Friday, January 17, 2014
A Cast of Stones
In a great land threatened by looming darkness, a king sits upon his throne, dying. He's an old man, and full of years, Rodran, and he would be one of the greatest kings of his people were it not for the fact that he has no heir. Only a blood heir can keep the darkness he's fighting at bay. It is an old statute, wrapped up in the death of one of his ancestors. But it is too late to remedy the inescapable. And he has no one.
So two churchmen, one priest and one reader, take it upon themselves to begin casting lots--region by region, village by village, man by man, to find out who is Deas' chosen to be the next king. They light upon the tiny village of Callowford, containing one young man destined to save the nation from being overrun by dark forces.
My great aunt recommended this book to me at a family gathering this summer, and I downloaded it to my Kindle to save for a rainy day. When the year turned, I started the first scene on a whim, read it, and got busy with other things. A few days later I picked it up again--and until I read the last page, I never let a day go by without reading more.
What an awesome story. And since the third book in the trilogy is one of my Bethany House reviews coming up, I wanted to start reviewing the series in order, with book one. So here we go, folks. It's Christian fantasy worth a second glance.
18-year-old Errol Stone lives in the small village of Callowford, the lowest of the low. Soused in the ale barrel every night, his only ambition is to keep food in his stomach and a foamy mug in his hands. He's been a hard drinker ever since he's fourteen, and it's getting to the point where he's drunk even early in the morning--just to forget and keep his pain in check.
When a king's messenger rides through with two urgent messages for a priest Errol knows, Errol offers to deliver it in exchange for money that he needs. In spite of his drunkenness, the messenger has no choice; he's pressed for time, and he leaves the message in Errol's unsteady hands so that he can be on his way.
The messages are ruined before Errol can get them to the priest, Martin, and Martin only knows that one was a summons to a council in Erinon to consult over who is to succeed the dying king. But the other message--the secret one--is forever lost. And thus unleashes a whole stream of events that take Errol from his boyhood home to face his demons--both those inside, and those outside.
An archer dressed in black dogs his steps, trying again and again to kill him. Martin's communion wafers are poisoned, almost killing them. Errol is dragged along to go with Martin and his assistant Luis to the king's council, though Errol hasn't the faintest idea why. He can't read, he can't draw a sword--he can't even go 24 hours without getting sick, unless he has enough ale to satisfy him. But go he must.
And it's all because he has the talent to see letters on a bunch of perfectly smooth, white stones Luis has crafted. He doesn't know what they mean. But somehow his talent is remarkable, and though he'd like nothing better than to spend the rest of his days in the local tavern, Luis, against Martin's better judgment, places a compulsion on Errol to come with them to the city of Erinon. He cannot resist; he only knows that his talents are vital, and he is in the hands of powerful men.
The Church wants him to be their pawn. The dark assassins want his blood. Errol only wants to know where his next drink is coming from.
And then he finds out why his talent is so special, and the power that he has to influence the kingdom's destiny.
Many authors use unlikely heroes in their tales--Errol's almost the unlikeliest one I've ever read. I don't like characters who get drunk; I always was too embarrassed for them to want to read about it.
But he's a hero well worth liking and rooting for, and his rise to maturity was well written.
I knew I would like him, especially as he grew and matured. I never expected, though, to be convicted by him.
When Errol's trying desperately to get a grip on the drinking habit that's overtaken him, he asks one man "Will it work for me to use [sparring with the staff] to replace the ale?" The man replies, "I don't think so, boy. The ale was never your problem. You need something to fill the hole inside you, and you tried to fill it with ale. But the staff isn't enough to fill that hole either. Deas will show you when the time's right." (Forgive me for not quoting exactly, so as not to give away a key part of the story. Errol's specific hole inside him is fully explained in the text.)
It never occurred to me that one doesn't have to be a drunkard to hide from problems--you can fill it with music, or movies, or laughter, or books--and sometimes even good things, like Errol's sparring with the staff--but sometimes the hardest thing we can do is not hide from problems and dull the memory of them like Errol did, but to face them and draw them out, and heal the gap. Kevin DeYoung addressed in Crazy Busy that sometimes distractions in our life hide spiritual sickness. Errol's struggle brought that concept to life, and it hit home. Sometimes we embrace distractions because we know we are sick, but we cannot bear to face the cure.
I wonder how many Christians go about, not with ale, but something more respectable in the sight of others. A crutch that produces the same effect of dulling pain and memory and hard relationships, instead of allowing us to face problems, and ask God to fill the emptiness. That was a surprising turn of thought that I never expected to embark on when I picked the book up.
Patrick Carr writes Christian fantasy, and though he's made up his own world, he sticks very closely to the traditional biblical Trinity and Christian religion. Deas is the overall name for the God-figure. I didn't appreciate the loose way some of the characters used Deas' name, because I think a God-figure should be treated with as much reverence in fantasy as our biblical God is in real life. If it's meant to be a representation of our God, then the same rules of reverence should apply. But overall the language is pretty clean. The priests minister in a very Catholic kind of way, though without the purgatory or confession. And one of the most interesting parts of the story, which I'll leave for the book itself to explain, is the division of the church that casts lots to make judgments--a division that Errol himself is pretty deeply connected with.
The only other thing that I didn't like, besides the use of Deas's name in various instances, was the romance element. One of the scenes in chapter 12 was rather inappropriate; I'll be skipping it next time I read it, and it wasn't necessary to the plot. A couple of kisses are exchanged; that in itself would be a matter to raise an eyebrow at and move on, but Errol keeps thinking about them, and he savored them more than I was comfortable with. Several women when he gets to Erinon are flirtatious and bold lasses, and should be sat down in their mothers' kitchens and taught a thing or two about how to appropriately interact with members of the opposite gender.
All in all, I would recommend this book (though for more mature readers due to those elements.) I think the overall story is edifying and worth reading. The heroes are hale and hearty; characterizations are well-drawn, virtue and vice are clearly separated on the whole, and only the good people are characters the reader can sympathize with. The action never lets down and the pacing is about as perfect as you can possibly get.
Luis and Martin are rough, jolly priests of the Robin Hood sort, with a surprising bit of compassion in them as well. Their crusty warrior guard, Cruk, is a good old warrior. And Liam, the young man also wanted by the Church, who can do everything perfectly (don't blame it on him; he can't help it) is the perfect counterbalance to Errol's clumsy ignorance.
All the men in the little company travelling from Callowford to Erinon are excellent characters, though Errol by far had my highest sympathies, and that's probably a first with a man of his type. Normally I don't like ale-soused sinners--but his journey to manhood was well-written, and I had pity on his weaknesses, hoped desperately that he would grow out of them, and cheered for every victory and growth of character as he faced and overcame.
Patrick Carr's book is a fantasy worth checking out. Errol's character arc and journey is tight and crisply written, suspenseful, and thoughtful all in one. I enjoyed every moment of it (except for the kissing scenes) and I would highly recommend it for 16 and up. Best of all, book 1 is free on Amazon. As far as I know, it's been free for quite a while. But in case it isn't forever, head on over and grab a copy, so you can stock up to peruse it when you get the chance. A Cast of Stones ends on a cliffhanger; fortunately book 2 is already available, and book 3 releases very soon--Stay tuned, and I'll let you know how this series turns out over the coming weeks!