Saturday, July 19, 2014

Technical Excellence Is Good In Itself

Jennifer Frietag, whose book The Shadow Things is the best contemporary fiction I've read in a good long while, was talking about "the Modern Novel" on her blog the other day.

Many of her favourite authors aren't Christians, and here's what she says about that:
Most of the time Christian fiction is shallow, unrealistic, uninformed, and uninspiring. My two favourite novels of 2014's first six months are Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting (superb prose, excellent plot - if a "Christian" writer were to touch it, it would taste like fifteen cubes of sugar in a three ounce cup of tea) and Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades, which sports a deliciously cold-blooded revenge plot. So yes, I tend to read secular fiction. When the Christian authors can gird up their loins adequately (and talk of loins without colouring up and lowering their voices) I'll probably be perfectly happy to read them too. 
Martha is unimpressed.
"Shallow, unrealistic, uninformed, and uninspiring"? A bit harsh, surely?

I think not.

There's no doubt that most of the world's greatest literature was written by Christians. I wrote a whole book about that, after all. But today, by and large, Christians are no longer writing great books. Where they once led the way, they now lag far behind. On the one hand, you have the problem of Christian art that just imitates worldly art--romance novels just like the world's romance novels, except not as exciting. On the other hand, you have Christian artists trying to break out of the world's mould--and they've broken all the way back to the 1800s, and written an Elsie Dinsmore pastiche that would make Martha Finley wince. Either way, the level of technical ability on display is anything but inspiring.

Let's talk about technical excellence in the arts.

*


My Dad was a teenager when he discovered the studio pottery movement. He was nineteen when his pastor’s wife asked him, “What are you going to do with your life?”
“I’m going to make pottery.”
“Oh yes, and how are you going to serve God through that?”
“I’m going to do it really well.”
Crickets.

You can see more of my Dad's work at his Pinterest page.

*

One pitfall that dogs Christian artists is the drive to insert a big, flashy, can't-miss-it message into an otherwise adequate and God-glorifying piece of art (or just as commonly, an otherwise shoddy and miserable piece of art). A month or two back I heard from a dear friend and beginning author who had a question about the art of fiction. She began her first novel with humble intentions: to tell a good yarn, to give it authentic roots in its historical period, and to populate it with believable characters.

Now she was beginning to worry that it needed more. More message. More moral. A bigger ambition to change the world.

“No, no,” I told her. “The point is not that you need to give your book a message. The point is that your book will have a message whether you mean it to or not.”

*

Doesn't art need a really clear message?

No.

And yes.

How not to do it.
No, because if you are already living deliberately to the glory of God, that's just going to bleed out into your work without your even noticing.

Yes, because if you are already living deliberately to the glory of God, and if you are any good at all as an artist, you're going to pay attention to what it is that your artwork is communicating. Failure to do this is a mark of bad artistry.

Same subject. No overt message. And a thousand times the technical skill.
In other words, Yes, the message needs to be clear to you. It need not be clear to your audience. It will be apparent in some way to your audience, but this is a piece of art, not a treatise. Art comes at you from unexpected angles. It isn't couched in syllogisms (although there had definitely better be syllogisms behind it).

And again, No. No, because a book which has no higher aim than simply to tell a good yarn, people it with believable characters, and bring alive a specific historical time period, is already giving glory to God and sending a very specific message.

An artwork that simply contains a high degree of technical excellence in its composition and execution, is good in itself. Technical excellence is good in itself and glorifying to God.

*

This can no doubt be proven in any branch of the arts, but let me stick with fiction for now. Say we're talking about a historical novel trying to faithfully depict a certain time period. Technical excellence in this respect will mean faithfully reproducing the attitudes, thoughts, customs, manners, and culture of the times. Is that, in itself, pleasing to God?

Are you kidding?

This is our Father's world. If the Lord has put a certain character, time period, or worldview into His Story, then He meant something by it. He designed it, and the works of his hands are studied by all those who delight in Him (Psalm 111:2). God created caterpillars, Ancient Romans, World War I, and Ian Fleming, by the word of His power. Everything in the world was planned by Him in ages past. We call this "general revelation", and the fact that it needs the guide of specific revelation to interpret it should not tempt us towards contempt for it. The Lord speaks through anthills and pagan Greek myths (though of course He means something a bit different to what the pagan Greeks thought they meant) in much the same way He speaks through the starry skies.

The Lord is already speaking through all these things. You don't need to add a message. Just communicate the Lord's meaning through your art by being faithful to what He actually said through the time period. As John Piper points out in this message from the CS Lewis conference, everything is sanctified if we simply receive it humbly, with gratitude. We don't particularly need to shoehorn in a world-changing message. First, listen and learn and be humble. Only then can we discover, explore, and learn from the message that's already there.

Like whatever it was that the Lord meant when he made hares.


*

Message is innate to all forms of communication, which is also to say all artforms. Think about that for a moment. Now think about what message your art sends if it lacks technical excellence.

The message of such art is that technical excellence is not worth anyone's time.

This is made more glaring when you have taken pains to ensure that the more overt message within your artwork is morally irreproachable. You tell your audience that an edifying message is good in itself and glorifying to God. Good craftsmanship, though? Optional. The Lord doesn't care about details like that.

Do you want to say that? Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. Don't tell me you didn't memorise some form of that verse when you were a kid. Do you see a man diligent in his work? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men. You want to stand before the King of Kings for eternity? Or is your work going to condemn you to the dustheap of heaven?

I Corinthians 3:11-13 refers to art as well as to every other work of man:
For no man can lay another foundation than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man’s work shall be made manifest; for the Day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall test every man’s work of what sort it is.
Christian artists have a splendid foundation on which to build: The Lord Christ. Don't build hay and stubble on that, artists, don't turn out hack work, lest you appear to hold your salvation cheap.


The more I reflect on Scripture, the more I become convinced that there is a direct relationship between the indwelling of God's Spirit and artistic merit. Let's ignore for a moment the fact that traditionally, Christian artists (Tasso, for example) have invoked the Holy Spirit as the heavenly Muse inspiring their work, and skip straight to the greatest of all craftsmen in Scripture: Bezaleel the son of Uri, in Exodus 31:1-5.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. 
This master artist, this master craftsman, was the first man in all of Scripture who was ever said to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I'm sure that had more effect than just praise songs queued up on his ipod, folks, particularly since the purpose of this inspiration involved technical details like cutting and setting stones. Bezaleel's inspiration wasn't just for concept and design work, it was for technical work too. Obviously God feels more glorified when the artist does his job well.

*

JS is not impressed.
So, Christian artists, I have a challenge for you. Don't be wimps. Just Who do you think you're working for? Stop comparing yourself to your peers and start comparing yourself to your masters.

So you wrote some music. Would Bach be impressed? You painted a picture. Does it show as much skill in composition, colour selection, and lighting as--say--something by Vermeer? If not, does it show an honest attempt to learn and apply those skills?

Writers: you know, don't you, that the Authorised Version of the Bible is one of the greatest works of prose literature in the English language? Have you read it? Memorised it? Studied it? Maybe you can sense its unusual beauty, but could you put your finger on the specific techniques employed by its translators to produce that effect? Have you attempted to use those techniques in your own writing? Have you gone on to identify, marinate in, and analyse the works of such other stylists as Jane Austen, CS Lewis, and PG Wodehouse?

