Thursday, December 31, 2015

Review: The Hero's Lot by Patrick Carr

The Hero's Lot (The Staff & the Sword #2)
By: Patrick W. Carr
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1044-0


Having helped unmask Sarin Valon as the corrupt, possessed reader working to undermine the Judica and destroy the kingdom, Errol Stone desperately hopes that at long last his troubles have ended. For in a so short a relative span of time as to leave his head spinning, Errol's life has been left irrevocably changed by the church's call on his life. Raised from the Callowford ale barrel to an earldom by the king, honored as a captain of the watch, and hailed far and wide as a hero, with the adoration of a princess, Errol remains ill at ease in his new skin, still wary of association with the church that he holds responsible for many of his darkest memories. But Errol's respite is destined to be a short one, as with Illustra's king on his deathbed and the identity of Deas's (God) appointed heir shrouded in mystery, those who would seek to supplant Deas's direction and the power of the church marshal their forces, eager to strike a blow at the heart of the kingdom at its weakest and usurp the throne. As an omne -- one with the power to read a lot cast by any reader -- Errol's gift marks him as an ally of the church and a threat to be eliminated -- or turned -- by those seeking to overthrow the kingdom. It is from the latter quarter where the latest threat to Errol manifests itself, as he is brought before the Judica on charges of consorting the spirits -- specifically, the herbwomen who claim Aurae is knowable -- and more seriously, of seeking to undermine the church's authority by participating in Martin and Luis's efforts to cast for the next king.

In a desperate bid to save Errol from the charge of treason, the Archbenefice arranges to have him convicted on the lesser charge of consorting with spirits -- but the gambit has unexpected consequences. The Judica's ruling is to place a compulsion on Errol, ordering him to follow the traitorous Valon into the heart of Merakh and kill him. It's a death sentence in all but name; nevertheless, Errol is forced to obey the compulsion, and gathers an unlikely group of allies to aid him in his quest. Meanwhile, Martin and Luis have fled the capital to Errol's home village, seeking to uncover why Deas has so magnified Errol's importance to the kingdom, irrevocably weaving the unlikely hero's future with Illustra's best hope of survival. As their respective journeys progress, the dangers mount, even as the compulsion Errol is under intensifies, driving him onward. Secrets are revealed and faith is tested, and Errol is forced to decide if Deas's call on his life, greater than any compulsion which the church could place on him, is worth the sacrifice of service, even unto the cost of his very life.

A Cast of Stones, the first installment chronicling Errol's journey and Carr's masterful debut, was one of my favorite reads upon discovery, and happily remains so upon revisiting. The Hero's Lot avoids the pitfall of the sophomore slump entirely -- every bit as good as its predecessor, here the characterizations and world-building that made Errol's first adventure such a captivating, enriching experience are deepened and expanded. Errol's journey  is a fully-realized, gloriously imaginative world laced with deeply personal, thought-provoking spiritual truths. This is my favorite kind of storytelling -- absorbing, fast-paced, and breathtakingly original.

Carr is proving to be a master at bringing fresh life to the monomyth, Joseph Campbell's term defining the universal nature of the heroic journey. That journey consists of three parts: the separation, initiation, and return, and both this and the previous installment of Errol's journey contain elements of this cycle. But as the middle installment of a trilogy, The Hero's Lot delves deeply into what it means for the hero to be initiated -- the process, the cost, and the risk. Having been called out of his former life as Callowford's resident drunk, Errol is no longer who he was, but not yet all he can be, all he shall be if he responds to the call upon his life. And this initiation that Errol endures over the course of this novel is the darkest, most intense test of his mettle yet. The journey into Merakh is an exploration of the nature of heroism and sacrifice at its finest, richly imagined, and at its center a wonderfully, painfully relatable character whose weaknesses and doubts mirror our own -- but who, in still acting, paints a picture of the best we can be -- and that encapsulates, I think, why stories of this ilk have such enduring power.

I love the world-building in these novels. In the first installment Carr introduces a society peopled by nobles, priests, warriors and peasants, a world at once both instantly recognizable and tantalizingly foreign, enough of a fresh twist on the tropes of a medieval fantasy to fire the imagination and keep one turning pages at a rapid pace. In The Hero's Lot, Carr takes his world-building to new heights, diving deeply into the rich possibilities of the social and religious hierarchy he's created. At the heart of Errol and his companions' journey -- particularly as relates to Errol and Martin -- is an exploration of what it means to seek to know one's God, to hunger for a deeper relationship with the divine Creator. Concurrently with that personal theme is a study of what it means to be part of the church, that glorious mix of human failings and unlimited potential. Through Errol, Carr offers an oft-times stark, wrenching exploration of the failings and fall-out of the human side of the church, but never fails to contrast the dark with what it means when that collective body is at its best. It's a thought-provoking call to remember that while man may -- and indeed, will -- fail, the God of that most fragile of organizations, the church, is ever-ready to answer one's call.

