I’ve loudly decried the state of Christian-targeted fiction over the years. As for Christian-targeted speculative fiction–science fiction, fantasy, alternate history–there hasn’t been enough to have an opinion. That’s beginning to change, slowly but surely, as more faith-based publishers are acquired by conglomerates who have familiarity with speculative fiction in the mainstream and are thus less reluctant to risk inventory space on the “weird stuff.”
What’s been out there in the past, though, has been…mostly not good, trending toward the “really not good” end of the spectrum. So I’m skeptical to say the least. Becky Miller has been one of the best advocates the genre has, spending her time to foment interest in new titles and to patiently prod holdouts into taking courtesy bites*.
At Becky’s urging several of us dove into Cast Of Stones, the first entry in new author Patrick W. Carr’s The Staff & The Sword trilogy. The book was holding steady at 4.5 stars on Amazon, and loudly praised. Still, I was skeptical, given the well-known grade inflation in this market.
I’m not a generous reviewer. The suspense was riveting. Would Carr’s novel stand up to the scrutiny of a tough skeptic? Would Becky be able to walk to her mailbox without getting grudgemail from my disappointed self? What would happen when the immovable Katherine met the usually-resistable Christian-targeted speculative fiction?
We can start by saying that Becky and her mailbox are both safe. The book was a fine read that was much more strongly crafted than many of the previous titles I’ve read**. It passed my first-93-pages rule easily enough and kept me company during what was in many respects a dull stretch of bedrest. That’s not easy to do, so right there I’d say it gets at least three stars from me.
The story focuses on an alcoholic teenager in a quasi-medieval setting who finds himself accidentally on a hero’s journey. There were great interludes of story as the author introduced us to the concepts of the magic in his world and hero Errol Stone’s place in it. The basic philosophy undergirding the world and the story are strong–that’s a major deal for me. The religion hews to Orthodox Christianity without being a painful one-to-one copy of it; this is also a good thing in a book offered primarily to Christians. There is a lot of action, with hand-to-hand combat a-plenty and a couple of intense battle scenes that bring the pain.
So why am I giving this book 3.5 stars?
Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve read Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I’ve read Blood Song by Anthony Ryan. Those are 5-star epic fantasy reads. Those are books you want to crawl into and live inside forever. (Full disclosure, I’m buying a Kingkiller t-shirt. I RARELY wear clothes related to books. If I’ll spend $20 on a shirt you KNOW I love the book.) Those books have strong world-building. You feel like you’re in this world. You can taste the food and see the dragons and smell the scent of the medica. You wince when Kvothe is whipped. The world-building in Cast Of Stones is barely there. Several times you’ll get a non-description along the lines of “he saw what looked like an ornate living quarters. He had never seen the like, or even imagined it.” Ok. Great. Tell me what it really looks like. Describe it in more detail than “ornate”. People read fantasy to go places they cannot ever go. I will never ever be able to go to Westeros without George Martin’s descriptions. I will never ride a mule to the Aerie. If you aren’t taking me any place interesting I can’t put your book up against the greats of fantasy in equal measure.
Thatb being said, Cast Of Stones is part of a good book. If it were a whole book it might earn at least 4, if not 4.5 stars. But, alas, it is Christian targeted fiction. So we all know what that means….it has Left Behinditis. When I got a good way into it on the Kindle and things were just hitting a stride, a “beginning of Act 2” stride, I was excited. “Oooh, ” I thought “this is getting REALLY INTERESTING! I can’t wait to see where we’re going.” Then I looked in the bottom corner and saw a dreaded 94%. Of course. This is of course ONE BOOK CARVED INTO THREE PARTS. Dear Christian-targeted publishers: Fantasy stories are NOT The Holy Trinity. You don’t have to keep dividing the one into three and then selling them that way.
So yes, I got this book for free, but if I want to read the rest of it I have to pay $20. ***
Despite the drawbacks with the world-building and the “where is the rest of this story?” business, this is a much better book than I expected. It’s got great bones and is headed into compelling territory with its characters and their motivations. I sincerely hope this is indicative of what the genre can do.
Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr, Published by Bethany House Publishers=3.5 stars.
*When I was a kid my uncle instituted the idea of “courtesy bites”; when faced with a food we assumed we didn’t like, we were instructed to take a courtesy bite out of respect for the person who prepared it. About half the time we decided that whatever the food was it wasn’t so bad. Sometimes you’d find a new favourite dish. Other times you’d like it enough to finish the portion you had but not enough to ask for seconds.
**I don’t often mention them here. Unless they’re dreadful I’m trying to not call books out by name. I’ll review them on Amazon and Goodreads but I don’t think it’s cricket to also write a lengthy blog post about how much I hate them. Unless I hate them so much that I have to exorcise the enmity.
***Would I pay $20 for a whole book? No, probably not. The highest I’ll go is $15, and that’s for wonderful stuff. Like The Wise Man’s Fear or The MacArthur Study Bible. I’m not paying $20 for a book that’s carved into pieces and doled out in installments every 6months. It’s a story, not an interest-bearing account. Ha! It LOSES my interest. It’s an interest-REDUCING account. And I hate hate hate it when this happens.