Saturday, February 28, 2015

Storm Siren

Well, it's been more than a month since I read Storm Siren, a young adult fantasy by Mary Weber, and alas, the details are slipping away. I know I enjoyed it quite a bit and gave it four stars on Goodreads.

The story is this: Nym is a slave, sold from owner to owner because of her unusual looks, looks that mark her as an impossible and dangerous magical being. In Faelen, they kill her kind at birth, but perhaps because she is female (when all the others are male), she escaped that fate, and now no one knows what to do with her except pass her along before she kills them all. Nym doesn't want to kill, but she can't control her powers. When her emotions rage, she ends up calling forth storms and lightning from the sky until everyone around her is dead. But her fifteenth owner is delighted with her powers and offers Nym the chance to use them to fight in the war. Nym really doesn't have any other options, and when she meets the first person who has ever been able to keep her powers at bay, her training begins.

Weber's world is unusual and exciting with a bit more detail than you typically get in young adult fantasy but not so much as to make it high fantasy. This world, its fantastical and bizarre characters and creatures, Nym's struggle with her own powers, and the war setting all draw the reader into a tale that intrigues to the end and excites anticipation for the next installment in the series. There's a little romance, too, of course, but the book is a clean read. No sex or graphic violence, though people do die (it's about a war, after all).

What surprised me most about the book as I began to really enjoy it was that it appeared to be from a Christian publisher: Thomas Nelson. I didn't think I was reading Christian fiction at all, mainly because most of the ARCs I have access to are secular and because most Christian fiction doesn't impress me easily. It's either too preachy or too safe, not morally (I like good, safe morals) but thematically. I'm more impressed by stories where the author is Christian but writes a book that appeals to secular readers and perhaps has a more subtle message. Good stories are good, period, and shouldn't have to be encapsulated in a religious bubble to remain "Christian." That said, there are some great Christian authors out there, who write both secular and Christian stuff, like Ted Dekker.

This story had nothing in it to scream "Christian message coming your way!" except a piece in the middle that was written with more mythological flavor than religious. However, it was clear enough to me, seeing where the book was coming from, that this was the author's way of squeezing a bit of belief in as subtly as possible. Actually, I think it still might have been a little over-the-top. This quiet, pastoral setting just popped up out of nowhere and provided background for the mysterious, religious focal point of the book. It didn't quite mesh with the direction of the rest of the story. I think what the author was trying to accomplish was necessary, but I'm not sure she chose the best way to say it, carefully as she tried. Ironically, I found it too much and too little at the same time. Obviously she was trying to say something without saying too much of anything, and I'm not sure it got said. It honestly could have been written from several different religious viewpoints. But it was a small enough section of the book that it wasn't obtrusive. I don't think there's room to read too much into it.

Aside from my mixed feelings about the presentation of belief in the book, I am always excited to see a book like this on the market. Subtlety is beautiful. Let's not throw our soap box messages at the world. Let's speak our hearts instead. Let's be storytellers like Jesus. He who has ears to hear, let him hear, right?

Storm Siren is certainly an original story, entertaining right up to an end that surprises and leaves you eager to know how it will all unfold. The jury's out on that one until Siren's Fury arrives in June!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A.D. 30

I finished this book, A.D. 30, by Ted Dekker, quite awhile ago, and I apologize that the delay in getting this review out has somewhat diffused my initial impressions.

I gave the book four stars (It's Ted could I not?), but it's a different kind of story than what you might expect from the thriller writer. When I first heard what it was about, I thought of The Big Fisherman, by Lloyd C. Douglas, who also wrote The Robe (two books I read in middle school and was very impressed by). But aside from having similar female protagonists with similar vendettas, their plots play out far differently.

A.D. 30 takes us on Maviah's journey from the depths of the Arabian desert to the palaces of kings and eventually into the presence of another kind of king, Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth. Maviah is the illegitimate daughter of an Arabian ruler. She's a former slave brought back to her father's household but still looked down upon. She is nothing, but when her father's wife dies and his alliances fall apart, she may be the only one who can help her people. She just has to go to Palestine and convince King Herod of the Jews of her worth. Accompanied by trusted servants, one of whom she grows to love, she sets out to do the impossible: become a queen. Only an Arabic tribe that wants her dead, two dangerous kings, the past, and her own grievances stand in her way.

