Review of Shadows of the Hersweald: A Hansel and Gretel Novella (Legends of Light Book 3)

Shadows of the Hersweald: A Hansel and Gretel Novella (Legends of Light Book 3) by Hope Ann

The war is over in Aslaria, but the battle for individual loyalties rages on. Violent rebels roam the countryside, wreaking havoc among their former comrades and the Prince’s followers alike.

From the very first page I was drawn into former rebel soldier Haydn’s world. The story opens shortly after his return home from the battlefield as he tries to pick up the pieces of his pre-war life. But tensions between old neighbors and newcomers to the village soon erupt into conflict, and Haydn is forced to face his dubious past to cope with the demands of the present.

The author has pulled off a challenging feat in this story: it is a compelling adventure that depicts an intriguing fantasy world, while exploring significant themes such as the hard fact that today’s forgiveness doesn’t prevent possible future offenses, with all their associated pain and suffering. How far should any human being be willing to go in an effort to prevent such a fate?

Shadows is a novella, but it feels like a novel. Don’t get me wrong: it is a fast, engrossing page-turner, but many writers would need two or three times the page count to immerse the reader in their world. So if you love fantasy but hesitate to invest in a new series because you don’t have time, wait no longer: This is a quick but satisfying read! The same holds true if you love fantasy but aren’t drawn to fairy tale retellings, per se: Although many elements of the original tale are present if you’re looking for them, the story stands on its own as fantasy. Read either way, it works.

And if you love Christian fantasy in particular, then you will find much to appreciate in this resonant story. After I finished Shadows, I realized that in some ways Hope Ann reminds me of the young Stephen R. Lawhead. Over the years, Lawhead’s work improved from book to book as he found his voice, honed his craft, and simply gained experience.

Hope Ann’s approach in Legends of Light feels more contemporary than Lawhead’s early fantasy novels, but they have everything a fantasy lover could want: strange creatures, interesting lore, bantering dialogue, threatening shadows, and an underlying significance that ensures the parts add up to a greater whole. With each new story she’s fleshed out Aslaria and its inhabitants so that the world now has real depth.

Best of all, the author’s storytelling gets better with each release. I don’t know if she intends to write more legends set in Aslaria – certainly there is plenty of room for her imagination to roam in this world – but no matter what she writes next, I’m very much looking forward to reading it!

Shadows of the Hersweald is already available for preorder on Amazon, and is scheduled for release on March 28.

Note: I received an ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Reading a Story for What It Is

I just finished reading Alister McGrath’s biography, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. This caused me to reflect once more on the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, which in turn led (in a round-about way) to this post.

In the course of reading hundreds of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads over the past few years, I’ve noticed that instead of asking: “What question is the author asking in this story?” many readers assert (in one way or another): “This author didn’t do what they were supposed to do in this story.”

Now, I understand that in genre fiction certain tropes exist and the author should deliver them. I also understand that if a story makes a promise to the reader early on, the author must follow through on that promise by the last page of the book.

But I’m not talking about either of those things here. I’m talking about readers insisting that their preferred philosophy of story-telling is the legitimate approach to telling a story, and any story that doesn’t fit their philosophy is rubbish. IMO, this represents a rather narrow approach to reading!

One of the best examples of this gap between philosophies of story-telling is already fairly well-known among lovers of fantasy fiction: Tolkien’s dislike of The Chronicles of Narnia. If you are the type of reader who wants to know more about the authors of your favorite stories, then you probably already know that Tolkien didn’t appreciate Narnia. Apparently he disliked what he considered the patchwork quality of Lewis’s world-building.

And it’s not difficult to understand how strange Narnia would seem to Tolkien, a man who spent nearly his entire life building a world of magnificent depth and detail, and who spent many long years agonizing over continuity, rewriting passages, and rewriting them again, in an effort to achieve perfect consistency. Tolkien attempted to execute his philosophy of writer as sub-creator with exhaustive (and often exhausting) precision, and the result was an astonishing body of work that has engaged millions of people all over the world for several generations.

Now, I’ll confess right here that I don’t entirely disagree with Tolkien’s view that Narnia could have been fleshed out in more detail. I’ve often wished Lewis had done so! And I also recognize Tolkien didn’t necessarily demand that every writer measure up to the rigorous goals he set for himself. (Proof of this is in Tolkien’s positive and balanced comments about the world Lewis built in Out of the Silent Planet (the first volume in Lewis’s Space Trilogy), to be found in Tolkien’s Letters.)

Still, while Tolkien had every right to find Narnia not to his taste, I’m not aware that he ever acknowledged Lewis’s goal in creating it. Lewis never intended Narnia to be primarily an exercise in sub-creation in the same way that Tolkien approached his own work. In other words, Lewis’s work didn’t live up to Tolkien’s standard, but Lewis never intended to measure up to Tolkien’s standard.

So to the extent Tolkien viewed Narnia only through his own lens, it’s no wonder he was disappointed.

Lewis said the reason he wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was in answer to a specific “supposal” (what we might call the question at the heart of a speculative work): What would it look like if Christ were to become incarnate in a world of sentient animals and mythological creatures?

This is not a question Tolkien asks in LOTR. Quite the opposite: He said that although he wrote LOTR to be consistent with Christianity, he also avoided addressing the Incarnation in his mythology.

So even though both Tolkien and Lewis wrote fantasy fiction, the goals (philosophies) behind the creation of Middle Earth and the creation of Narnia could not have been more different.

