Three out of four of the following fantasy novels being reviewed here are each the firsts of a series. In my experience, that’s not an unusual strategy for novelists who have constructed elaborate worlds, heavy on plot and unconstrained by concerns of reality.
I tend to prefer science fiction to outright fantasy, so I may not have been able to get as fully involved in some of these as committed fantasy fans would. Still, my interest here is to explore, discover, and share the various ways freethinkers go beyond the mere fictional. And one of the things I found was that science fiction often finds its way into fantasy.
1. Dark Heart is a first novel by Adam Lee, keeper of the Patheos blog “Daylight Atheism.” It’s a fantasy story rooted in some of the same philosophical ideas that later formed the basis of his blogging.
When I asked Lee about his own atheism vis-à-vis the novel, he explained, “Since my story is set in a world where gods and demons really exist, my characters can’t be atheist in the conventional sense. But I wrote the book (and its upcoming sequels) very much with the intent of sending the message that supreme power doesn’t confer supreme morality, and that when the gods become destructive to life and happiness, they can and should be resisted.”
I noted these lines in the book as evidence of what Lee meant:
Is it possible the priests were lying? she thought. It was an almost impossible notion to accept. All her life Myrren had been taught to believe Vraxor’s priests; even then, she expected to be blasted on the spot for the unvoiced blasphemy, but nothing happened.
The book has a slight Harry Potterish feel to me, but that’s not necessarily a negative. I enjoyed the first Harry Potter (the only one I read) and found it quite engaging. Dark Heart isn’t overly sophisticated, centering on the adventures of a very young woman in a land ruled and battled over by three gods.
One of my complaints about fantasy in general is that it can feel overtly fake, with too many odd names, and with magic acting as a convenient deus ex machina. In Dark Heart, someone falls two stories, but he merely has to say a spell to fall upon a soft cushion of air. But if you even notice that sort of thing, you probably don’t read much fantasy.
The novel reads smoothly and as though the author had fun writing it. I’d have edited out a few of the sneers (that’s a word that always brings to mind silent movie villains).
This is Lee’s first novel of a planned trilogy, The Caleil Cycle. In addition to his blogging, he is the author of the nonfiction book Daylight Atheism. His essays have appeared widely in humanist and skeptic periodicals.
2. Hellbound, by Tim Hawken, is also the first in a trilogy, published by Dangerous Little Books in both paperback and ebook formats. When I asked Hawken what he intended, philosophically, with this trilogy, he replied that he’s agnostic about the existence of “god,” but that in terms of organized religions, he’s a non-believer.
He’s a firm believer, he went on to explain,
in the power of the story-telling and the historical significance that religion has, and the impact it has on the lives of billions of people (both good and bad). I respect the stories and allegories. It wasn’t my intention to make fun of Christian myths. More to turn them on their head and make people think about them a little deeper.
Persuasion is a curious thing, and sometimes I think more subtle ways of pointing out flaws can help people make up their own minds about the “truth.”
The story itself centers on a recently dead (and amnesiac) young man who is confronted by the devil, who slowly shows him bits of his past. Satan, meanwhile, also shows Michael the many hedonistic pleasures to be had in hell, all the while insisting his mission is to help souls redeem themselves and end up in heaven. Hawken employs mythic themes and characters in his storytelling, but you needn’t be up on your myths to understand.
Hawken, 32, was around 24-25 when he began Hellbound, and there’s a “young man” feel to the first book in the trilogy, as in the way the love obsession is described, and the fact that the devil spews a few long impassioned monologues. It all reads smoothly and pleasantly though. Though I haven’t read the sequels, I Am Satan and Deicide, I imagine Hawken’s writing has matured with each book. (It usually does when it shows this much promise.)
3. Tyzmon: The Last Bladehunter (Tales from Archangel Valley) is a first novel by Southern California-based R. Wesley Edwards. In short, a man awakes in a field empty of all but dead bodies. He takes hold of a stick, which seems to be part of himself, and he begins regaining his memories, reverie by reverie. Yet he still isn’t sure who or what he is, whether a man, a god, a magician, someone who can bring the dead back to life?
It takes quite a few pages before we even begin to have a sense of what sort of world we and our hero Tyzmon have found ourselves in. Many surprises await the patient reader.
Is this novel atheist in theme? I asked author Edwards before I read it. He replied:
I really actively work against having religious characters (and especially evil->cuz->religion characters). In the universe of the book, humans have transcended religion. … You may notice, though, that it seems to be fantasy but then starts re-defining things in sci-fi terms … as some kind of analogy for people having all these supernatural explanations for things and slowly having more rational explanations.
An unusual online accompaniment to the book (and the sequels to come) is this: http://tyzmonbladehunter.freeforums.net/. It’s a place to learn more and to discuss the characters and various other elements of the series, with the author and other readers.
4. The Last Seminarian is by RM Damato, a former editor and teacher, currently an adjunct professor in Florida. Set in 2040, with the world facing a global viral threat, four characters re-unite within a virtual world to try to figure things out before the plague keeps them off earth forever. Does God exist? No spoilers.
Rico, an otherwise healthy 90, spends a few pages bemoaning his lack of libido and his efforts to get meds to treat that loss so he can fool around with his willing nurse. The writing’s a bit repetitive and could have benefitted from further editing (small print and some typos, too), but I enjoyed the way Damato evoked character with fine details and amusing dialogue. Most of the conversations move quickly back and forth, as in real life. A snappy read for fantasy lovers.
- You may also be interested in my review and interview with the author of A Brief Eternity.