That is one of the many reasons I adore fiction of this type, for its ability to illustrate eternal truths through the lens of a compelling story. The Hero's Lot is superb storytelling -- fast-paced, old-fashioned adventure laced with subtly-drawn spiritual truths and unforgettable characters that captivate your heart and stay in your imagination long after the final pages are turned. This is a world I've grown to love and characters so dear, so wonderfully-realized I consider them friends. Much like its predecessor, The Hero's Lot is an experience to savor, and like the best fantasy fiction, it entertains, enlightens, and challenges readers, hooking you with its compelling lead and breakneck pace, leaving you eager for the next installment and loathe to leave its world behind, even briefly. I LOVE this story and am so happy to experience this richly rewarding journey. The Hero's Lot is a hero's tale, worthily, magnificently told.

This reading marks my second time to experience this dark crisis hour of Errol's journey, and I was powerfully struck afresh by the heartache woven throughout his story, forming such an integral part of his character. Pain of any sort is the one thing mankind would perhaps agree on wishing to avoid, however, there is nothing like heartache for stripping away the dross and reminding one of what is truly precious. As Errol and Martin each discover in their own way that Aurae, the Spirit of Deas, is knowable -- without priestly intercession, knowable to any who seek Him -- I was powerfully reminded of how much, how easy it is to take my faith for granted. Errol's journey from drunk to hero is writ with the power of scriptures on his heart, refining and redeeming the broken pieces of his soul -- and gorgeously-rendered illustration of the transformative power of sold-out faith. This is fiction at its finest, worth revisiting often and carefully, for the truths within point to eternal truths that never lose their power.

About the book:

With the king near death, will the kingdom fall?

When Sarin Valon, the corrupt and dangerous church leader, flees the city of Erinon and the kingdom, Errol Stone believes his troubles have at last ended. But he and his friends still have dangerous enemies working against them in secrets and whispers.

In a bid to keep them from the axe, Archbenefice Canon sends Martin and Luis to Errol's home village, Callowford, to discover what makes him so important to the kingdom, and in that journey they discover amazing new secrets about the workings of Aurae.

Back in Erinon, Errol is unjustly accused of consorting with spirits. Convicted, his punishment is a journey to the enemy kingdom of Merakh, where he must find Sarin Valon and kill him. To enforce their sentence, the church leaders place Errol under a compulsion -- he must complete his task, or die trying.

Note: I first reviewed this novel in February 2014. This review is a slightly revised & expanded version of my initial thoughts on the book.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Review: A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr

A Cast of Stones (The Staff & the Sword #1)
By: Patrick W. Carr
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1043-3


On the cusp of adulthood, orphan Errol Stone has been lost to the ale barrel since the age of fourteen, seeking to drown the memories of a horrific tragedy and the unspoken grief over his lack of a family to whom he could belong. When a church messenger arrives in Errol's backwater village of Callowford with an urgent summons to the capital for the unassuming local hermit priest, Errol volunteers to deliver the missive, as the promised coin in return for completing his mission could keep him in drink for a week. However, en route to the priest's cottage, Errol is attacked and barely escapes with his life. Now just as much a target as the recipient of the summons, Errol is forced to leave the only home he's ever known and embark on a journey with the priest Martin, his associate Luis, and a warrior from the village in a desperate attempt to safeguard the future of their kingdom from those who would see it destroyed.

Like Errol, his homeland stands on the brink of profound change. King Rodran, the last of his line, has no heir, and so the church leaders and their readers stand ready to select the next king to lead Illustra into a new age. But enemies of the church and king are killing the church's readers, those with the gift of casting lots and reading the answers they seek within the wood or stone, seeking to blind the land's leaders and destroy the fragile barrier that has protected the kingdom for years from the intrusion of corruption and anarchy. When Errol's latent gift as a reader is discovered, the erstwhile alcoholic nobody finds himself one of the most wanted men in the kingdom, facing forces that will stop at nothing to prevent him from fulfilling the call on his life demanding the sacrifice of service to Deas (God) and king. A sacrifice this unlikeliest of heroes must decide if he's willing -- and able -- to give when the cost demanded is his very life.

Faith-driven speculative fiction has traditionally been a tough sell in the inspirational market, classics set in Middle-earth and Narnia seemingly making little room for visions of new worlds in mainstream sales channels. Ten-plus years ago I devoured the attempts of faith-driven publishers to expand this genre, when authors such as Kathy Tyers and her Firebird trilogy and Karen Hancock's ambitious quartet Legends of the Guardian-King were published. Following those releases, the larger part of the market seemed to step back from fantasy fiction -- so I couldn't be more thrilled that the genre is poised for growth with the release of Carr's debut.