And yet, despite the vast gap between these two authors’ goals for their stories, millions of readers love them. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that many of the same readers love both Tolkien and Lewis (although people who love both undoubtedly represent a smaller subset of readers).

But the only way the same reader could love both LOTR and The Chronicles of Narnia is if that reader is willing to read each on its own terms. The reader must be willing to at least respect each author’s philosophy of story-telling, and appreciate these stories for what they were intended to be – rather than finding fault with them for what they were never intended to be.

For example: If we insist that a Christ-figure must appear in LOTR, then we’re going to spend a lot of time and energy trying to make Gandalf or Aragorn fit a Messianic profile, even though this was not Tolkien’s intent.

And if we demand that The Chronicles of Narnia measure up to Tolkien’s personal standard of world-building and myth-making, then we’re going to be disappointed, because Lewis never set out to create any such thing.

In short: Maybe we’ll be happier readers if we consider an author’s goals as one legitimate component of our reading experience.

Fearing Black Riders

I think I came to love The Lord of the Rings a bit later than many fantasy enthusiasts. This is because, although I remember trying to read it more than once as a lass, I wasn’t able to get past the Black Riders.

They terrified me.

There is evil in Narnia, but somehow, despite seeing how the characters I cared about suffered, and even faced possible painful death, I almost never felt seriously threatened by their experiences. I was eager to see how they pulled (or were pulled!) through, but somehow I always had a sense of assurance they would, and that all would be well. This kept any real sense of menace at bay. I realize now, looking back, that this underlying sense of assurance – a vain hope that there really aren’t any Black Riders, perhaps? – was one of the most important things I was looking for in the stories I lived on in my early years.

The only real exception to that Narnian sense of assurance came in the final volume of the Chronicles, The Last Battle. It was hard to read about those losses on and off the battlefield. Somehow, they represented a threat of a different magnitude. It was the first time I can remember feeling the real shadow of menace over Narnia. As a result, I didn’t reread that book with warm enthusiasm the way I repeatedly reread the others – at least, not for many years.

But how I felt about The Last Battle was nothing compared to what it was like to encounter the Black Riders. Fearing Black Riders was the sort of thing that makes one shudder and put a book down, unfinished. Which is what I did for several years with The Lord of the Rings.
As it turned out, I had to meet a few “Black Riders” in real life before I was able to appreciate their significance in fiction.

Flash forward a few years, into adulthood: There I was on the run, as it were, with my own Black Riders in pursuit. The terror was real. The horror of it was in my life!

It was only when I was beyond any hope of helping myself that it finally became clear to me that help comes from God. Not to escape in a moment of deus ex machina dramatics, but rather to bear the experience. And for me, having help to bear the fact of Black Rider presence in this sad beautiful world was significant indeed.

After that, I came to love The Lord of the Rings as I’ve loved very few other stories. What a comfort to be reminded that although the road is long and hard, following it is the only hope there is. What a comfort to be reminded that whatever astonishing burden we must bear on the road is meant for us to bear – but not without help.

What a comfort to be reminded that even though we don’t understand everything that is happening, if we only follow through as much as we can, then even when we fail, all is not necessarily lost.

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

I was talking with an artist friend the other day, and the name Thomas Kinkade was mentioned.

“Oh,” my friend said.  “Was he the guy who painted all of those kitschy houses?”

You remember the painter Thomas Kinkade, right?  He certainly did paint a lot of pictures of houses, some in a kind of pseudo-old-English cottage style that looks like something out of the sanitized version of a fairy tale.

And yet, the Kinkade house I remember best was set against a background of misty woods at twilight.  You can almost feel the chill of the cool evening air in the rich blue-grays and purples he used to suggest deepening shadows between those trees.

And these shadows are serious; you know at a glance that this forest is no place to go wandering alone and unprepared in the evening. Probably not during the day, either. It’s not a place you would be wise to enter without a firm purpose at any time, because it clearly is not “safe.”

It’s because of that cool shadowed forest that your eye is drawn to the light within the heart of the house at the center of the painting.  Behind the multi-paned glass of the cottage windows golden light, tinged with red, glows.  A hearth, a lantern, many candles – whatever the source, that light is there, and it tells you that within this house you will find warmth and comfort.  Of course there will be food in such a house, and drink – lots of it, whatever it is you need to make you feel better as you pause for a few moments of rest and refreshment in the midst of your quest.

Some people think this is nothing more than sheer escapism, or even a lie about the nature of reality.

But I prefer to think of it as a small yet significant moment of what Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” called “consolation.” He was speaking of the necessity of a happy ending in a fairy story. To me, any opportunity to come in out of the cold, even if for only one night, in the midst of one’s harrowing journey through that dark and dangerous forest, is like a promise (an earnest or token, if you will) of that final consolation.  How bleak and stark would Middle Earth be without Tom Bombadil’s house! Without Rivendell, without Lothlorien!

But this temporary respite from cold, from hunger, from darkness, and from evil, doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge the existence of such things.  It doesn’t mean we truly believe that Mordor has gone away.  We aren’t toddlers playing peek-a-boo, believing that because we’ve hidden our faces behind our own hands no one can see us.  We know full well that just because we’re spending the night in a clean, well-lighted place doesn’t mean the dark forest is not still out there.

I don’t think Thomas Kinkade was so hugely popular because all of his fans were silly enough to believe his stuff depicted reality in the same sense that, say, Guernica depicts reality.

But why is it not realistic to acknowledge that within every human soul is a longing for the light and warmth and comfort of home?  And that sometimes, even if it’s only for a brief while, we actually find it?