If we haven't truly apprenticed ourselves to the masters of our craft, how can we call ourselves diligent workmen?

*

So you've got a vision for technical excellence to the glory of God. Well done, young artist. Your next step is to yield gracefully to two hard truths: first, that you most likely have no idea what technical excellence actually looks like in your field, and second, that there's an excellent chance that you've only turned out rubbish so far and have a huge amount of homework to do.

I cannot emphasise enough my near certainty that most young artists have no idea what technical excellence looks like, especially if they've had the kind of careful Christian upbringing that never let them near the good stuff.

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, makes me as nervous for the future of Christian art, as much as the early successes of young homeschooled Christian artists. We have a unique problem in that we can outperform most of our peers without even waking up in the morning. We don't have to worry about competing with da Vinci or Balenciaga or Alfred Hitchcock because we get a gold star just for having the guts to dream big, and another gold star for leaving out all the things of which our public's spinster aunt might disapprove.

Like this Balenciaga ball gown.
It really pains me to say this, because I know the temptation, but, dear fellow homeschoolers: If you've never read Jane Austen because you once heard a message warning against reading her like a mindless twit, and therefore have stuck all your life to half-baked homeschool fiction or overwrought Victorian sentimentalism, you are not going to suddenly begin producing heart-rendingly brilliant prose at the age of sixteen, no matter what your mother thinks of the story, or how many five-star Goodreads reviews you've received from other homeschooled kids who've also never read enough of the good stuff to recognise the fact that your book is tripe.

Also, your culottes are super dorky.
This goes for you too, you amateur filmmakers and composers and graphic designers.

*

The other thing reducing your chances of having any idea what good art actually looks like is the fact that not even the world knows much about technical excellence anymore. Even JK Rowling's writing makes me wince. Sadly, we live on the rubbish dump of a once-great civilisation. The techniques of the past that informed Bach's music, Augustine's rhetoric, or Spenser's allegory are buried under a heap of Enlightenment and postmodern philosophy. Worse, even if we could rediscover and re-learn those sophisticated and elegant techniques, we are never going to be able to use them as freely. On a mass, culture-wide level, we've made ourselves too stupid to use or understand them.

And even JKR is unimpressed with you, kids.
*

That's the bad news.

The good news is that we can repent. The good news is that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

The good news is that Christians have built a civilisation before. We can do it again, and even better. The knowledge of the glory of the Lord is going to cover the earth like the waters cover the seas, and art is going to achieve un-thought-of glory.

We need to repent of our ignorance and our self-satisfaction and our artistic hamfistedness. And we need to start producing work worthy of its Foundation, work that will survive the Day of Judgement.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Colditz Story by PR Reid

Ah, Colditz.

Some books carve out their own niche in the world. Some books glean their own cult following. I recommended The Colditz Story to a friend of mine a few months back, and since then it has gone through three households with the same rapidity that it went through ours years ago--leaving much the same hilarity in its wake.

Colditz Castle, Oflag IV-C, was a Very Special POW Camp. To be sent to Colditz, you needed to pass--or perhaps fail would be the better word--a qualifying exam. Arriving in your first POW camp, you got together some mates, thought up an escape scheme, and snuck off. Maybe you headed to Switzerland, maybe to Yugoslavia, maybe somewhere else. On the way you slipped up, landing yourself back in German custody. And then, because your original camp had proven too flimsy to hold you, they shipped you to Colditz Castle. Where you were greeted by all the second-best and just-a-whisker-too-unlucky escape artists in the Allied Forces, all of which were just itching to get out of Colditz and run for home.

Pat Reid, a British officer, arrived in Colditz in 1940 after a failed escape attempt from another POW camp and left late one night in 1942 (failing to check out at the front desk). During his "holiday", he acted as the British Escape Officer and superintended dozens of escape plans from the simple and spur-of-the-moment to the zany and improbable. After the war, he wrote what is today still fondly remembered as the definitive eyewitness memoir of Colditz Castle, whose motto may well have been "Never a dull moment."

I once heard it said that the inmates of Colditz would never have got on as well as they did in the castle had they not, in most cases, been prepared for their ordeal by childhoods spent in boarding-schools. Certainly The Colditz Story could be imagined as an extension of the British school story, with a jolly rollicking buns-for-tea-after-a-stiff-reprimand-in-the-Commandant's-office tone to it. With the prisoners teaching each other French, disrupting morning roll-call by playing patriotic British songs loudly on the cornet, playing ball in the courtyard, and getting up to all the high-jinks imaginable, a big part of the book's charm lies in its sense of fun. As a friend of mine commented, "And I thought all the stuff in Hogan's Heroes was just made up..."

Of course, it's just this charm and fun that rubs the modern hipster intellectual the wrong way. Angst, durm, und strang are more realistic, don't you know. Pat Reid must be concealing all the horrible things that actually happened at Colditz...

...or is he? It's true that The Colditz Story, written by and partly about the last generation of stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen, doesn't delve deeply into the madness, depression, and disputes that must have arisen from time to time. But the attentive reader will see that although Reid keeps these in the background, he doesn't paint a picture that's all roses. From the Polish contingent sentencing one of their own men to death for spying for the Germans, to the one officer who feigned insanity for months as part of an escape attempt and very nearly fell over the brink himself, to Reid's own obsession with the idea of escape and depression after failed attempts, it's easy to see that we're reading some of the darkest chapters from these people's lives. But the emphasis is on how these men used their time productively, to fight the war in their own way.

This is perhaps everyone's favourite thing about the book: the wild creativity and daring used by the prisoners to disrupt German operations and to escape. Imagine a castle full of mad inventors, and you have some idea of this book. The prisoners built tunnels in every conceivable location and some inconceivable (including a tunnel that began under the very desk of the Commandant). They manufactured typewriters with which to forge German documents, skeleton keys for picking German locks, and uniforms to impersonate German soldiers. They became experts in the art of distracting the Goons (German guards) during the all-important roll-calls. They carried out various sabotage operations and built a small distillery. By the end of the war, they'd even built a small working glider in the castle attic.

A classic tale of pluck, invention, and wit, The Colditz Story is, without a doubt, my favourite war memoir and makes a fantastic family read-aloud.

The Colditz Story is currently out of print, though Hodder & Staughton will be republishing it in October. Find it at Amazon or the Book Depository (and don't be confused by Colditz: The Full Story, also by Reid, which is a more arm's length historical work).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Curse of Capistrano (The Mark of Zorro) by Johnston McCulley

And now for a bit of unashamedly pulpy fun!

I should quickly correct a misconception which perhaps the existence of this blog causes from time to time. I do not have highbrow literary tastes. My tastes are all firmly lowbrow. I enjoy a good game of Pooh sticks. I enjoy it when characters sock each other on the nose. And I love a good duel. It's moments like these that make the classic literature worth reading.

This kind of melodrama is perhaps best enjoyed as a sprinkling on top of something more substantial. But there is a particular genre of book, regularly written around the first half of the last century, which was wall-to-wall melodrama of the highest quality. Classics of this genre include The Prisoner of Zenda, The Phantom of the Opera, Captain Blood, The Scarlet Pimpernel, To Have and To Hold, A Princess of Mars, and anything else ever written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The genre gainfully employed Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn for years, and finally morphed into the whole superhero genre by way of the story featured in today's post.