While the main plot and conflicts of the story are completely fictionalized and deal with alliances and power-struggles, the climax has to do with issues of the heart, and the heart of this story takes us to the hillsides of Galilee to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Dekker uses passages straight from the Bible for almost all of Jesus' dialog but, of course, still manages to put his own fictional stamp on those scenes, making Jesus seem more of a mystic to the people and the reader than we normally think of him as. In Dekker's telling, he is mysterious. He speaks in riddles, never directly. He knows things about people that a normal human shouldn't be able to know, as though in constant contact with a Being who gives him insight into every heart. Some of these things conflict with how I view Jesus in the Bible, but I didn't feel I could dismiss them entirely. We don't really know much about the day-to-day interactions of Jesus. Perhaps he always spoke in riddles. We know he always taught in parables. Did Jesus know from moment to moment what people were thinking? How much of God was in the Man? While on Earth, he was human, but is it conceivable that God gave him super-human knowledge on a moment-by-moment basis? I guess so.

Writing about Jesus in fiction cannot be easy. I know Dekker had been thinking about this book for years, and I could definitely see Dekker's views on how Jesus works today written into his view of Jesus when he walked the Earth. I'm not sure Dekker is right on this, but I can't say definitively that he's wrong either. I appreciate that he tried not to add to or change Jesus' own words, but there's still a surprising amount you can do without words to create a persona. Regardless, the important part, Jesus' teaching, is not changed. The interesting part comes in how the people interpret Jesus' words, and that can be fictionalized all you want, I suppose.

I confess, my favorite pieces of the story were those that were entirely fictionalized. The sections with Jesus were a little off-putting, partly because so much Bible was directly quoted and because Jesus came across as so mystical and a bit inhuman. I don't know how it might have been done better, but it just didn't entirely work for me. Knowing Dekker, though, I think he'd be happy if the Jesus parts made people uncomfortable, as long as they made them think about what Jesus' words really mean. Hopefully, his version isn't too distracting for the truth to come out. On my part, I saw the truth most clearly not in the words I am so familiar with but through Maviah's understanding of them, and I think that, too, is part of Dekker's plan here.

Dekker always has a message, and you'd expect nothing less from a work of fiction that quotes the Bible directly. His latest focus in writing has had a lot to do with identity and who we really are, as seen through God's eyes. This book has some of that, certainly, but also a lot about letting go of grievances, forgiveness. I noticed other themes as I read, but some of those elude me now after so much time.

A.D. 30 appears to be the beginning of a new series or, at least, the first of two books. It will be interesting to see where Maviah's story goes and how Dekker handles the other events of Jesus' earthly life. Dekker always surprises, perhaps more subtly now than in his early works, and he always makes me think. For that, I am a big fan, ready to explore whatever he may throw at us next.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Movie Quick Takes: Belle, Into the Woods, and The Giver

Yikes! I am behind on my reviews! I have several books and movies I would love to share with you. I prefer to give books their own individual blogs, so I will first try to go succinctly, in one post, through the latest movies I've watched.

Belle on DVD
This period piece, a true story, is fascinating and romantic: a great date movie but also an interesting history lesson. It tells the tale of a girl born to a white father and black mother and raised in luxury as a Victorian lady in 18th century England. Of course, the slave trade was in full swing then, and she was accepted by very few into society and unlikely to make a match despite the inheritance left her by her father. She was free and independent but still burdened by the laws and prejudices of the nation. At the same time, her uncle and guardian was under pressure as Lord Chief Justice to make a ruling on the drowning of a shipment of slaves, specifically on whether or not they were insured cargo. The question is, how can you insure something as priceless as life, and if it is insured, is it no more valuable than cargo? Dido Belle finds herself facing a similar question in her personal life. Though not a slave, is she still property, just a woman to be bought by the man who needs her money? Or is she free to have find love?

