Review: Ravenwood: A Morningstar Series Anthology

The Prodigal is crewed by bounty hunters, led by Talon McLeod, a gruff, Captain Malcom Reynolds meets JK Simmons figure, who are trying to bring in just enough bounty to keep their space faring vessel in the sky. Devon Chase, a trusted member of McLeod’s crew, convinces McLeod to consider Kale Ravenwood for a new crew member, but the head of the bounty hunters finds himself unsure as to whether hiring the man was a good idea when he can’t seem to stop himself from killing the bounty. In three short stories, A.C. Williams puts her full craft on display as a master of dialogic imagination by creating three distinct voices and perspectives on the enigma that is Kale Ravenwood.

This past Spring semester, I taught a course on the British novel, and I had my students read Bakhtin’s essay, The Discourse in the Novel. Bakhtin’s central thesis is that the value of the novel is its capacity to help readers develop our dialogic imagination: to become aware that the language we speak inhabits many different communities of language, that we have a family language, a friend language, an on the job language, a religious language, an at school language, etc etc, and the feeling that through all of this we speak only one language (English or whatever) is only grammatically true. The reality of the multiplicity of languages we inhabit runs much more deeply, and this manifests itself when we try to talk with our family about, for example, the value of our career choices. Language is shot through with values, assumptions, intuitions, and basic components of personality in ways that require us to have a dialogic imagination not only with others but with the many identities which we inhabit as well. As I tell my students, we are less like characters in novels and more like novels ourselves. That’s why great novels are challenging to read: so are we.

Bringing to life in deft prose the challenges of communication, Ravenwood: A Morningstar Series Anthology is a series of short stories which introduces characters in A.C. Williams’s series of novels, the Destiny Trilogy. I have not read the Destiny Trilogy yet, but after reading Ravenwood, I fully intend to do so now. Williams’s writing style puts on full display the power of well-crafted prose to bring to life the dialogic imagination of truly different characters. Ashes, Rise, and Burn each present a vision of Kale Ravenwood as well as the tenor of the Prodigal crew as a team. What’s impressive is that each story is delivered in an overall unified style, the hard-boiled, tough-as-nails mentality necessary to survive the bounty hunter life shared by all of the characters, and yet each narrator speaks with a voice authentic to his or her own identity. As Bakhtin believed narrative prose was best suited to do, the short stories in the anthology beautifully represent how complicated actual communication between people is when they think they are speaking the same language, but really aren’t.

With dialogue worthy of Joss Whedon himself, Ravenwood reads like a creative fusion of Cowboy Bebop and Firefly (and maybe a hint of Riddick via Kale Ravenwood), introducing a science fiction world of space travel and artificially produced atmospheres that is artfully rendered without the barest hint of info-dumping. The action is vividly portrayed and the characters are so compelling that you can easily miss how naturally Williams derives plot from personality rather than the other way around. The use of the present tense, a tactic used by other science fiction writers (including Terry Brooks in Street Freaks) contributes to the concentrated immediacy of the stories. Once you get through Ravenwood, you’ll want to get your hands on the Destiny trilogy immediately. That’s what I am doing!

Gems of Hope: Poems and Devotionals for those who have Suffered Personal Loss: A Review

Whatever one’s worldview, whether Christian or otherwise, the problem of evil is a reality every individual must face. Sometimes, Christians can be so eager to assure each other and themselves of their hope in Christ, that they forget to express the human sympathy for the grief of loss that Jesus himself showed when he wept before he rose Lazarus from the dead.

Gems of Hope: Poems and Devotionals for those who have Suffered Loss strikes a biblical balance in the comfort it offers for grieving Christians. Rather than ignoring or dismissing the suffering with easy platitudes, Gems of Hope acknowledges through Camarie’s personal story the tragedies which people face and the comfort which the Gospel yields in the midst of those tragedies.

