Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review - DragonSpell: A Novel by Donita K. Paul

Short review: Some standard characters go on a standard fantasy quest in a decently imaginative fantasy world, with screeching halts on a regular basis to beat the reader over the head with some Christian allegory.

Kale must save the world
Let's stop for weak lessons
Narnia's better

Full review: Mixing fantasy fiction with Christian allegory is a long standing tradition, dating back at least as far as C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, and less obviously, to J.R.R. Tolkien's writings about Middle-Earth. When done well, it is subtle, or at least not particularly intrusive and serves to enhance the fantasy, or at the very least, does not hinder it. The danger in this sort of mixture is that the Christian lessons can become didactic, and drown out the fantasy to such an extent that it ruins the story. In DragonSpell, the first book in The DragonKeeper Chronicles, Donita K. Paul presents an enjoyable fantasy story set in a fairly original fantasy world but also throws in a heavy-handed Christian message that drags the quest story to a screeching halt every time it rears its head.

The overt structure of the story is fairly straightforward. In the fantasy land of Amara the o'rant slave girl Kale, our hero, is traveling from the village of Mariones where she lived in her whole life until she unexpectedly discovered a dragon egg and the village council set her free and sent her to study at the Hall in Vendela. Along the way she is waylaid by some grawligs (or mountain ogres) and her adventure takes an unexpected turn. And that's just the first chapter of the book. She is rescued from the grawligs by a dragon-mounted doneel named Dar, an emerlindien named Leetu Bends, and a large and powerful knight, but not before she discovers even more dragon eggs. After this, the MacGuffin hunt portion of the fantasy quest begins. It turns out that the evil wizard Risto is bent on acquiring a "meech egg" from which a powerful dragon will hatch, and Kale has a unique talent for finding dragon eggs. Because it is supposedly a matter of some urgency to find the meech egg before Risto can put his nefarious plan into action. Kale's trip to the Hall is put on hold so she can set out with Dar and Leetu to find the egg before the bad guy does.

Of course, no quest is complete without some complications and extended stops for tea. After stopping off at the elderly emmerlindien Granny Noon's house for some snacks, a special cloak, some religious instruction and hatching a healing dragon, our little band travels through a magical gateway (shades of the Forgotten Realms, or Stargate: SG-1) to get to the Bogs to find the Wizard Fenworth. Leetu gives Kale some instruction in "mind-speaking", yet another skill that Kale unexpectedly turns out to have, and promptly gets captured by Risto's men, which prompts Dar to stop and make some more tea and play a couple tunes on his flute. And so the story goes. Kale and Dar rescue a dragon, Dar gets mad at a dragon, they rescue Leetu from Risto's fortress, Kale discovers more hidden talents, they all stop for a couple weeks of vacation in the shadow of Risto's fortress, they find Fenworth (who seems to have more than a passing resemblance to Fizzbin of The Dragonlance Chronicles), spend a couple more weeks puttering around his magical tower enjoying some tea and crumpets while waiting for yet another dragon to hatch, and eventually get around to looking for the meech egg. Despite being on a quest that was supposedly enormously urgent, the questers spend a lot of time sitting around. When the quest gets going, and the action is moving, the story is serviceable as a fairly generic MacGuffin hunt that uses most of the standard fantasy cliches in relatively well-written ways. The only real disappointment is that, in the end, the hunt for the meech egg truly does turn out to be nothing more than a MacGuffin hunt.

But the reason the story stops so often for the characters to drink tea, have a vacation, or otherwise sit around and do nothing much of importance is to allow for the author to insert some lessons in Christian theology into the story. Paladin, standing in for Aslan, standing in for Jesus pops up a couple times in the story to save Kale and her companions and offer some lessons on how to properly serve Wulder, standing in for the Emperor Over the Sea, standing in for God/Jaweh. Kale, being just an uneducated slave girl from a backwater village needs lots of instruction, and so she (and the reader) are subjected to some sort of lesson from someone at least once every couple chapters. (As an aside, I am still wondering how allowing slavery as an everyday condition is copacetic with the Christian message of the book). But not only do the lesson sessions cause the story to grind to a halt to be delivered, but the actual theological stance taken in the book essentially undermines any suspense or tension the story might otherwise have. Kale, and the reader, are repeatedly told that the Pretender (and thus the Pretender's servants) is powerless before the might of Wulder. To keep a Pretender servant from reading your mind, for example, one must merely state that they are under Wulder's authority. Later it also turns out that this protection can be transferred, as others can assert Wulder's protection on your behalf. Leaving aside the fact that this essentially reduces God to a magical incantation, it also makes the villain into a non-threat to the heroes. When Paladin rides out to face a collection of evil dragons, they are unable to harm him in any way because he has Wulder's protection, and he dismisses them with nothing more than a shouted command. Wulder always triumphs over the Pretender, and because the heroes are under Wulder's protection, they win. This does not make for a very interesting story.