Carr's introduction to Errol and his world is a rich, meaty debut sure to find a home on the shelves of fans who hold the likes of Tolkien near and dear to their hearts. A Cast of Stones marries the traditional fantasy tropes of exotic worlds and terrifying dangers with a compelling hero-in-the-making and a subtle, deftly-woven thread of faith. Errol's story is one of the best, freshest, and accessible realizations of the monomyth, Joseph Campbell's term for the universality of the heroic journey. Campbell posits that the heroic journey follows a basic universal pattern -- the separation, initiation, and return, wherein the hero is called to leave his familiar life, venture into the unknown where he is tested, and return, empowered with the strength and wisdom to change his world. Errol's transformation from addict to warrior is fantastically realized. Even at his lowest he is a wonderfully relatable individual with an ingrained sense of honor, compassion, and humor that makes his character one you can't help cheering for.

The world-building within Carr's debut is superb. Errol is surrounded by a cast of richly-drawn characters, from the honorable to the villainous, and the secrets and threats he must navigate, even from those he calls friends, add welcome layers of tension and suspense to the plot. While the world of Illustra is recognizable as a medieval construct, with its royal hierarchy, village priests, and watchman knight-warriors, Carr adds a rich layer of religious and political history to the narrative. The church, with its prominent role in society and the hierarchy of priests and readers is particularly well-realized -- the concept of stone-casting, and its attendant powerful and dangerous possibilities holds rich promise for future volumes in the series.

A Cast of Stones marks Carr as an author to watch. With his debut he's delivered a rollicking, compelling, old-fashioned adventure story wrapped in the trappings of a medieval fantasy. From the first, unexpected threat to Errol's life, Carr sets an electric pace that doesn't let go until the novel's finale pages -- and then, only to leave one hungry for more. With its subtly included faith thread, compelling hero's journey, and multi-layered world-building, Carr has crafted an unforgettable, utterly absorbing story whose imaginative impact will stay with readers long after the final pages. This is a story worth losing yourself in, with a hero you can't help but love. Very well-done -- I cannot WAIT for the sequel!

This is the second time I've read A Cast of Stones in as many years, and it is no exaggeration when I say that Errol's story resonated with me even more powerfully upon a second visit. The world Carr has created is one that has stayed with me since I first visited its pages, and one whose themes of heroism and redemption are arguably even more powerful with a second look and the luxury to revel in the details and nuances of a breathtakingly realized world. I adore this world and these characters, especially Errol, for his is an underdog story of the finest order. This is a series that will be revisited often and held close as a perennial favorite.

About the book:

In the backwater village of Callowford, roustabout Errol Stone is enlisted by a church messenger arriving with urgent missives for the hermit priest in the hills. Eager for coin, Errol agrees to what he thinks will be an easy task, but soon finds himself hunted by deadly assassins. Forced to flee with the priest and a small band of travelers, Errol soon learns he's joined a quest that could change the fate of his kingdom.

Protected for millennia by the heirs of the first king, the kingdom's dynasty nears its end and the selection of the new king begins -- but in secret and shadow. As danger mounts, Errol must leave behind the stains and griefs of the past, learn to fight, and discover who is hunting him and his companions and how far they will go to stop the reading of the stones.

Note: I first reviewed this novel in February 2013. This review is a slightly revised & expanded version of my initial thoughts on the book.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Review: The Widow of Larkspur Inn by Lawana Blackwell

The Widow of Larkspur Inn (The Gresham Chronicles #1)
By: Lawana Blackwell
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-0267-4


Julia Hollis enjoyed a life of genteel privilege as a respected doctor’s wife and mother of three until her husband’s sudden death shatters her life and illusions. His debts strip away his family’s very way of life, leaving Julia and her children with no other provision than The Larkspur, a dilapidated, one-time coaching in located in the country village of Gresham. Left with no other recourse than to reinvent herself, Julia pins her family’s hopes of survival on the inn, and with the aid of Fiona, a servant and friend who fled from Ireland years earlier, she determines to reopen the Larkspur as a lodging house. Life in Gresham is a far cry from the cosmopolitan lifestyle Julia and her little family once enjoyed, but with no other choice, Julia determines to lead the household into a brighter future as the Larkspur’s mistress. Country superstitions and the eccentricities of lodgers challenge each individual who comes to call the Larkspur home, and for the first time without the guidance of a man as head of household, Julia and Fiona are forced to rely on their faith and latent talents like never before, blossoming into capable businesswomen. But the faith to love again may be their greatest challenge yet…

Lawana Blackwell has long been a favorite novelist, one I credit with contributing to the expansion of Christian fiction in the late 90s beyond the long-established norm of prairie romances. The Gresham Chronicles is a series I revisited often following its initial publication, but in recent years the idea of re-reading even cherished favorites has seemed like too daunting a prospect, too time consuming when one considers the ever growing list of newly released novels to read. There is also the fear that upon revisiting a book that has defined and shaped one’s reading identity even in some small way may result in disappointment – with growth and changing taste, will a once-loved classic hold up years later?