The style of Gems of Hope is unique in a modern context: poetry on the left-hand page is accompanied by devotionals with Scripture verses on the right-hand page. This combination of two genres is mirrored as well in the larger plan of the anthology as a whole, with the first half offering general comfort for Christians regardless of their particular circumstances, and the second offering insight into the particular circumstances which led Camarie to seek comfort by writing poetry and devotionals in response to her heartbreaking trials.

The poems are elegant and vivid, reminiscent of the Psalms and the poetry of George Herbert and the imagination of John Bunyan. The prose of the devotionals is written in a straightforward and earnest manner, delivering their prayerful reflections in a fashion that remind me of Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. Camarie’s vocabulary is rich and expressive in both genres, and share God’s eternal truths from Scripture with a fresh and sincere faith.

The combination of prose and poetry in a single text is, although perhaps unusual to us now, a common ancient genre called the prosimetrum, and in fact one we see in Scripture. The Bible as a whole is prosimetric, mirroring the commands of God in prose with the corresponding beauty to which those commands point: “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy” in the Ten Commandments is mirrored by “This is the day which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” in Psalm 118. But many books of the Bible have a prosimetric style: First Samuel has the Song of Hannah in chapter 2, Deuteronomy has the Song of Moses in chapter 32, and the Book of Hebrews is periodically prosimetric in its reference to the Psalms. Camarie’s Gems of Hope brings this Scriptural pattern to life in her own writing. For example, Camarie’s poem “Your Light” reads, “Lord, fill my pathway with your light; Make it to shine unto the perfect day. Until Your Victory ends the fight, Illumine every step with a guiding ray.” She admits in the corresponding devotional, based on 1 John 1:5, Psalm 89:15 and Proverbs 4:18, that “we cannot make sense of our circumstances and may feel skeptical about what God might be doing in our lives because we are relying on our own vision,” but if we know “that God is light and has called us to walk in His Light,” we can find peace which passes understanding.

Through prayer and poetry, Camarie has let her gifts be used by God to turn her wounds into scars, as she contemplates in her poem “Every Scar.” She closes the accompanying devotional with the profound thought that when “we see our scars in light of God’s purpose, we can embrace those scars rather than resent them.” If you are hoping to turn your wounds into scars and your scars into a reminder that God is, as Camarie puts it in her poem, “the Lord of your past,” whatever you are going through, I hope you will get a copy of Gems of Hope and take comfort in her words.

I should note, by the way, that I had no idea that Camarie would be my wife when I met her as Camarie Colbert in 2017 and read her book which she gave to me on our second date. It seemed like a very strange coincidence that I, a Boethius scholar who studied Boethius’s influence through his book called The Consolation of Philosophy (a devotional narrative interspersed with poetry) on the prosimetric tradition of consolatory Christian writing, would meet a Christian who had written a prosimetric consolation in the form of poetry and devotions. Camarie wrote a poem in this collection entitled “I see it now,” in her words, “to express my joy in being able to recognize some of God’s providential workings that I was unable to see beforehand.” No kidding.

If you’re interested, you can get a copy off of Amazon or the Barnes and Noble website below:

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/gems-of-hope-camarie-colbert/1124420976?ean=9781498482943

Stop Having Not Read Oath of the Outcast: A Review

Rhys MacDuffy, even after seven years of banishment and memories of a cruel, unfair trial, can’t shake the ties between him and his brother Sean, his former Clan’s Seer. So when Sean is captured by the pretender Lord Adam, against his better judgment Rhys sets out to free his brother. He insists he’s the Mountain Baron, a hardened magnate overseeing his fellow outcasts – but he accepts the mission to save his “former” brother, doesn’t he?

