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!

5 comments:

exploringclassics said...

The Shadow Things sounds like a fantastic book. It is so hard to determine what is good and not good in Christian fiction. I usually end up avoiding these books altogether for the reasons you mention. I think this Home Educated Authors Week is great.

Jenny Freitag said...

It was a real pleasure answering such informed questions. I cannot thank you enough for the enjoyable time I had being interviewed, and I sincerely hope to do this again on future novels of mine!

Suzannah said...

Jenny, thanks again for your delightful book. And, hint taken about doing this again sometime ;).

Anna Ilona Mussmann said...

Thanks for introducing this book to me! I have long enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliff's works and have long talked about wanting to read authentic presentations of ancient Christianity, so I am excited to hear about this one.

Have you ever read Gillian Bradshaw's Island of Ghosts? That one is not Christian, by any means, but it IS set in ancient Britain and intentionally compares and contrasts the respective cultures and worldviews of Romans, barbarian pagans, and a Christian. It's a pretty good book.

Suzannah said...

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did! And thanks for the Gillian Bradshaw rec; I'll keep it in mind.

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