I can’t remember the last Young Adult work of Christian fiction I’ve read, but Sword and Serpent by Taylor Marshal has to count as one of the greatest. It ranked as the #1 novel in the highly specific category of “Young Adult Christian Historical Fiction. Of the 349 reviews currently on Amazon, no one has rated it with one or two stars, and I must say that it deserves this praise. Set in the days of Diocletian’s persecutions, it follows the young St. George, called Jurian in the text, and his sister as they flee persecution in their hometown. The two of them are assisted by Saints Christopher, St. Blaise, and St. Nicolaus on the way. (The first two are members of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, among whose number also falls St. George.) St. Christopher is present most of the difficult journey to Rome. Taylor Marshall does an excellent job of making all these saints human and relatable while endowed with miraculous powers.
Meanwhile, a pagan priestess named Sabra on Cyrene begins to question the legitimacy of offering human sacrifices to her demonic god. At the same time, she cannot wrest herself from what she thinks is her duty to her people. When she herself is chosen by lot, the king, her father, conceals this from the people and compels her to flee to Rome. But, she feels obligated to return to face her doom. Jurian and Sabra meet in Rome and agree to sail together to Cyrene. But, will Jurian’s prophecy or Sabra’s fate be fulfilled on the island?
Yours truly finds it hard to review a book like this. The Children of Hurin unrolls a beautifully tragic story. Yet, tragic beauty is not something I typically appreciate in literature–especially not as much as this blog’s co-author, Thomp D. James. (That Euripides sometimes gives the audience a happy ending makes him my favorite of the Three Athenian Tragedians.) With The Children of Hurin, like in your classic Greek tragedy, our hero, Turin, has many noble qualities twisted by tragic flaws–melancholy and pride in this case. These two faults drag him down from every happy circumstance he finds and lead to his demise.
I’ve gotten halfway through The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien. So far it exudes a style and mood at variance with other works of Tolkien. It feels more like a Greek tragedy or Viking saga: it has the style of the latter and the tragic flaws of the former. None of Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is present therein, unless we count the happy death of Androg, who died a better man than he lived. If it were not for this happy death, I should doubt that the famous Tolkien really wrote the story. Little else relieves one from the heavy sense of sorrow hanging over the action.
Joy or even humor is missing from the work. Tolkien’s major work, The Lord of the Rings, can get pretty dark at times, but its characters defy their desperate circumstances with joy, humor, or even glory. Boromir’s death lost some of its sting by the exuberant courage of his last stand. Homely humor from Samwise Gamgee brightened up Sam and Frodo’s trek through Mordor. How about the orc slaying game played between Legolas and Gimli at the desperate Battle of Helm’s Deep?
I was happy to have the pleasure of reading Howard Pyle’s Otto of the Silver Hand (Pyle’s first work of fiction) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel during the same time. Doyle wrote Sir Nigel to be the prequel to his The White Company. The White Company held as great a readership as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes until the Second World War, yet it still retains enough popularity to have been published continually since 1891. That book’s superiority over Sir Nigel is plain from the former’s variety of action, variety of characters, and better weaving of religion within the martial code of chivalry. Pyle’s novel, Otto of the Silver Hand, also better excels at weaving together the religious origins of chivalry into the knight’s code.
The reason behind this lies in the manner of the protagonists: Otto and Allen Edricson are both cloister bred, while Nigel Loring, whom we see as a squire in Sir Nigel, was raised within a knightly household and taught to value the manly virtues more than the decent–the loud virtues more than the quiet. It is like comparing Robert E. Lee to Nathan Bedford Forrest. Both were valiant men, but the heavily Christian upbringing of Lee better tempered his irascible nature than the more worldly education of Forrest tempered the Wizard of the Saddle’s hot blood. And so, his peers called Lee “the marble man” for his peaceable and orderly character, while Forrest struggled to control his temper almost until the very end. Even so, Nigel Loring takes about as long as Forrest to fully assimilate the gentle virtues, while Allen Edricson and Otto start from the decent and work to the manly–although, Allen is described by his friend Hordle John as already having a stalwart heart despite his meek exterior.
Many people neglect Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s military and medieval fiction. Prior to this, I have reviewed The Adventures of Gerard, which follows the sometimes grave and sometimes comedic adventures of a French dragoon during the Napoleonic Wars. Now, I turn my attention to Doyle’s romance of the Hundred Years’ War: The White Company. One senses that Doyle immersed himself in the period, both its history and its literature. (In the preface to Sir Nigel, the prequel to this book, he lists some excellent resources on the medieval age.) As far as this medievalist can tell, Doyle makes no factual errors on the equipment, weapons, clothing, economy, or habits of the people.
One does wonder whether he lets some of his ideas about the French Revolution get mixed into his description of the impoverished people of France and their wealthy overlords. However, there can be no doubt that interminable war had reduced the people of France to a sorry state, even if not entirely reminiscent of late 18th century France. One finds the character of the longbow men well delineated. The chivalric attitudes of the nobles drop easily from the mouths of the characters, just as they would have from the knights of old. At the same time, their chivalry adjusts to the real world situations in which they find themselves.
I have written before on my trip to Athanatos Christian Ministries Arts Festival. In the following paragraphs, I would like to write a little about two works written by award winners in ACM’s novel contests. Joseph Courtemanche’s Assault on Saint Agnes is the first reviewed, and my thoughts on Robert W. Cely’s Beyond the Steel follow. Both are excellent works offering a Christian ethos behind the action. They avoid the extremes of preachiness and amorality–similar to Andrew Klavan’s work. One wishes that more Christians would write like them. (Speaking of Christian fiction, I hope to finish Taylor Marshall’s Sword and Serpent and Paul J. Bennett’s (another contest winner) A Fall of Sparrows in the near future.) The first is an anti-terrorism thriller, and the latter is an allegorical fantasy. May our dear readers pick up the work which best suits their taste!
Assault on Saint Agnes benefits from the writer having intimate experience with the worlds of intelligence gathering and police work. This gives the thriller a sense of realism comparable to a Tom Clancy novel. However, this novel takes place not on the world stage but in the American Midwest. A retired Arab linguist foils a terrorist attack on a Catholic church in Minnesota, which attracts the unwanted attention of both local and federal authorities. The latter decides to enlist his aid in stopping the worst terrorist attack plotted since 9/11.
For the sake of not spoiling any of this wonderful thriller, I wish to be as brief as possible. Assault on Saint Agnes counts as Joseph Courtemanche’s first novel and the first in a projected series based on its hero, Bobby Kurtz. As all good thrillers, it is a real page turner. Yet, Courtemanche brings his wealth of life experience in intelligence, police work, and work as an Arabic interpreter onto the table for a truly unique work. (Now, I know what to expect if I’m ever taken into police custody for whatever reason.) All the action is located at the beginning and the end, but the constant suspense in which Courtemanche keeps the reader through paralleling Kurtz’s efforts to foil the terrorists with the terrorists’ progress to D-Day keep the reader hooked. We want to see how an overweight gun enthusiast, retired Navy analyst, devoted Christian, and “polyglot Rambo” will defeat an attempt at the greatest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11.