan King on Amazon;

Fortress of Mist (second book of Merlin’s Immortals) on Amazon;

and Sigmund Brouwer’s website; he has, by the way, a perfect name for an author. Just hearing it, you can imagine it on a book cover.

Finally, and most enlightening, we have the tour links:

Gillian Adams
Julie Bihn
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
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Anna Mittower
Eve Nielsen
Nathan Reimer
James Somers
Steve Trower
Phyllis Wheeler

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

Doings

Writing | Posted by Shannon
Feb 15 2013

As I begin this blog post, I frankly hope that it won’t take me long.I have other things I need to get to, such as working through the edits for The Valley of Decision. I am reading the manuscript behind my editor, making my own changes and incorporating her suggestions. Nearly all of them, anyway.

My other major project is finishing the first draft of Forever Today. I am getting near one of the most pivotal turns in the story, along with several moments that have lingered, half-made, in my imagination for months and even years. It’s an exciting point to reach in the writing of a book.

Also on my agenda is finishing (reading) Fortress of Mist. I’ve scheduled myself to review it next Tuesday, and one cannot be a truly enlightened reviewer of any book without knowing how it ends. The CSFF blog tour begins on Monday, and brief as this post is, I expect to make up for it then.

Character Profiles: The Too-Powerful Sidekick

Writing | Posted by Shannon
Feb 07 2013

She wanted to scream. There were so many blasted ships and no way to stop one little boat from escaping. Though she was terrified of the sea dragons, she prayed that they would rise from the water. She prayed for another of Artham’s sudden, dashing arrivals, but she knew he was on the other side of the Dark Sea.

– Andrew Peterson, The Monster in the Hollows

There are people who are both unshakably good and preternaturally strong. They are the ones who step forward, who always know what to do in the moment of crisis, who incur risk boldly and selflessly. If we’re lucky, we end up on their side. If we’re especially lucky, they end up our special protectors.

And then, before our names can be written in greatness in truly heroic adventures, they have to go away.

From King Arthur on down, the heroes of fantasy tales have often had a stronger, wiser personality behind or beside them. Then, before the danger gets truly epic, the strong one vanishes. This is the Too-Powerful Sidekick, the mentor or guardian or counselor who has to leave before the hero can come into his own.

Gandalf is a classic example. Tolkien found it necessary to separate him from Bilbo and the Dwarves before things got really dark in Mirkwood – and before they met Smaug. He had more important business to tend to, like driving out the Necromancer. So it was Bilbo’s turn to be the hero.

In Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf had no more important business, Tolkien had to devise other ways to keep the wizard away. First it was Saruman – or Frodo would have made it to Rivendell on time, far ahead of the Ringwraiths. Then it was the Balrog.

Then, a few chapters later, it was Aragorn’s turn. He had vowed to save Frodo “whether by life or death,” so Tolkien had to get rid of him, too. He is another Too-Powerful Sidekick. Even the other Hobbits, Merry and Pippin, had to broken off from Aragorn before they could have their moment. With him around, what would have been left for them to do?

And then there is Artham Wingfeather, Throne of Warden of Anniera, Peet the Sock Man. In every book Andrew Peterson had to detach him from the Wingfeather children in a new way.

In On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, it was Nia and Podo’s shunning that created the distance. They drove him away even after he saved the family, permitting them to fall again into troubles that, had the Sock Man been at hand, he would have fought away.

For North! Or Be Eaten something else was needed, so a Troll dragged Peet away and the Fangs locked him up in a cage. At the end of the book, he was reunited with his charges again. So, at the beginning of Monster in the Hollows, they had to separated again. This time, rather than have others pull or drive Artham away, Peterson finally gave him a reason to leave of his own accord. Though it could be contended that the decision was made, as they say, under duress.

If Artham had been allowed to hang around a few more chapters, he would have spared the Wingfeathers all sorts of troubles. That was the problem with him, as with all Too-Powerful Sidekicks: They save the heroes out of tight spots. But it’s only in tight spots that you can ever be heroic.

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Feb 01 2013

Stooges come in all shapes and sizes. Some are culpably stupid, some are innocently stupid, some are actively corrupt. Some stooges know that they’re stooges, and some don’t know even that. Many are bought men, and a few are only duped.

Jefferson Smith was another type of stooge – a tall, thin, Lincoln-quoting patriot, a leader not of men but of boys – boy rangers. They made him a senator because no one could complain that he was part of the machine, and he would still vote with them all the way. He didn’t know any better.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, made by Frank Capra in 1939, stars Jimmy Stewart as Jeff Smith, Diogenes’ honest man. This David-and-Goliath tale belongs, like its brother It’s a Wonderful Life, to that genre once called corn-a-Capra. But it is a mistake to equate either movie’s happy ending and assurance of goodness with shallowness.

The writers and the actors bring out, between them, an unusually broad array of characters that seem like people. A few are one-trick acts, but most appear with human complexity. There is the governor whose cowardice – in a wholly accidental moment of glory – is conquered by his self-interest. A reporter introduced as a slob, his gallant offer of marriage (“I’d cherish you, and I’d stay sober”) refused, further on shows sense and even decency. The Speaker, wonderfully acted, is just enough on the hero’s side to give him a chance – and no more.

Clarissa Saunders – a brilliant foil to Stewart’s Jeff Smith – takes contradictory actions and still keeps her integrity as a character. She is complete enough, in her personality and motivations, to do so.

That same quality is possessed by Thomas Paine, the Silver Knight. We are told where he began, and we see where he ended; watching the story unfold, we can piece together his journey. As Jeff is the man Paine used to be, Paine is the man Jeff could become.

Parts of the movie are dated to the point of being historically interesting. One man’s political machine “muzzles a whole state”, at almost the last time in American history such a thing would be possible. A few general mentions are made of the hard times the country faced; the movie was released, after all, when America was in the grip of the Depression and Europe was boiling over into World War II.

More than anything else, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a story about ideals – what price you pay to keep them, what price you pay to lose them. It’s about causes worth fighting for, causes worth dying for – and why. It soars into a wonderful movie, a drama mixed with comedy and delivered with superb acting. The death of naivete is the triumph of idealism, when Mr. Smith goes to Washington.