For years I was unaware of the existence of the short novel known, rather misleadingly at first, as The Curse of Capistrano. I had seen one of the recent Zorro movies and decided to look around for the original book--the story was so old that I knew there must be an original book. What I stumbled across was Zorro, pretentiously subtitled A Novel, no doubt in order to distinguish it from all those other books which have exciting sword fights and swooning ladies and galloping black horses in them, which though fun enough in their own way for children and adults with the stunted intellect of a cockroach, cannot be worthy of the name of ~*Novel*~. Zorro: A Novel made it quite clear that there would be none of that sword-swinging, damsel-succoring, witty-repartee nonsense here, thank you very much. Instead it invited the reader to contemplate, not so much his own navel, as the navels of a rather repulsive, surly, and lecherous cast that never did anything remotely interesting (but got full marks for cultural and religious diversity, socioeconomic conflict, political correctness, feminism, and postmodernism). The monstrosity was written by a thoroughly modern lady novelist, and it will serve me right if I ever poke my nose into one of her books ever again.

Then I discovered Johnston McCulley's 1919 book The Curse of Capistrano, and all was well with the world.
Before her stood a man whose body was enveloped in a long cloak, and whose face was covered with a black mask so that she could see nothing of his features except his glittering eyes. She had heard Senor Zorro, the highwayman, described, and she guessed that this was he, and her heart almost ceased to beat, she was so afraid.
"Silence, and no harm comes to you, senorita," the man whispered hoarsely.
"You--you are--" she questioned on her breath.
He stepped back, removed his sombrero, and bowed low before her.
"You have guessed it, my charming senorita," he said. "I am known as Senor Zorro, the Curse of Capistrano."
So this book is basically a retread of The Scarlet Pimpernel, only in Spanish California. The oppressive government is being terrorised by Senor Zorro, a masked caballero who dashes about righting wrongs, scaring baddies, and giving back the taxes as fast as the Governor's men can take them. Secretly admired by all right-minded inhabitants of the little pueblo of Reina de Los Angeles, Zorro is hunted by the authorities. Which of the local dons is behind the bold highwayman's mask? Certainly not Don Diego de la Vega, a foppish bookworm who can hardly bring himself to the exertion of riding four miles down the El Camino Real to court the hot-blooded Senorita Lolita Pulido. Meanwhile Senor Zorro himself has also taken an interest in the senorita, and the authorities, noticing this fact, cook up a scheme to deal with Zorro and with the Pulido family for good...

This book is a lot of fun, completely preposterous, and effortlessly better than Zorro: A Novel. While the characterisation is not as memorable as The Scarlet Pimpernel's, I'd be prepared to say that the writing is better. Otherwise, the book was not meant to be taken seriously, the plot is as insubstantial as a politician's promise, and there are things in it that will not tend to edify--the conduct of the heroine's love-affair, for instance, to say nothing of that weary old vintage-novel trope of "Advance once step farther, sir, and this knife plunges into my bosom!"  

For all this, The Curse of Capistrano still has more character than half the books written today. At the end of the book--I am going to spoil it, so be warned--at the end of the book, the day is saved, not by the masked hero or his dramatic lady, but by a group of local caballeros deciding they've had enough of the evil government. Inspired by Zorro, they man up, hold the governor to account, dispense justice, and restore law and order. It's a heartwarming demonstration of the doctrine of interposition in action. What could be better?

Find The Curse of Capistrano on Amazon, The Book Depository, Manybooks, or Librivox. 

In 1920, silent actor Douglas Fairbanks made The Curse of Capistrano into a movie titled The Mark of Zorro, and Senor Zorro began his long ride through popular culture. In 1940 the movie was remade with Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone; that version of The Mark of Zorro is one of our favourite movies. In 1998 another film, The Mask of Zorro, appeared, not a bad movie by today's standards--but the 2005 sequel has sunk into well-deserved oblivion.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Shadow Things by Jennifer Freitag + Interview

I'm the kind of person who likes to save up the best for last. And Jennifer Freitag's debut novel The Shadow Things was a truly special experience.

Like many of the home educated, I grew up reading the occasional Rosemary Sutcliff book. Sutcliff's novels were often set in ancient or early medieval Britain, meticulously well-researched and exquisitely written. While I did (and do) appreciate Sutcliff's deep characters, historical detail, and mature writing style, there always seemed something missing in her books. They rarely left me feeling satisfied; often, they left me depressed or (as with The Shining Company) deeply traumatised! Eventually I put it down to Sutcliff's not being a Christian, and therefore carrying a faint dreary echo of the words vanitas vanitatum omnes vanitas...

But what if I told you that, before her death, and perhaps under the influence of CS Lewis and GK Chesterton and some of the early church fathers, Rosemary Sutcliff had converted to Christianity and then written one last book? And that it was moody, complex, and suspenseful, with some truly gut-wrenching moments? That it was deep, profound, and amazingly faithful to the spiritual aspect of the time in which it was set? That it was written in prose like a tolling bell, clear and measured and lyrical and so beautiful as to make the reader weep tears of envy?

Well, Rosemary Sutcliff never wrote that book. The good news is that Jennifer Freitag has.

"Tir has not planned rainless springs and failed crops. There is something worse coming upon us, something small and strong, something dark."

The Shadow Things is the story of Indi, the son of a pagan British chief in a small village struggling to survive drought. Like the rest of his people, Indi goes in fear of the gods of thunder and horses which they worship. But then a messenger from across the sea comes to Indi's village preaching a single God, who died on a wooden cross. As sickness and famine press down on the village, Indi faces the consequences of turning his back on the old gods which he hates and fears.

There were so many good things about this book. Probably the obvious place to start is with the writing style. Jennifer Freitag writes incredibly well on a number of levels, but particularly when it comes to basic wordsmithing. Her prose sings and doesn't stumble. The worst thing I can say is that occasionally I did feel like the style was drooping towards sentimental Christianese, something for which I have very low tolerance, but it always straightened itself out in time and simply remained evocative and beautiful. The author has apprenticed herself to past masters in her art and the result, while truly her own, is full of quiet grandeur.

Another aspect to the writing style was the well-crafted suspense. The first chapter simply sizzles. The author gets extraordinary mileage out of small things: there's this one scene where a character simply sells his dog, and it's terrifyingly ominous. For such a restrained, melancholy book, I couldn't put it down and devoured it in the course of a day.

The characterisation was exquisite. People whom we like at the beginning of the story, we fear or hate at the end of it. People we distrust at the beginning, we love at the end. Then there was the historical research. I'm not an expert on Britain right before the Saxon invasions, but the setting had an authentic feel. Clothing, houses, household items, mythology, and so on are all vivid enough to convince me that the author is writing from detailed research.

(Oh--I meant to mention it in the interview, but there's also a character named Lord Bedwyr who serves a Christian warlord in Wales. Is that who I think it is? It is, isn't it? Ha!)