It's not a story about overturning slavery, but it's one of those that led up to it and one I'd never heard before. Rated PG, it's not a hard look at slavery, like 12 Years a Slave, but a look at the other side and in between, at the good people who fought for what was right and strove to make a real difference bit by bit. Those stories are worth telling, too. The movie is also a reminder of the times that gave us stories like those of Jane Austen's, stories about convention and the rules of society and young ladies striving to make matches and young men inheriting or having to seek out their fortunes by other means, a world very different from our own. Seen in the light of this story, this culture is sometimes amusing and sometimes ridiculous. It's Jane Austen...but not quite. Entertaining but certainly thought-provoking.

Into the Woods in the Theater
The music is memorable enough that I recognized songs from my days of listening to them online, when I worked at a bookstore and had never heard of Into the Woods. This musical was adapted from the stage for the screen and boasts such talents as Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, and Anna Kendrick, just to name a few. The costumes are unique, if a bit edgy. The setting is lush. The music is at times haunting, which is appropriate for a movie about a collection of fairy tale characters crossing tales in the woods, and sometimes it is downright funny. There is a song sung by two prince brothers as they frolic on a waterfall, and it was one of the highlights of this particular viewing experience for me. But the story is depressing and kind of sadistic. The fairy tales we know start as we expect. Cinderella gets to dance with a prince at the ball. Jack brings goodies down the beanstalk. Rapunzel's prince climbs her hair to offer her true love. Red Riding Hood faces the wolf. The story that ties them all together is that of a baker and his wife who are collecting items to break a witch's curse and thereby have a baby.

But the fairy tales end up diverging from happiness in ways the Grimm brothers would applaud. And since I'm not a fan of things grotesque or immoral (The movie is rated only PG, but I found some of the ideas disturbing enough and certain themes mature enough to warrant a higher rating. Planes is rated PG. I don't think I'd take younger than middle school to this myself.), I wasn't as enthralled as the music tried to make me be. The message of the movie ends up being very modern, which is to say, it sounds good on the surface but doesn't have a lick of depth or sense. It's contradictory. It says, "Anything goes." It says, "What happens in the woods stays in the woods." I do realize that some of that absurdity is meant to be there, but I also know that people latch onto meaning in music. And there just isn't any consistent meaning here. I heard mixed reviews about this movie before I went into it and thought I might like it better than what I was hearing. At least, I wanted to see for myself before judging it. And though I don't love witches, that doesn't even bother me as much as immorality and the pretentiousness of one of the ending songs that appears to give meaning to the movie but contradicts everything else the movie seems to be about. I'm rather sad the movie didn't turn out better. I wish it would have ended halfway through with a more positive, less egotistical message.

The Giver on DVD
This movie was so surprising. I'd heard a good opinion of it from someone I respected, but it was out of theaters so fast I didn't have a chance to see it then. I shouldn't have been surprised it would turn out so wonderfully, but since I've read vast amounts of dystopian fiction, some with really unique premises, I just wasn't sure The Giver (PG-13, 97 min.) would translate from book to screen well. I guess I thought it might be too tame, but I was wrong. The world was actually brought to life for me better than when I read the book, somehow. Reading about people living in a world devoid of color is quite a bit different than seeing it. That's one of the things that comes across better in a movie. And maybe it's because I now have children (and didn't when I read the book), I was certainly more affected by the scenes of euthanasia. In The Giver, certain babies and all the old are euthanized, and the people are ignorant of what that means, having lost all emotions. But Jonas is given the opportunity to learn about the world from ages before in order to be an adviser to those who don't have emotions. He alone gets emotions back. And, no surprise, it changes his world. I didn't mind that Jonas in the movie is older than Jonas in the book. It all worked beautifully for me, making the story richer than I had even remembered. Granted, this sort of story is perhaps slower-paced than something like The Maze Runner or Divergent, but I think it's just as well done cinematically and deserves a place among the top runners of the young adult book-to-movie adaptations trend.