The theology presented in the book doesn't just sap the life out of the fantasy adventure, it also has the effect of making Wulder and Paladin seem fairly evil themselves. Kale is taught that everything is part of Wulder's plan. No matter what choice she makes, it is part of Wulder's plan, and therefore the right thing to do. When she reveals to Paladin towards the end of the story that she feels responsible for causing the deaths of some of her companions, he says that their deaths were part of Wulder's plan, and thus she chose the correct course of action. This presents a serious philosophical problem because it effectively means that there is no free will. No matter what choices anyone makes, they are meaningless, because there is no right or wrong answer. This means, for example, that when presented with Risto's offer to join him, it doesn't matter that Kale resisted and did the "right" thing by staying loyal to Wulder, because if she had joined Risto that would have been the right thing too. This particular conversation also makes Paladin seem pretty callous, because while Kale is feeling guilty for killing her companions, he seems to console her, but doesn't bother to reveal to her that her companions are actually alive and well, a fact that she doesn't discover for months afterwards. So, in effect, Paladin is willing to let a young woman feel guilty over the death of a couple creatures to make the point that no one actually has free will rather than let her know that she didn't actually kill them. But this is not the most obnoxious theological argument in the book. In an attempt to answer Epicurus' question of why God (or Wulder in this case) allows evil to exist if he is omnipotent, Paladin makes the argument that one would not give a needle and thread to an infant destined to become a tailor on the grounds that preventing her from sticking herself with needles is for the child's own good. The comparison is made between a needle free infancy and an evil-free world, and Paladin explains that Wulder doesn't eliminate evil because humanity (in the form of the seven "humanities" of the setting) are not yet ready for such a world. But this is a truly obnoxious argument to make, because, when carried to its logical conclusion it means that the farming family that was slaughtered a few chapters before this little speech is delivered were all killed for their own good. To me, this just makes the Pretender look like a pretty good option - at least he won't arrange the affairs of the world in such a way as to kill you and tell you it is for your own benefit.

Despite the lousy theology and the suddenly not so interesting quest, the book is not all that bad. redeeming the book to some extent is the fact that Mrs. Paul's world building is fairly strong and inventive. The names and terms fly at the reader thick and fast, as it seems that Mrs. Paul was not content to simply import the more or less standard array of fantasy races and monsters into her fantasy reality. Instead of the usual cast of elves, dwarves, goblins, and trolls, one finds the seven "high" races (o'rant, marione, kimen, urhom, emerlindian, doneel, and tumanhofer) created by the all-powerful Wulder opposed by the seven "low" races (bisonbecks, blimmets, grawligs, mordakleep, quiss, ropma, and schoergs). Each of the "low" races was created by the Pretender, who fills in as the "Lucifer" figure in the theology of the story and is a mockery of one of the "high" races (something that seems to be directly influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien). The effect of this creativity is somewhat dampened as the reader works through the book, as one realizes that several of the "high" races are merely standard fantasy races renamed - urhoms are giants, emerlindians are basically fantasy elves, tumanhofers are fundamentally fantasy dwarves, doneels are furry hobbits with their hobbity personality traits on steroids, and so on. Though never explicitly stated, it seems that o'rant is the Amaran name for the human race. Several of the low races also correspond to some standard fantasy tropes. In many cases, the renaming accomplishes little save to make the text confusing to the reader until one gets used to the idiosyncratic terminology, which unfortunately serves to obscure the more original elements of the setting, such as the kimen and mordakleeps.

I generally have mixed feelings about glossaries in fantasy fiction. On the one hand, they are somewhat handy as a quick reference that allows the reader to check up on various elements of the fantasy setting. On the other hand, the need for a glossary, especially an extensive glossary, is something of an indication that the author wasn't able to convey their fantasy reality effectively via their text. And the trouble here isn't that Mrs. Paul is ineffective as a writer, but rather that she loads the story with so much fantasy detail that it gets distracting. Trees aren't oaks or maples, they are bentleaf trees, or borling trees. Caves and tunnels don't have rats, they have uddums, the birds flying overhead aren't swallows and wrens, but rather double-crested mountain finches and halfnack birds, and so on. There is some definite fantasy overload in the book, which serves to actually detract from the inventiveness of the setting. If everything is fantastical, then the fantastical becomes somewhat mundane. Dialing just a bit back on the inclusion of fantasy versions of weasels, birds, and shrubs that serve as little more than set dressing would have made the fantastical elements that feature in the story that much more unusual, and thus more interesting. Calling relatively mundane things by mundane names would also help - there seems little reason to call beet, onion, and carrot soup "chukkajoop" or any young animal used as meat "jimmin" when there are perfectly good English words that can be used to express the same meaning quite clearly without the need for extra fantasy jargon.

DragonSpell really seems more like two books crammed together than one book. One book is a relatively cliched but decently written fantasy quest story set in a cleverly inventive fantasy world. The other book is a didactic series of lessons on a fantasy version of Christianity that are ham-fisted in execution and in many cases espouse some fairly offensive theology. Unfortunately, one cannot read the one without the other, so the overall effect is a book that is just barely mediocre. For those pining for more Christian-laced fantasy in the vein of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this book would not be an altogether bad choice, but given the choice, I would probably just read the Narnia books again.

Subsequent book in the series: DragonQuest: A Novel

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