I know a lot of authors have wrestled with the question of how much their beliefs should be apparent in their writing. A lot of Christian fiction can be embarrassing--you can tell you're in a Christian novel 'cause it's raining anvils. This causes an equally bad opposite reaction where authors try not to let their beliefs affect the story at all. I really appreciated that the Christianity in this book was explicit (it revolves around the conversion of some pagans, after all) but completely natural in the setting. I think a major downfall of  modern Christian fiction might be its tendency to put twenty-first-century Christian vocabulary in the mouths of historical characters, which feels awkward. If the characters discussed religion in their own vocabulary, it would be much less likely to jar the reader out of the story.

Where another author, in an attempt to be relevant, might have made the debates between the missionary and the pagans in The Shadow Things thoroughly up to date, Jennifer Frietag simply, conscientiously tries to reproduce the authentic flavour of the time. From my reading, especially in Athanasius and Augustine, everything rang true, even the errors. There was one odd moment when the protagonist’s sister, a very new Christian, tells him that she will one day “become a God” and while that, if you take it at face value, is a heresy, it is the kind of heresy that floated around back then: Athanasius, when I over the VIII, would talk like this too. The whole evangelism sequence and the thoughts and struggles of the new converts felt totally authentic to the time period.

I also loved the sensitive but very real-feeling spiritual-warfare aspect of the book, the way the unevangelised heathens could feel the oppression of their demon-gods, and the constant struggle going on in the book between the God of the protagonists and the dark bloody gods of the heathens, which could be dimly sensed behind every action of the characters.

In the end, what kept this novel from being preachy was its note-perfect authenticity to the time period the author was describing. Jennifer Freitag displays genuine respect and humility towards the people whom she is writing about, not wishing to drag 21st-century issues into their debates.

Now, I've spent most of this review fangirling this book pretty heavily, but you probably won't be surprised to hear that I do have a criticism. I thought the book's ending was weak, which knocked it down from five to four stars. This is something that I may change my mind on after a slower reading, since I read the book pretty fast and may have missed something, but I felt that after the long melancholy of the book, the resolution was too sudden and too easy. Worse, the moral logic behind the climax made no sense to me.

(Mild spoilers ahoy!)

I was not sure why Indi made the decision that he did when offered a chance to escape. Given that, I then also didn't understand why another character took the action that Indi did not. Why couldn't Indi have done the same? His delay seemed to lead to at least one major death. I also felt that a conflict was being set up between Indi and the old gods early on in the book, which didn't seem to eventuate. I'm a little lost as to how and why, from a thematic/story perspective, things had to play out as they did. Sorry, Jennifer!

(End spoilers)

Apart from feeling that the ending was a little weak, I loved this book. It was subtle, deep, and heart-wrenching. I can't wait to see what Jennifer Freitag will write next!

Interview with Jennifer Freitag

Jennifer, hello and welcome to Vintage Novels! Can you introduce yourself briefly to our readers?

Hello, and thank you for hosting me! I am (currently) a twenty-three year old woman, I have been married five years, and I am expecting my first child. I blog in an inadvertently enigmatical way about my writing on The Penslayer, and when I am not pursuing that avenue of procrastination, I am brain-storming for my novels and/or actually working on them. My life is a little boring when scrutinized closely, but it suits me very well.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

I’ve been writing since I was very small, long before the twelve-year mark, but it wasn’t until my early teens that I felt I was gaining enough skill to pursue publication. That said, I have always loved writing, and I am so thankful I have been able to make that my vocation. I would not be happy doing anything else.

What are some ways your favourite authors have influenced you?

They taught me the poignancy of and the emotional importance in detail, they taught me the use of “gratuitous motion” in literature, they taught me how to infuse a living cadence in my writing, and they taught me never to be afraid to pursue the story along its own natural paths in order for it to become a living thing, regardless of social literary convention.

For the encouragement and edification of other writers, what’s a good piece of writing advice you’ve benefited from? 

I am in many ways a self-made writer. I never went to writing workshops, I never even took a creative writing course in school. I read and I imbibed good literature, I first began to mimic good writing, and then I became fluent enough in the art that I branched out and began writing original works—case in point, The Shadow Things. The best advice I got from myself: never be defined by anyone else, never let my wings be clipped by the mechanisms of contemporary literature-making, and to always, always, always do better than my best. No one can make you an excellent writer: only you can ask that of yourself.

The Shadow Things seemed to be less about fun and historical detail than it was about spiritual warfare and endurance in the face of evil. What’s the philosophy behind writing such a serious book, as opposed to something more lighthearted? 

The only conscious philosophy I could be credited with bringing to this novel is the indisputable fact that I am melodramatic, and I always have been. But in all seriousness, I did not mean to make this a weighty book as opposed to a more light-hearted one, it was simply the tone which the story demanded to take. Regardless of basic human virtues which exist apart from the light of the Gospel, the world without Christ is a dark, dog-eat-dog atmosphere, and the powers of darkness took a certain tone in the handful of centuries after the first advent, and that tone was unavoidable in a story pertaining to the clash of these two worldviews.

I loved how time-period-authentic the Christian apologetics in The Shadow Things felt. In The Shadow Things, your missionary sounded almost like an early church father: more focused upon the spiritual challenges of 500s Britain than of 2010s America. I felt like it was an unusual choice for a contemporary Christian novel. Can you tell us anything about the choices and research behind this creative decision? 

I feel really shy about admitting this, because it sounds like I was super lazy in writing this novel, but the fact is that I did very little active research on The Shadow Things; it was a case of critical mass attained: I had accumulated a certain amount of subconscious data (the doctrines of the early Church fathers, the life-style of Roman Britain, and skill in writing) and the spark was lit for the book. I did not write The Shadow Things because I felt I had a message to deliver, but merely because I felt the desperate pinch of a story that had to be written. And so I wrote it.

As for the choice to use an Antiquated tone for the apologetics in The Shadow Things as opposed to a contemporary one, it goes against every fibre in my being to cram the philosophies of one time period into a time period in which they do not belong. A reader may not necessarily glean direct answers for the problems of today (although I think the problems Indi faced in the Romano-British period are pertinent to the Christian today), but the reader should not go away from the book lacking at least a small picture of what life was like back then, and history can always be learned from, appreciated, and in a sense lived in, as in the case of a particularly good piece of historical fiction, which I have done my best to represent here in The Shadow Things.

What’s the main thing you hope readers get from or learn from The Shadow Things?

True grit. I didn’t write The Shadow Things just to display the harsher side of life for the sake of shocking the sensibilities of the readership—far from it! But with one little novel I hope to help strip away some of the plush fat which we all gather about our spiritual bones, and make readers a little stronger, a little more determined, and to run the race with more endurance.

Home educators are always on the lookout for quality historical fiction. What do you think is a common mistake we home educators might be likely to make in choosing or evaluating historical fiction? 

People simply aren’t picky. I am very critical and I am always pushing myself to write better, but I don’t always see that same level of persistence among other writers, and I definitely don’t see it very often in the readership when people choose the books they are going to read. What you read, for good or ill, helps to define your thoughts, your worldview, and your being: a book once read can never be unread, and no reader is beholden to any book: you don’t have to read that “Christian historical fiction” just because it says “ Christian historical fiction.” Whenever possible, never waste yourself on a book which is beneath you. Always come further up, always come further in.

What would you say is the place of fiction in the Christian life? 

I don’t believe it has any one place: I think it is a natural expression of the human being, and in large measure an aspect of our origination as beings made in God’s image. I know there is a prevailing view that fiction is tantamount to lies, but that is itself simply not true: fiction is a creative extension of the limitless imagination of man, and this world would be a poorer place by far without this human aspect.