If Katherine Kurtz and J. Ardian Lee teamed up to write a Terry Brooks-style fantasy novel, the result would be something like C.M. Banschbach’s debut installment of The Dragon Keep Chronicles, Oath of the Outcast. The book’s evocative cover art, with the cloaked silhouette of a man staring across the unforgiving rocks of a sloping mountainside at a mist-draped fortress, and its terse plot description delivers every promise it makes – a case where you should definitely judge a book by its cover. Like Terry Brooks, Banschbach has a Tolkienesque craft at detailed worldbuilding without clogging the on-the-ground prose with any more detail than is necessary to get you swept up into the motivations of the characters and the world in which they live. But the world is not the Anglo-Saxon-style Germanic culture of Middle Earth or Shannara’s Four Lands; instead it draws its inspiration from the Scottish tradition of fantasy – not historical as with Ardian Lee, but instead creating for the reader a rich medieval Scottish culture that intertwines itself with intimate ramifications in the lives of the characters. This, in fact, is why I invoke Katherine Kurtz – as the mistress of politically themed high fantasy, Kurtz came to mind as I began to get glimpses of the political engines that drive the lives of characters in Banschbach’s world.

Of course, I make no pretension to identifying sources for Banschbach’s inspirations – she is every sentence and every paragraph her own writer. The rugged, almost Hemingwayesque prose runs lean, giving only the exposition necessary to help the reader appreciate the gravity of the drama, without seeming vague or elusive. The prose is, like the cover art, relentlessly concrete and tersely in keeping with the emotional clamps choking at the protagonist’s voice (along with the literal scar that makes his voice raspy and deep). Impressively, too, the narrative provokes difficult philosophical, political, existential and even religious questions without an iota of baggy or pontifical prose.

It was in fact my abiding love for Scottish themed fantasy – from Joanna Baillie’s Ghost of Fadon to J. Ardian Lee’s historical fantasy to Highlander – that motivated my desire to read the book. And that William Wallace sense of stubborn, futile, heroically frustrating resistance to the powers around him marks the personality of Rhys MacDuffy deeply. And that desire was fully satisfied by the book to the point where I actually felt a sickening sense of anxiety where I realized I would have to wait a year before I could know how things would play out.

It’s that suck-you-in-and-won’t-let-go force of the plot, relentless action entwined around urgently real characters and a beautifully crafted world, that reminds me of Terry Brooks, but that’s where the comparison stops. Well, there are druids in Alsaya, the world of Oath of the Outcast, but these are not Terry’s benevolent (if sometimes slightly Machiavellian) undogmatic priests of learning and harmony. No, these are druids with the smell of the old sacrificial blood about them – like the religion of Ungit in Til We Have Faces if it was practiced by N.I.C.E. from That Hideous Strength. These druids are more like Brona and his Skullbearers, but in their cruel, cutthroat, and downright creepy fanaticism, Banschbach’s druids remain unsettlingly human in their evil (whatever Deronis, their twisted ‘god,’ may be) every step of the way.

As a scholar of consolation literature (insert requisite reference to Boethius here), I can’t help but mention the delicious literary device at work in Outcast: a son banished by his Clan goes to rescue his brother imprisoned by a maliciously ambitious politician. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy uses Boethius’s actual imprisonment at the hands of a tyrannical king as a philosophical metaphor for the imprisonment of the soul’s inappropriate attachment to worldly goods. She uses, likewise, the metaphor of banishment to explain the idea of the true home: that there is an upright and fitting state of mind that will provide the truly wise man with the consolation of home regardless of where he is. Insofar as one has been “banished” from that true home of the mind, one can always return to it, and so break the soul free from its imprisonment to those worldly goods. Rhys “The Mountain Baron” MacDuffy is likewise faced with the question of whether he has a true home, and his internalized status as outcast leaves his decision to rescue his brother shot through with an existential angst that is as legitimate as it is painful. Meanwhile, the poetic contrast of Sean as a Seer who is unlimited by Time in his ability to See with his imprisonment provides a bitter irony in the face of the wicked druids’ desire to twist Sean’s powers to their use. And the Seer’s abilities lend a Boethian flavor of potential fatalism to the narrative: if it’s possible for a Seer to look ahead in time, then how much can the characters involved really change the outcome of anything?

Oath of the Outcast comes highly recommended, and I guarantee that when you get to the final page, you’ll be hungry for next year’s sequel, Blood of the Seer. So, as I wrote in my title, I suggest that you stop having not read Oath of the Outcast forthwith.