Friday, April 7, 2017

The Bell Mountain Series 1-4 by Lee Duigon

I don't quite know what I expected to find in Lee Duigon's Bell Mountain series. A series of Christian fantasy for children put out by an independent Christian publishing house that otherwise mostly just publishes heavy and bearded theological tomes? Don't get me wrong: I love me a heavy and bearded theological tome. They can be useful for dealing with spiders, hitting people over the head with in arguments, and impressing (or repelling) persons of the opposite sex. But, fiction is a totally different kettle of fish, and I was intrigued to find out whether this series was as good as I heard it was.

Yes. It was.

The Series So Far

Young Jack is just the unwanted stepson of the municipal carter of tiny, unimportant Ninneburky. But he's been having dreams--dreams of a bell hung high on mysterious Bell Mountain, a bell that can be heard around the world. Only Ellayne, the chief councillor's uppity daughter, agrees with Jack that the dream must be true and that God wants them to climb the mountain and ring the bell. But it's a long way to Bell Mountain. There are plenty of dangers in the outside world. A deadly assassin from the Temple in the great city of Obann is determined to hunt them down. And then there are all the prophecies that say the world will end when the bell rings...

That's where the story begins in Book 1, Bell Mountain. But it doesn't stay there. In Book 2, The Cellar Beneath the Cellar, the tale explodes into a continent-spanning epic: barbarian invasions, a long-lost boy king, and a hunt for lost scrolls. Book 3, The Thunder King, and Book 4, The Last Banquet, feature wars, giants, monsters, sieges, betrayals, and prophecies. The tale moves fast, following a host of colourful supporting characters: Helki, the Flail of the Lord; Obst, the unwilling missionary; Lord Reesh, the treacherous First Prester; Hlah son of Spider, a barbarian prince on an unlikely mission; an assassin who has renounced his past; a three-year-old girl who can prophesy the future; a girl blown off-course in a storm. And that's not all--there are nine books now available in the series, with more to come.

Needless to say, the series is thoroughly entertaining. I was also impressed by the quality of the craftsmanship. I'm very familiar with many of the most common mistakes made by half-baked or rookie authors (including myself), and the more I learn about writing craft the more these things niggle at me. Lee Duigon's storytelling is not airtight: look very carefully at Books 3 and 4 and you'll notice that two of the most important characters, Jack and Ellayne, are given relatively little to do. But there's plenty he does get right. Three-dimensional, flawed, yet lovable characters. Detailed, convincing worldbuilding. Rich thematic goodness, with an optimistic postmillennial slant. It's all here.

A Few Things I Liked

It's hard to review four full-length books in one post, so I'm just going to pick out a couple of the things I particularly liked. I will try to avoid any but the mildest spoilers, but there might be a few for early books in the series...

First, while the books are apparently aimed at children, they manage to remain realistic, with a helping of darkness and grit. This comes through in a number of ways. It's a common trope in children's fantasy for the children to head off into the world all by themselves, competent to deal with whatever comes their way. I really appreciated that when Jack and Ellayne do this in Bell Mountain, it's made very very clear that they are completely at the mercy of whatever unscrupulous adults might find them. The book is not paranoid about this, but it is rather more honest than a lot of children's adventure/fantasy fiction. 

From Book 2 forward, a large part of the plot focuses on the war that results from an invasion of Heathens from beyond the mountains. Some Heathens convert to belief in God and it is totally not done in modern evangeli-speak; it's got rather more in common with, say, the conversion of Iceland as depicted in The Saga of Burnt Njal. I thought this was great world-building, but just as good is the fun Duigon has throughout by not having these tattooed, polygamous, scalping barbarians suddenly turn into well-behaved modern Americans overnight.
"It's a kind of hymn," she said. "They are asking God to let you drink fermented mare's milk from the Thunder King's skull."
Because of the realistic grounding of the series, it's the kind of story that adults as well as children ought to enjoy. In fact, I'd almost recommend that parents give the series a bit of a read-through first in case their children may not be ready for some of the gritty details.

A Headscratcher or Two

One of the things I'm often interested to note is how other Christian fantasy authors include a Christian worldview in their secondary worlds. From the synopses of the books I could tell that this particular series isn't all that subtle about it: there are overt references to God, his Scripture, his Spirit, and so on. This is not the Tolkien approach, with an unspoken Christian worldview lurking in the background, nor the Lewis approach, with symbolic/representative versions of the Godhead. With such overt references to Christianity, I wasn't sure whether the story would bear up under the weight of realism. In the final analysis, I think Duigon did rather well on this front, but I'm a little ambivalent about his preferred approach.

Basically, Duigon has not included Christianity as the religion in his invented fantasy world; instead, he's made up a fantasy analogue to Christianity. Instead of the Children of Israel passing through the Red Sea, we have the Children of Geb walking across the sea to Obann. Instead of the Temple in Jerusalem we have the Temple in Old Obann. Instead of King David we have King Ozias. When the fantasy scriptures are quoted they are either paraphrases or pastiches of Holy Scripture. 

This is a good approach from a storytelling point of view since it melds the religious themes organically into the setting and prevents them from overpowering the storytelling. However, the analogue religion is so close to Christianity that I'd be a little nervous that very young children, or people not fully familiar with actual Scripture,  might come away confused. Rather amusingly, characters throughout the books declare "Magic doesn't exist" and whenever werewolves or ghosts or witches are mentioned someone usually sniffs at the superstition. I, of course, have no problem with such elements being used in fiction, if done wisely. After all, these are obviously superstitious/fantastical elements. Reading, for instance, the Narnia books as a child, it was always very easy to distinguish between the fantastical dryads and dwarfs and Talking Beasts of Narnia, and the realities of our world. But I'd be a little worried that reading something like the Bell Mountain books as a child, I would have had real trouble distinguishing between the fantasy religion and the real thing.

Conclusion

With that slight caveat, I have to tell you that I have been thoroughly enjoying these books, and I am looking forward to reading more of them. They are perfect for fans of Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Saga (in fact, I like the Bell Mountain series better overall) and also ought to appeal to fans of N. D. Wilson and Anne Elisabeth Stengl. This is definitely a series that deserves to be more popular, and I'm looking forward to reading the next eight books!

Find Book 1, Bell Mountain, on Amazon. The first plot arc of the series takes up the first four books, so you may like to get The Cellar Beneath the Cellar, The Thunder King, and The Last Banquet while you're at it.

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