Do you have any other books planned for the future? 

I have quite a number in a series which I am working on. And when I say “quite a number,” I mean about a dozen. There is a particularly beautiful illustration in Ben-Hur which shows a plunging front view of Judah’s Arabian team, and that is exactly how my imagination feels in the traces of my writing skills. I am currently researching self-publication for the first book in my series, Plenilune, which is a planetary fantasy of, I trust, no mean order: once the feet are put right, the rest of them will follow. Stay tuned for developments!

And last, where can readers find your books?

You can purchase The Shadow Things on the ubiquitous Amazon, you can buy the ebook from Vyrso and iTunes, you can check out your local bookstore (Barnes & Noble!), and you can get on my blog The Penslayer and use PayPal to buy it direct from the author (that would be me), and in so doing, get an autographed copy!

Thanks so much for participating in the Home Educated Authors Feature Week, Jennifer! And congratulations on writing such a wonderful book. 

Again, thank you so much for hosting me! The greatest thrill is to hear that a reader loved one’s book, and I am so glad you did. I hope that others will too.

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This wraps up Home Educated Authors Week! A warm thank you to all the authors for participating, and I do hope my readers have discovered some interesting new books to try!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Dreamlander by KM Weiland + Interview

Today I'm honoured to feature the amazing and talented KM Weiland. I first discovered Weiland through her writing blog, Helping Writers Become Authors. I find myself disagreeing with about half of the writing advice I read, but KM Weiland's practical tips continually ring true both to my experience and to my philosophy of storytelling. It was no surprise to discover that Weiland is a Christian and a home-ed graduate who can write a corking good story. Such is Dreamlander...

Chris Redston has been dreaming. Every night a woman riding a black horse begins by telling him to stay away from her and ends by shooting him in the face. It's not the kind of dream he wants ever coming true, but when he wakes up in Lael, the parallel world where we go when we're dreaming, he finds that the cranky princess Allara is the least of his problems. For he's one of the Gifted, whose fate is to change the course of Lael's history for the better--or the worse. As Lael plunges into war, Chris must face up to his destiny and become a hero--unless it's too late, and he's already become the villain...

This was a really well-written book, full of the meticulous craftsmanship I expected! Fiction writing, like any other craft, has a certain amount of science and formula standing behind it. There are specific, objective ways of making a character sympathetic, for instance, or of crafting a satisfying plot. In Dreamlander, KM Weiland has followed her own advice, done the hard work, and produced a really excellent story.

The fact that Dreamlander follows the basic tropes of good fiction writing doesn't mean it doesn't have its own distinctive flavour, which I appreciated. One thing I found refreshing was that it's a standalone book, not a trilogy or a series. It didn't have a generic medieval fantasy setting--with hydraulic firearms and a kind of airborne tram system, Lael was more Renaissance-steampunk in flavour. There was even a rather Bertie-Woosteresque character named Eroll with a brother named Phlin. All good fun, but icing on top of a good, solid story with complex characters, satisfying drama, and above all the sweet savour of eternal life.

I do have, of course, a few small criticisms. The writing style was comparatively very good, but I did feel it stumbled here or there. And there was one character--in the Chicago segments of the story--who never seemed to stop being irritating,

More seriously, the genre of this book is epic fantasy, which means it comes with a pretty big scope--and although the book is already over 500 pages long, I felt it could easily have been a quarter as long again. By the end, Weiland was throwing everything and the kitchen sink into her novel, but the plot was moving too fast to take care of everything.

(Mild spoilers follow)

The last quarter of the book seemed sketchy, and I began to have questions about characters that were being left behind. For example, late in the book a town is evacuated, and the plot follows a few hundred of those who escape. What happened to everyone else? What happened to the cute animal Allara adopted? What happened to the Guardsman who was part of the cult? How did Lael get rebuilt after the climax?

Also, while we're talking about the ending, I appreciated that it was bittersweet. That makes sense for a book so ambitious in scope: not everyone is going to live happily ever after something like this. I love all kinds of endings, including the unhappy ones. But--poor Allara! After all she’d been through I really yearned for some happiness for her. I felt like all the dire warnings about Chris hurting her if they allowed themselves to fall for each other had come true, and it seemed to me that he could have taken more care not to hurt her any more than she'd already been hurt.

(End spoilers)

Other than these few things, I really loved Dreamlander. It's been a few weeks since I read the book, but I remember whole chapters where I was quietly squeeing in appreciation every few sentences.

The three main protagonists--Chris, Allara, and Orias--were all extremely compelling and relatable. I was particularly surprised by how much I liked Allara. The contemporary fantasy world is filled with emotionally-scarred sword-wielding warrior women who I find it difficult to feel any sympathy with. Allara, though, was surprisingly relatable.

Part of this was how unfeminist she was. I hope KM Weiland does not mind me blowing her cover with her feminist fans here. Dreamlander is filled with battles and action scenes, and its heroine is an action girl who can ride, shoot, and fence...but never participates in an actual battle. She’s clearly a competent woman, she defends herself on occasion, she has a spine of chilled steel, she wants to help out with the fighting, but there’s always a voice of reason standing there to tell her no, no, you have a bigger job. You have a more important job. You focus on your job and let the men get on with theirs. It was great.

On the other hand we had Chris, and I loved him too. If you believe popular culture, the kind of guy who wins the love of the tough-as-nails action girl looks like this.


Not in Dreamlander. Instead of curling up under her scorn, Chris actually stands up to Allara and tells her that he intends not to just do as he’s told, but to take responsibility for his own actions and do what he has to do, whether she’s OK with it or not. Then, instead of angsting about being thrown into mortal danger in a deadly fantasy world, he leaps in with both feet. In other words, he takes responsibility--for himself, for the relationship, and for Lael. Dreamlander takes place in a world where masculine headship and leadership can be a comforting, healing thing. Chris has suffered from his father’s irresponsibility, and his healing from that comes when he meets the man his father could have been.

To be honest, I don't want to pretend like Chris's leadership always goes right. KM Weiland is too good, and too subtle, a writer to give us a running commentary on what she thinks of her characters' actions (thank goodness). But Chris seems like the kind of guy who'll err on the side of hot-headedness, and as I mentioned above under the spoiler warning, I feel like he demonstrably messes it up in one respect. But, maybe that's just a true-to-life picture of that kind of personality.

It was obvious from the setting, with its supreme God and his messenger, the Garowai (who felt like a sort of cross between an Old Testament prophet and Narnia's Aslan) that KM Weiland has written a self-consciously Christian fantasy. Then, if you squint your eyes and look really carefully, you might realise that a couple of characters have had some kind of conversion in there somewhere--or at least, by the end, they believe differently than they did to begin with. But that's not what the story is about, so it's no big deal.

I don’t mean to say that the eternal state of one’s soul is no big deal. The book is all about  sin, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. It’s a big part of Chris’s character development that at a key point in the plot he comes to see himself as a villain. Then he has to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. The book is all about this, but subtly, deep down: not on the surface.

CS Lewis turned to fiction when he realised that his non-fictional apologetics were not working well in the postwar world. In a letter, he said that he hoped his stories would “steal past those watchful dragons” and affect people in another way. That’s what KM Weiland is doing in this book. She provides a story that nourishes, satisfies, and tells the truth. I found it not just a fun read, but also deeply refreshing.

