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!


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.


Unknown said...

I was so surprised to find another interview with Mr. Horn! Thank you! :)

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Micaiah!


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