If nothing else, revisiting The Widow of Larkspur Inn for the first time in at least ten years has cemented my resolve to make time to reacquaint myself with old favorites, for I was most happy to discover that Blackwell’s writing not only holds up but still shines. Her ability to transport the reader into her setting is one of the best in the business, her world-building saturated with the sights, sounds, and feel of Victorian England to the smallest detail.

Since this book first released, Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction has enjoyed a renewal in popularity and awareness, thanks in large part to the success of lavish costume dramas like Cranford and North and South. Those who enjoy Gaskell’s stories in print and film will find much to love in the pages of Blackwell’s writing, as like her predecessor she is most at home penning stories of community and change, varied social vignettes skillfully strung together and painted against a social backdrop ripe for the advances of the Victorian era.

From her principle players to supporting roles, Blackwell is positively fastidious in crafting nuanced, colorful characters that populate each social strata of Gresham. Far from just Julia’s story, this is a fully-realized tale of her world, from her children’s growing pains to her deepening friendship with Fiona to the quirky, lace-making neighbors the Worthy sisters, an argument could be made that Blackwell’s thorough characterizations are Dickensian in scope and detail.

I love Julia’s character arc. She is a woman wholly of her time, but through her faith and experiences grows into a woman more capable and empowered than her previously occupied social role ever allowed her to dream possible. Romance plays a role, yes, but only insomuch as it supplements Julia’s newfound maturity and confidence. Here Blackwell gives readers the story of a woman first and foremost coming into her own, where faith and personal growth are the endgame and romance is a delicious bonus.

This novel contains one of my favorite sub-plots by far in all my years of reading inspirational fiction, that of the slow-burning relationship between Fiona and lodger Ambrose Clay, the melancholic actor who comes to Gresham to retreat from life only to find himself inextricably drawn into the lives of his fellow residents. Ambrose is a brooding, Byronic hero – an Edward Rochester type with an extra measure of self-loathing and a dash of redemptive compassion and humor. Their greatest obstacle to happiness isn’t Ambrose’s moods but rather Fiona’s secret shrouded past, and their journey to happiness is an angst-ridden romance lover’s dream.

Faith saturates these pages but not overly so, as Blackwell weaves faith into the very fabric of her characters’ lives, as much as part of them as breathing. Julia’s growth is inextricably entwined with her exploration of faith, as she claims both her belief in God and her belief in herself for herself, not to be taken for granted or assumed as an extension of her social role. And Vicar Phelps’s efforts to lead Ambrose to Christ remains one of my favorite “conversion” experiences in inspirational fiction, for rather than preaching, he befriends and engages, living the tenets of his faith in such a way that Ambrose experiences that fruit without the pressure of expectation. And upon this reading, I was once again struck by Blackwell’s sensitivity in handling the issue of depression, faith, and the hope of healing. Belief is not a quick fix or “magic” cure, and while healing and restoration is never to be discounted or dismissed, with Ambrose, Blackwell beautifully illustrates the blessing of faith in facing life’s trials.

The Widow of Larkspur Inn is a modern inspirational classic, one I’m thrilled to have finally revisited after years of fond memory. Blackwell’s fiction is a warm, enveloping, beautifully realized world. She excels at exploring the minutiae of Victorian life with warmth and humor, sketching nostalgic vignettes that bring Victorian England to life on the page. Revisiting Gresham has reminded me anew that Blackwell’s deftly drawn characters, deliciously slow-burning romance, and refreshingly honest spirituality – particularly for the time period – sets a high standard today. I look forward to revisiting Gresham again soon – for stories like this never lose their shine.  

About the book:

Julia Hollis's opulent life in Victorian London crashes to pieces when her husband passes away. Worse, she is told by his bankers that he gambled away their fortune. Now the family's hope rests on The Larkspur, an old abandoned coaching inn in the quaint village of Gresham.

Driven by dread and her desire to provide for her children, Julia decides to turn the dilapidated inn into a lodging house. But can she -- who was accustomed to servants attending to every need -- do what needs to be done and cope when boarders begin arriving? And then an eligible new vicar moves into town...