Interview with KM Weiland

KM Weiland, hello and welcome to Vintage Novels! Can you introduce yourself briefly to our readers?

I’m a very stereotypical writer chick, hibernating in my make-believe worlds, most of which are either historical or fantasy. I’ve published three novels A Man Called Outlaw (western), Behold the Dawn (historical set during the Third Crusade), Dreamlander (fantasy), and the non-fiction writing how-to books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel.

What are some of the things you’ve discovered about yourself and about the world through writing?

This is actually really tough question. I’m sitting here thinking, and it’s so hard to separate writing from life. Stories have always my “language,” my way of interpreting and interacting with the world. So it’s tough to talk about life without the subject being influenced by my writing.

Writing has definitely helped me solidify gut feelings about life into more logical approaches. It’s taught me the value of empathy with other people—to always look beyond the surface to find the “backstory.” It’s refined my abilities to be motivated, diligent, and organized. And it’s made me appreciative of how the whole world is really just one big, epic story crafted by a Master Author.

What are some ways your favourite authors have influenced you? 

Growing up, classics like Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montogery, Will James, and Walter Farley were huge influences. Dickens is a major favourite, as are Patrick O’Brian and Orson Scott Card. And some of my current favourites includes Brent Weeks, Patrick Rothfuss, and Lois McMaster Bujold. They’ve all taught me different things, but mostly it all comes down to a love of the craft. It’s hard not to love and learn when a master of the story sets a ripping good tale before you.

For the encouragement and edification of other writers, what’s a good piece of writing advice you’ve benefited from? 

If you can not write, don’t. Writing is a rich and rewarding lifestyle, but it can also be full of frustration and depression. If you don’t love what you’re doing so much that you’d do it even no one ever read you, much less paid you, then you may want to rethink subjecting yourself to the rigors of the lifestyle.

One of the things I loved in Dreamlander was the very unconventional technological setting, with hydraulic firearms and trams in the sky. What fun! What gave you the idea for that? Was there any particular historical period that inspired the dream world? 

I had a lot of fun building Lael. In the beginning, it was much more medieval. No technology. Very Crusades era. But then I had the fun idea for the water-powered guns. That immediately gave me a 16th-century/Three Musketeers vibe. So I started exploring that era a little more, particularly in regards to fashion and architecture.

I really enjoyed your characterisation. I was pleasantly surprised by how much sympathy I felt with Allara, who as a very prickly, damaged sort of person is not the kind of character I would normally feel much in common with. How does an author convincingly write characters which are radically different from herself? 

The foundational principle of writing anything emotionally resonant is that it first has to resonant with the author. We have to be honest. We have to stop and analyze our own perception of events. How would we react in certain situations? Then we have to ask ourselves how our characters are different from us. How would their reactions differ from ours.

After that, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to write that emotional reaction in the clearest and most truthful way. And that is one of the most difficult parts of writing any story.

What’s the main thing you hope readers get from or learn from Dreamlander?

First of all, I hope they have a good time. I hope they get swept away into another world and fall in love with the characters. But I also hope they find it to be a story of faith and hope—and how both of those are sometimes the hardest things we’ll ever have to do in this life. But also how they’re always worth the struggle.

What, in your view, are some hallmarks of a good, Christian fantasy? 

I’m always aware of how I present faith in my books, and sometimes that means that I actually don’t address faith explicitly at all. Although my relationship with God is a fundamental part of who I am, a discussion of it isn’t going to be right for every story. Nor am I ever trying to preach my own beliefs at my readers. Novels aren’t meant to provide answers, only ask questions. And, ultimately, I’m often just using my fiction to allow myself to work out my own questions about God and life.

I appreciated that you had the self-control to stop at a single volume with this story, but I have to ask: do you have any plans for more stories set in the Dreamlander world? 

 I’ve yet to write a sequel to any of my books. I tend to think in standalone stories, largely because I have so many other ideas I want to explore. But I’ve definitely considered some sort of sequel for Dreamlander. There is a lot about the world and particularly the Gifted/Searcher dynamic that I’d like to explore. But so far no concrete ideas have presented themselves. Maybe someday!

And finally, where can readers find your books? 

They’re available on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Smashwords, and my site. So pick your poison!

Thanks so much for participating in the Home Educated Authors Feature Week, KM Weiland!

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Tomorrow on Vintage Novels: our final home educated author, Jennifer Freitag, with The Shadow Things!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Only Angels Are Bulletproof by Emily Ann Benedict + Interview

Our next home educated author is Emily Ann Benedict. When I read the title of her debut novel, Only Angels Are Bulletproof, I knew I had to try to persuade her to participate in this feature week--which she very kindly agreed to!

FBI agent Scott Malkin, investigating a string of bank robberies, is having a frustrating week. There's the latest bank robbery that goes badly wrong when a hostage situation develops, then inexplicably right when the hostage survives what should be a fatal shooting. Then, to the annoyance of the agnostic Scott, his co-workers unanimously decide that the hostage--a mysterious young woman called Grace--must have been an angel. And worst of all there's Grace herself--sweet, crazy, and prone to leave chaos in her wake, whether it's resisting arrest with violence or kidnapping Scott's dad. Could Grace really be an angel? Do miracles happen? What is the Methusaleh Law? And who is behind the bank robberies?

This was a fun, sweet book with a well-woven plot. While all the books I read for this feature week are flawed in different ways, the one aspect many of them struggle with is writing style, and Only Angels Are Bulletproof was no different. The problems were most apparent in the first few chapters, but seemed to even out a little as the plot progressed. While the narration and dialogue tags were the most awkward, the dialogue was actually good fun and made me laugh out loud a number of times--this, for example, when two characters come to Scott's house:
“Good gracious! Look at this place. There must have been a struggle.”
“No, darling. This is the way it always looks.”
The themes mainly revolved around Grace's attempts to convince Scott of the reality of the supernatural and his need for God. This could also have been more deftly handled, but I appreciated that the happy ending doesn't come about through an overt miracle--that would have been too cheesy--and it was nice to see a presuppositional apologetic approach used at one point!

The characterisation was also a mixed bag. On the one hand, I felt that some of the supporting characters--Tech, for instance--were almost flattened into one-note jokes. On the other hand, the author clearly had a great deal of fondness for all her characters, and I liked all of them. Scott was uptight, Grace was wild, and they went together like ham and eggs. I particularly enjoyed Grace's character--she walked the fine line between awesome and annoying and did it with great flair. Emily Ann Benedict convincingly portrays a character who is both good and wild--someone who you can never trust not to do something dangerous or stupid or highly illegal, but who always has an excellent reason for it. She could have very easily become irritating, but never did. Well played!

I also enjoyed the plotting, particularly the climax and resolution, which follows logically from everything else and was emotionally as well as logically satisfying. And while I was just a little disappointed by the answer to the question of whether Grace was, or not, an angel, I thoroughly enjoyed the subtle spiritual-warfare slant to the book.

Interview with Emily Ann Benedict

Emily, hello and welcome to Vintage Novels! Can you introduce yourself briefly to our readers? 

