A Cast of Stones, book 1 in Patrick Carr's Christian fantasy Staff and the Sword series. After a nail-biting interval in which I worked the library system to get a copy of book 2, The Hero's Lot arrived, and just this week I finished the second installment in Errol Stone's adventures. This young man is a hero like no other; he's awesome, and lovably fallible, and breathtakingly sacrificial. Patrick Carr has a gem here, and I was quite impressed.
So a brief recap for those of you who haven't read my review of book 1, and then we'll on to business!
If anyone had reason to accuse the church of unfair dealings, it would be Errol. First they force him to come to Erinon because of his hidden talent as an omne--being able to read any lot the church casts. After very nearly losing his life while discovering a church official gone to the dark side, Errol is given a position in the nobility.
But the corrupt church official, Saron Valon, escapes far south and hides in the dangerous land of Merakh, using his talents for casting lots to betray their moves to the dark side. Luis, Martin, and Errol are left wondering what comes next. The childless king of Erinon is slowly dying, and only an heir with the same bloodline can keep the evil forces of demons and foreign invaders at bay.
The church's leader, Archbenefice Canon, orders Luis and Martin to cast illegal lots in secret to find out who is going to be the next king. After corrupt church officials discover them in the act, they unjustly accuse Errol along his two friends of treason. Archbenefice Canon is unwilling to be incriminated in the scandal, and unwilling also to leave Errol to his execution. But instead of defending him, the Archbenefice invents a lesser charge, that of consorting with evil spirits, and sends Errol on a long journey as a penance to help him escape.
The only problem is, the Archbenefice can't control the officials' decision to send him as penance to the land of the Merakh to kill Saron Valon. And he can't prevent them, either, from putting a compulsion on Errol: that he must keep going, and if he stops, he will die.
Errol, resigned to what he cannot control, sets off to his end. The only people who can help him are Rale, a man out of the grace of the church; Naaman Ru and his daughter Rokha, who are also placed under compulsion; and Merodach, the man who tried to kill him on his first errand in book 1. Things get worse, for once he's too far to turn back, his lady-love Princess Adora follows him, to take refuge from a forced marriage to a wicked nobleman.
Martin and Luis don't wait around for Errol's sentence; they have problems of their own, and set back to Callowford with Cruk to find out why their cast for king went wrong, and what they can learn about Errol and Liam that might help them. Once there, Martin finds out that he is called by Deas [God] to expose major heresies in the church; heresies they have held to for centuries. The lots the church has used, it turns out, are not the way Deas intended them to know his will all along. Deas is personally knowable. And that in itself will rock the foundations of the entire assembly.
But that isn't all. When Martin hears of the church's dirty dealing with Errol, his soul is outraged at their heartless betrayal, and he vows to tell Errol everything they've been keeping secret from him once they meet again. Martin vows to meet up with Errol's company and help him in his quest to kill Saron Valon.
But Martin regrets his vows when he finds out that either Errol or Liam will have to die in sacrifice for Erinon's future safety. He has no doubt in his mind that Errol will be the one who has to die. And then he finds out who Errol really is, and he is aghast at what he will have to reveal
He cannot break his vow to rejoin Errol. And he cannot break his vow to tell him the truth about who he is and what he is called to do.
A worthy and well-written second installment. The action is still just as tight and focused as book 1, and the characters are staying true to form. Second books in trilogies generally fall into the pit of undoing everything the character learned in book 1. But in this trilogy, Errol builds on what he's learned already, instead of having to learn it all over again. I liked that; he still has faults to overcome, but it's not the same lesson over and over again. He's climbing up to new heights of character and manhood.
The romance, though still there and going strong, is much more appropriate and less like flirting; there are a few kisses, and a few romantic feelings, but no suggestive scenes like in the last book. I was glad to see that, and hope it continues to stay that way. It's not perfect, but it's an improvement.
I still don't appreciate the way Carr makes use of Deas's name, especially on the last page. If it's the name of the highest Deity in a fantasy story, then the story characters should treat it with the same respect as if it were God's name in our real world. Profanity is profanity, and fantasy situations don't nullify the principles we find in Scripture.
