Religion is a touchy subject matter, isn’t it? Focusing on subjects of faith and belief can easily become unhinged. Preaching or flippancy are equally likely and this is especially true when the a novel is told from only one sect’s point of view (in this case, Christian). I’ve been caught unawares by ‘Christian fiction’ masquerading as fantasy a time or two and I pretty well irks me every time, although erotica masquerading as Urban Fantasy is worse. It’s not that I’m trying to avoid all things Christian, I’m just saying I want to know what I’m getting into beforehand. Thus I approached Miserere, Teresa Frohock’s debut novel, with some trepidation.
I shouldn’t have worried. Miserere while grounded in Christian myths isn’t really about religion. Frohock is just more overt in her use of forms and traditions than the average fantasy novel. Go pick up any epic fantasy and there are sure to be dozens of ideas pulled from the Bible. The very notion of the prophesied savior is about as close to a Jesus Christ parallel as it gets. Instead of covering up her use of religious myths by changing the names and places Frohock just goes with it, grounding her story and world in a familiar form that is instantly recognizable even to antireligionists (which is actually a real term, who knew?).
In a city ruled by Hell’s vicars, exiled exorcist Lucian Negru has been crippled and imprisoned by his sister, Catarina. Sixteen years ago, he deserted his lover in Hell to save Catarina’s soul. Instead of salvation, she wants Lucian to help her fulfill a dark covenant with the Fallen Angels by opening the Gates of Hell into Woerld, Heaven’s first line of defense in the war for Earth’s souls. Knowing the evil in what she asks, Lucian flees, lamed but not broken, to the last place he thought he would ever go back to – the Citidal, home of God’s chosen warriors. Rachael, the lover he spurned, will judge him, holding his life in her hands.
War between Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, with mortals caught in between makes Miserere something like a sequel to John Milton’s Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained written with modern understanding of character and plot. While the novel itself is a fairly tight story of redemption for Lucian and salvation for Rachael, there is a larger arc at play that hints at some final conflict between the Fallen and God’s Kingdom. Very traditional in narrative voice and structure, Frohock utilizes several points of view from the limited third person. It’s briskly paced and never lets up the tension. The bad guys turn stomachs and the good guys are all that holy warriors should be albeit with a surfeit of chinks in their armor.
All of that sounds pretty run-of-the-mill of the mill now that I actually write it and that’s wrong because Miserere is anything but run-of-the-mill. A tight plot, an interesting world, and something much like the Dan Brown knack for the religious ‘what if’, makes Miserere an absolute pleasure to read. From the moment Frohock revealed her world as one grounded in our own, she captured me, driving forward with a desire to fit all the pieces together. How does Woerld work? What purpose does it serve? How do people get there? She doesn’t answer all the questions, thankfully leaving many unanswered even as the novel came to an end.
I say thankfully because any exposition would have only served to drag down the carefully cultivated pace. Miserere is a first installment and I appreciate Frohock’s patience – show me now, tell me later. This is a mantra becoming more and more prevalent in fantasy especially among this year’s crop of debut authors, perhaps most notably those coming out of Night Shades New Voices Program. I’ve read 8 of them (out of 15) so far and all seem to have made a commitment to telling a story first, a fact I think ‘big fat fantasy’ forgot somewhere in the early 90′s. At times it can make me page flip to figure out whether or not I missed some explanation, but when choosing between pace and story or didactics and world building I’m going to choose the former every time (as long as the latter is sufficient).
All that amounts to Miserere being a very, very good novel, but I feel compelled to hold back from calling it a great one. And the reason is quite simple - Frohock never asks why. As her characters undergo trials and tribulations not one, even the most tortured, asks: why is God putting me through this? Why should I serve a God who would steal me from my home, kill my brother, and pit me against the hordes of Hell? My one true love betrayed me and sent me to Hell, why shouldn’t I turn my back on all that’s holy? None of these kinds of questions are asked, or answered, and I think the novel is worse off for it.
Still, I absolutely devoured it. Finished in two nights of reading, Miserere is a tremendously successful fantasy novel. Frohock’s characters are interesting and fleshed out, with decades of history behind them. She puts them in a setting that is as strange as it is familiar striking a beautiful balance between the fantastic and the mundane. I don’t hesitate to call it one of the best debuts I’ve read this year (although that list is getting long) and I highly recommend it regardless of genre predilections.
The next installment, Dolorosa: A Winter’s Dream, is supposedly due out next year and will pick up right where Miserere left off. However, it appears the author is currently working on The Garden, an unrelated novel set in 1348 on the Iberian Peninsula. In either case, I’m eagerly looking forward to Teresa Frohock’s future work.