Oh, I'm just your average American. I work as a project coordinator for an architectural firm by day, then I come home and try to punch out at least one chapter a night. I'm extremely grateful for both sides of my life, because each has opened me up to opportunities I never dreamed of.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

I had been writing novels for a while and just handing them off to family members for their reaction without any real plans as to what to do with my stories. My mom was actually the one who made the mental jump for me. She was talking to a group of us about the importance of finding purpose in our lives, then she looked at me and said, "Obviously Emily has found her purpose in her writing." It felt like it was a confirmation of what I was inwardly hoping, but not yet ready to admit.

What are some ways your favourite authors have influenced you?

Agatha Christie has been in many ways the biggest influence on my writing life. She was an ordinary, shy, primarily home educated girl who one day started writing novels and ended up living an extraordinary life. I finished a biography on her titled The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, and for some reason the first thought I had was, "If she could write a book, why can't I?" I think in writing style I am very influenced by Jane Austen's love of dialogue and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's sense of movement in his stories.

For the encouragement and edification of other writers, what’s a good piece of writing advice you’ve benefited from? 

The best piece of writing advice in the world is, just write. It has been said by many authors that the day they made the choice to write when they didn't feel like it is the day they truly became authors. I know that takes some of the romanticism away from it, but there will be plenty of days when you don't feel like writing or it seems like there are a million other things you need to do first. When I make the decision to start a new draft, I also make a conscious decision not to watch TV when I'm at home and not to feel like the house has to be perfectly clean. I’m not saying you have to follow my pattern, but if you feel like you don't have time to write regularly, taking a good look at what you do with your time can help.

Only Angels Are Bulletproof is a great title! Irresistible! How did you come up with the idea?

I think titles and book covers are the two most important factors in marketing a book, so I wanted something that sounded different. The book is basically detective fiction with a question of theology wrapped around, so I wanted a title that combined both worlds.

I think my favourite character in the book was Grace—she was such fun, walking the fine line between awesome and annoying with perfect flair. I could tell why Scott wanted to strangle her, but it also seemed believable that she would act the way she did. Can you share some of your inspiration for her character? 

In a lot of ways Grace is a voice to things that I want to say, but can't always find a time and place to say them. She's a little too blunt and open at times, which could make her annoying to some, but at the same time I think that is what makes her refreshing and fun for an author to work with. It's also fun creating characters to react to her.

Of all the books I’ve read for Home Educated Authors Week, this is the only one that’s a contemporary thriller, while most of what I’ve read for the feature is fantasy or historical fiction. What drew you to this genre? What do you think are some specific strengths that come with it? 

I actually grew up in the mystery genre, from The Box Car Kids and Nancy Drew on up to Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. It just felt natural to write in this realm. I tried out several different forms of mystery writing, but I found suspense/thriller to be a lot less constrained in its structure. Traditional mystery is, "a body, six suspects and a detective in a room." Suspense allows for more movement. The action is an important factor and the character subplots can become part of the overall story, not just a place to hide clues. While all genre types create connections to readers in different ways, contemporary fiction creates a kind of instant connection. No matter what the setting is, there is no need to wrap the mind around a new world.

What’s the main thing you hope readers get from or learn from Only Angels Are Bulletproof?

Naturally I want people to enjoy the story. Every novel has a point to it, but if it not wrapped in a good story it's not a novel, just an on topic paper. The overall theme of Only Angels Are Bulletproof, however, is two questions. Is there a God? And if so, how does that impact our lives?

Do you have any general thoughts on the place of fiction in the Christian life? What purpose is it most suited to? 

I think Christian fiction has two purposes. One is edification of Christian readers. This day and age it is very difficult to find books that aren't filled with profanity and/or immorality, so it is good to have an outlet for readers who don't want to be frustrated every time they pick up a book. It also, again, gives a voice to ideas and concepts that we may not always be able to share with people verbally, but they might be willing to read a book.

Are you working on any other books at the moment? 

My past few years have been centred on Christmas Novels. I’m not really sure how that happened. I released one on a whim and mentioned that I would make it into a trilogy if people liked it. Well, people liked it so I've stuck with it. Hopefully this year will see the release of the third and final book in the series, but I've got a lot of writing between now and then to accomplish! After that is all said and done, I'd like to pick up a few of my older manuscripts and see if I can repolish and release them.

And finally, where can readers buy your books?

Only Angels Are Bulletproof is available to order in traditional print, eBook and audio book from Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and Christian Book Distributors.

The Father Christmas Series is available exclusively through Amazon Kindle.

I also have a free novel titled The Moment Max Forgot Me available to download through my website for subscribers to my newsletter. Visit emilyannbenedict.com.

Thanks so much for participating in the Home Educated Authors Feature Week, Emily!

Thank you very much for inviting me!

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Tomorrow on Home Educated Authors Week: the talented KM Weiland, with Dreamlander!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Secret of the Lost Settlement by John J Horn + Interview

I came across John J Horn a couple of years back when his first two novels, The Boy Colonel and Brothers at Arms, were published. The second of these was excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed it. John's third book, Secret of the Lost Settlement, came out last year and I had the opportunity to read it a month or two back...

On the run and facing death for a crime he didn't commit, Colonel Nobody (The Boy Colonel) goes in search of the missing witnesses who can prove his innocence and that of his best friend Edmund, who will hang if he doesn't get back in time. Nobody's search leads him to a lost world hidden in Iceland's mountains: a settlement of Romans from Nero's time, untouched by the outer world for the last two thousand years.

When Colonel Nobody vanishes into the mountainous wastes of Iceland, adventurer Chester Stoning convinces his twin Lawrence and the latter's wife Pacarina (Brothers at Arms) to accompany him on a mission to find Nobody, return him to London, and frustrate the villainous Banastre Bronner's evil plans before Edmund can hang. But the lost Vallis Deorum is as dangerous and decadant as Rome herself, and the settlement's tiny Christian community faces torture and extinction. With danger breathing down their necks, our adventurers face a heartbreaking decision...

This book held a lot of potential. John J Horn seems to have been nourished on exactly the right sort of book, with all the bloody grit of Beowulf tossed into the blender with the outrageous swashbuckling adventure of Rider Haggard and the earnestness of Ballantyne and Henty. When he gets the balance right, as he did in Brothers at Arms, his writing and plotting shines. However, there are things he doesn't do particularly well--yet.

The most obvious flaw in this particular book was the handling of the themes. The themes are all excellent, of course, and I loved the author's regard for the Word. John uses his novels as--well, as war games, if I may use the metaphor again. Unlike many modern-day authors, John never shies away from forcing his characters through tough ethical problems which they have to solve with Scriptures. That's the stuff of real dramatic tension, and it makes for excellent plotting. Unfortunately, the themes in this book usually felt laboured and awkward. There were a number of places where the author's concern for strict theological correctness seemed to overwhelm the flow of the plot, the integrity of the characters, or the believability of the setting. I'll just use one very minor example: it doesn't seem believable that an English gentleman and his wife from the 1830s would wish that God would "bless them with children." It's vocabulary I would use myself in the 2010s, but the expression doesn't feel authentic to the time period. More generally, although there were many ethical dilemmas that rose very naturally out of the plot and enhanced the story, most of the moral lessons felt awkwardly shoehorned in, perhaps because there were so many of them.

Another flaw, I felt, was in the too-strong critique of Roman culture.