I couldn't believe my eyes when Adora showed up on Errol's dangerous quest. It almost made me laugh. Immediately I thought of all the movies gone wrong, spoiled by adding in a female character when none was supposed to be there: Journey to the Center of the Earth, The 39 Steps, etc; and I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to put up with a Hollywood addition to an otherwise great story. Then, as it continued, I had to bow and concede that my fears were exaggerated. For putting in a cliche plot, Carr handled it well. Adora receives just as good a character development as Errol does. And though I thought it was going to be cliche, Carr uses this plot to show Adora learning how to be a true woman instead of a princess. Not a feminist, but a helpmeet. His women don't become "one of the guys". They maintain their position as women, and I was pretty pleased.
After this book I loved Rokha more than I ever thought I would. In book 1 she was just a really good sword-fighter who kissed Errol too much. In this book, once she quit doing that, she actually turned out to be a unique and intriguing character. She's a woman who can swing a sword and crack crowns and still be a woman, and she's an excellent heroine. A Masouda-type woman, similar (though in her own unique way) to H. Rider Haggard's character in The Brethren. Again, I'm still withholding complete judgement until I see what Carr does with her in book 3. The plot will either stay strong to the end, or go in the wrong direction. But I really hope she turns out well.
I loved most of the action except the gladiator fights. I don't know why, but I always find those boring. Once you've read one, you've read them all forever after. But there was enough interest in other things to keep it moving. The violence was disturbing on several occasions. Carr has a penchant for killing his characters in the throat, and he's not afraid of torture. Also, there was one point at the end where the confrontation with good and evil was so intense--not gross, but intense--that I wasn't sure if I could make it through the entire scene. I did. But Carr really takes you for a ride, and when good and bad face off, the stakes are gut-clenching, and as emotionally high for the readers as they are for the characters. That makes for a good story.
Sometimes, though, a writer can be a little too good in striking the emotion they're after.
But that wasn't always a bad thing. Other times when Carr struck an emotion, it served to wrap the reader up in the character's perspective. My sympathy and connection to the characters was never broken. Even in Martin's scenes. You don't expect to find as much interest in an old priest, but he's a Cadfael-like fellow, so I connected with him.
And when Errol suffered, especially after finding out the circumstances of his birth, I suffered too. Whenever he made mistakes, I clutched my hair and screamed "Noo!" (Figuratively. No one saw me doing it.) But I never stopped liking him while he made them. One time he made a mistake so big that I despaired completely and hoped that somehow he would be able to pick up the pieces afterward. But Carr had a bigger picture of Deas's grace and second chances than I did, and he gave Errol another chance that had a rare redemption to it.
Because God gives second chances, even when we make mistakes.
Though Carr has some romantic elements I don't like, he has good ones as well. The blood rose dance, a betrothal savage in its beauty and breathtaking in its creativity was wonderful to read about. A wonderful act of two people vowing love and service to one another, only to each other, in spite of future dangers. It was an impetuous action, but a lovable one, and Errol and Adora love with clear eyes for each other's faults, but with fast adoration and sacrificial service as they seek to overcome them. They're one of the couples that's worthy of a Favorite Couple list in future.
Due to violence and romantic elements, I recommend this series for ages 16 and up; but just because it's better for older readers doesn't mean it's bad. I'm so pleased with this series, to find laudable heroes and heroines, characters that are flawed, yet beautiful (except Liam, poor lad, but he can't help his perfection, I suppose.) and themes of sacrifice, redemption, and love, that Carr weaves together excellently. This is Christian fiction as it should be, and though it has a few imperfections as all human authors will, it is a true jewel, and a pleasure to experience.
Book 3 in the series just released. I have my copy to review from Bethany House, and I'm racing through as fast as time permits. I have never been so tempted to peek ahead at the end. But this is one of those stories that's way too good to spoil.
Stay tuned in the next couple of weeks for the final installment of the Staff and the Sword series by Patrick Carr!