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.

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