Allow me a moment to bury my head in my hands and tell you how astonished I am to find myself saying something like this. Here's a quote from an article I'm about three-quarters through writing:
...After Carthage was finally defeated, more disasters and galloping moral degeneration took over [...] By the time Julius Caesar took power, Rome was already decadent: as Livy vividly portrayed the ceaseless political turmoil of the early Republic, so Suetonius witnesses to the deranged perversions of the early Empire. Religious theatre displayed in the open streets acts which even the Romans deplored. Infanticide and abortion were both commonplace. The preferred entertainment of Romans of all classes was the spectacle of the circuses—expensive, grisly, depraved: bloodshed as spectator sport, and all of it (lest we forget) in honour of Rome’s gods and emperors.
It should be really, really difficult to portray Roman culture as worse than it was, because it was horrific. Still, I felt it would have been appropriate for the book to recognise that the Romans had some good points. Even St Augustine, who was no friend to the Roman empire, said:
[Rome] sets before us Christians examples whose message we cannot but heed. If we do not display, in the service of the most glorious City of God, the qualities of which the Romans, after their fashion, gave us something of a model, in their pursuit of the glory of their earthly city, then we ought to feel the prick of shame.
It should be remembered that Rome did in fact last for centuries, and that this was due to some legitimate character. Military discipline, technology, architecture, rhetoric, and so on. The version of Rome we see in Secret of the Lost Settlement was so horrible that it was hard to believe it could last for a day, much less two thousand years. This niggled at me from a speculative-fiction standpoint as well: how could a society this decadent exist in more or less static form for nearly two thousand years? The actual Roman Empire declined and faded and was eventually transformed by the Christians into a decentralised Christendom. What has the history of the Vallis Deorum been? Had they no Constantine?

This brings me to another criticism, which was that the villainous Little Caesar was too decadent to make a compelling villain. Even the worst of the old Caesars had some character, even when they were evil geniuses. Well, that's not counting guys like Elagabalus, but he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard within a few years. I was a little disappointed by the comparatively unenterprising spirit of the lost settlement's Praetorian Guard!

Then there was the characterisation, which spanned a gamut from the rather well-developed characters of Lawrence and Chester to the unconvincing comedy Frenchman. Characters were liable to make bad judgements of others on shaky evidence. And speaking of bad judgements, I was disappointed that Pacarina had so little to do in this adventure--it was hard to see why Lawrence and Chester brought her along, only to put her in danger.

While Secret of the Lost Settlement had some flaws in the characterisation and themes, it had plenty of enjoyable aspects as well. The writing style was only awkward when the themes were awkward: otherwise it was vigorous, plain-spoken, full of fun metaphors and similes and hilarious one-liners that kept me laughing out loud.

Perhaps the thing I loved most about the book was John J Horn's honesty as an author. On a multitude of occasions he made tough, mature plotting and characterisation choices. The biggest one comes right at the end. I won't give spoilers, only tell you that something pretty awful happens, and it caught me completely by surprise.

A lot of authors do tough things to their characters simply for the purpose of shocking the readers. I appreciate that John does it regularly, not to shock readers but to remind them that the Christian life isn’t easy. There were so many little moments like this in the novel: Lawrence didn’t get Chester married off, Nobody lost the use of his right arm, and another character never fully dealt with his guilt. I highly respect authors who can make that kind of decision.

Despite the book's flaws, I always enjoy reading John J Horn and this one was no different. His books are always fresh, jolly, and sincere, with a strong flavour of danger and risk that I greatly appreciate.

Interview with John J Horn

John, hello and welcome to Vintage Novels! Can you introduce yourself briefly to our readers? 

Thanks, I’m glad to be here! Briefly: I’m a Christian novelist living in sunny San Antonio, Texas, working a day job (marketing) and a night/early morning job (studying for a marketing degree).

When did you know you were going to be a writer? 

I suppose I’m the typical “I-started-from-an-early-age” writer. I did start from an early age, writing poetry, essays, and whatnot. I didn’t know I was going to be an author until I was sixteen and two of my books were published.

What are some ways your favourite authors have influenced you? 

The mash of adventure, action, suspense, and dash of romance that I like to think of as my style owes a great debt to 19th century authors including G.A. Henty, R.M. Ballantyne, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper, and more. I love the sense of adventure in their books, and I try to recapture that and infuse it with my own ideas for today’s readers.

For the encouragement and edification of other writers, what’s a good piece of writing advice you’ve benefited from?

Set daily or weekly quotas for your writing. I use word counts. For example, for my last novel I knew I needed to write approximately 5,000 words a week in order to hit my publisher’s deadline. Writing to a quota, whatever the size, will help you build the habit of perseverance which is vital to a writing career.

I think my favourite character in Secret of the Lost Settlement had to be Chester. He’s quite a colourful personality! Can you share some of the inspiration for his character?

Ah, yes, Chester. For those who haven’t read the book, Chester is an adventure-loving, weapon-slinging, fast-moving, wit-wielding 19th-century Englishman. He’s the opposite of his twin brother Lawrence, and in some ways, that total oppositeness was my inspiration for him. He is also based a little on friends, and partly on some favourite witty characters of British literature such as Peterkin from The Coral Island.

I always love the humour in your books! Where do all the jokes come from?

That’s a great question. I’m not much of joke-teller verbally, but I love humor. I like to find what’s funny in a situation and exploit it, or better yet, change the situation to be even more hilarious. Then I can let my characters run with the dialog, and hopefully what results is worthy of a few chuckles.

What’s the main thing you hope readers get from or learn from Secret of the Lost Settlement

That results won’t always be pleasant when we do our duty, but that we must do our duty anyway. I won’t spoil any plot twists, but I will say that not everything goes well in Secret of the Lost Settlement. Most books reward their characters for doing their duty, and that’s good, but I think it’s also important to realize that happily ever after doesn’t always happen.

Home educators are always looking for quality historical fiction for their children. What do you think is a common mistake we home educators might be likely to make in choosing or evaluating historical fiction for young people? 

That’s an excellent question, and I’m scratching my head for an answer. I think it’s important for all Christians, including home educators like myself, to carefully consider the themes of the books we read. A novel can be void of sex, blasphemy, profanity, and similar obvious problems and yet still communicate dangerous messages. Don’t accept a novel’s worldview at face value.

What would you say is the place of fiction in the Christian life?

It’s going to be different for every person. It has played a large role in my life, and I think it will continue to do so. The Bible taught many truths through stories, and I think we can use stories today to continue to illustrate those truths.

Do you have any plans for future novels right now? 

Will I write more novels? Yes! What will I write next? I have an idea, but it’s not yet set in stone. Whatever it is, I won’t be able to begin writing until 2015.

And finally, where can readers find your books?

About that . . . My publisher ceased operations at the end of 2013, so my books are consequently out of print. This has led to a shortage and some hilariously crazy prices for my books on Amazon. The best way to get my books at the moment is to keep your eyes on used book sites. Lord willing, I’ll be able to find a new publisher and get the Men of Grit series back on the printing presses.

Thanks so much for participating in the Home Educated Authors Feature Week, John!

Thanks for having me!

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You can visit John J Horn's website at John J Horn Books. And check back tomorrow for our next author, Emily Ann Benedict, with her novel Only Angels Are Bulletproof.

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