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Note

   In this space, whenever I feel up to it, I'll include reviews of paper books and e-books I've read. If you want to send me something to review, it should be an e-book in PDF, HTML, or .rb format. I prefer to review Christian science fiction or fantasy and mainstream science fiction. I'm not selling these books or being paid for the reviews. I'll be as positive as I can be and remain honest, but I don't care for excessive explicit violence, for steamy sex scenes, or moral ambiguity.
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Modern Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy

   Firebird, A Trilogy by Kathy Tyers combines the author's novels Firebird, Fusion Fire, and Crown of Fire in one volume. Lady Firebird's story is an extended parable of the pre-Christian era, the time when prophecy guided a select group of people toward the coming Messiah and a true atonement, of which older sacrifices were mere shadows. However, it is set in a universe having high technology, including interstellar travel. Tyers is an experienced old hand and boasts solid Science Fiction credentials (including Star Wars novels). It shows. Firebird is superbly written and plotted and has the sweep one finds only in the masters of the craft. As in much of the best SF, science and technology are background players here, for Firebird is about integrity, pride, character, self-sacrifice, duty, redemption, and the struggle between good and evil, between idolatry and true religion. The character development is excellent, consistent and believable, the romance done properly, the action non-stop, and the conclusions, though satisfactory, leave the reader wanting more. There's creative room here for several additional stories. Whether you are a hardcore SF fan or a Christian looking for books to stretch your imagination, Firebird should be on your short list of must-read books. Very highly recommended. In paper from Bethany House.

   Adrenaline by John B. Olson is a fast-action biochemical/medical Christian SF suspense thriller that keeps its readers tensely perched the edge of their seats. James Parker, biochemist, pursues a cure to a wasting disease that bids soon to cut his life short. Meanwhile, Darcy Williams seeks a spiritual cure and relief from an evil nemesis out of her past that now threatens them both. Can she find faith and love? Can he find a cure? Or will evil overwhelm them both? This is one of those books that leaves the reader breathless (even at times slightly confused) so fast-paced and entangled is the plot. It demands a slow read to get it all, yet forces a fast one to keep pace. Good stuff. In paper from Bethany House.

   Oxygen by John B. Olson and Randall Ingermanson is proof that Christian fiction is capable of maturing beyond millenialism and historical romance. These authors show their characters solving hard technology problems in the context of authentic Christian spiritual development--something neither secular nor religious publishers have previously had the courage to attempt.
   Oxygen exhibits the best of hard science fiction and Christian writing. It is a superbly crafted technology thriller starring a Christian heroine whose faith development is a central issue. The story sets an Apollo-13 style mishap on a Mars mission fraught with hostile politics, conspiracy, sabotage, natural disasters, misplaced love, life-and-death choices, and profound spiritual testing. Time and again the four astronauts are written off as dead but find a way to survive, to trust, to believe, until.... The closer you get to the heart-sopping ending the harder it is to put this one down. Oxygen displays an authentic voice, an eye for detail, and a heart for writing. Great for SF fans who want a new breed of characters who deal with issues beyond the scientific and social, perfect for anyone wanting to learn what Christian science fiction could be. Very highly recommended. More, please. In paper from Bethany House.

   Deed of Paksenarrion is Elizabeth Moon's Celtic fiction trilogy on Christian themes, and one of the best of the genre. I found the redemption/substitutionary sacrifice scenes to be very graphically drawn, and unsuitable for younger readers, but the story line and characterization are powerful. Nobility, little people, sword fights, castles, women warriors, rising high from humble beginnings, the conflict between good and evil--all the Celtic themes are there, and well-done. You can't put this down. Highly recommended. I'm not normally into space opera but Moon's future history books are good reads as well, especially if you're interested in women as military leaders.

   Heir of Faxinor is a straight-line neo-Celtic fantasy-romance on Christian themes. Heroine Andrixine, is heir to an important province of Reshor. Manipulated by her ambitious uncle who wants Faxinor for himself, her life plays out on a stage dominated by incipient war with the evil kingdom of Sendorland. Yomnian the all-Creator selects her to bear His Spirit Sword, in which is instantiated His goodness, light, truth, and healing power. She must balance her duty to produce an heir for Faxinor, her obligations to represent Yomnian to Reshor through his sword, and her love for the young warrior Kalsan. In the course of events, she deals with her own poisoning, the kidnapping of her mother, assorted bandits, an army moving against her sister, the defection of her treacherous uncle, overzealous comrades, and the demands of leadership imposed by the sword.
   Author Michelle Levigne draws her characters with blunt, broad strokes. There is no moral ambiguity here; all are wholly good or evil, and Andrixine's own struggles are with external evil and conflicting goods, not much with fallen elements in herself. The plot is single-threaded and unidirectional, so the reader is not asked to work at sorting out people and events, nor is there much suspense at the outcomes. Yet Heir of Faxinor is an entertaining read, great for an evening's escapism. The publisher has done a superb job of the editing; the almost error-free book is a much more professional product than some e-book offerings. A bargain e-book at US$ 4.95 on disk and a dollar less for an HTML download from MountainView Publishing. Recommended.

   Lorien is a sequel to Heir of Faxinor, but quite a different yarn. Sword bearer Andrixine withdraws to the Snowy Mountains lest her enemies (not all outside Reshor) learn of her pregnancy and launch an attack. Her sister Lorien becomes "Sword's Voice" at Reshor's court, learning its deadly dance of intrigue and treachery, not the least of which is the competition for her own hand. Suiters see her beauty and influence, but ignore the substance, the woman who longs to know and serve Yomnian. Neither is she welcomed at the capital by every Sword sister, for Lorien is trained for diplomacy, not war. She needs every skill, for King Drahas of Sendorland would devour both Reshor and her ally Eretia. When the wife of whom he grew tired "conveniently" dies, he seeks a new one from Reshor or Eretia to advance claims on their territories. When Andrixine's twins are born, he adds to his crimes kidnapping, poisoning, and inciting treachery among Reshor's venal nobility. Meanwhile Arand Mahor, son of Eretia's First Ambassador, chafes at his own call to duty in his nation's cause, for he is sent to Reshor tasked with arranging a marriage alliance between Lorien and his young Prince, when he would rather be a musician and a healer. But Arand and Lorien find themselves drawn irresistibly toward each other. Does doing Yomnian's will in support of family and nation mean they must sacrifice happiness? Must duty bind them to political mates they loathe? Or may they answer the call of duty through their love?
   The Celtic elements of Heir of Faxinore are largely missing in Lorien, for the two sisters are very different, and so are their priorities, adventures, and loves. Lorien is no warrior princess rearing back on her war charger to raise a sword of God's power over a bloodied battlefield. Rather she's the younger princess whose beauty is pawn in the deadly chess of international intrigue, and who must master the game herself lest both she and Faxinor perish. Call her story a Christian fantasy romance, one that explores the battles between good and evil, between the will of God and human desires, between revenge and forgiveness, between a just but loving and forgiving image of God and a dark cruel distortion whose name is idolatrously invoked in support of implacable evil. It's hard to put this book down before you've seen its characters through. From Treble Hearts in Fall 2002. Another recommended read.

   Arena by Karen Hancock is billed as allegorical fiction. It tells the story of people who are conscripted (essentially kidnapped) to become players in a cosmic arena in order to demonstrate to the watching angels (good and evil) the power of God in the life of a trusting believer. Those who succeed are promised great reward, and those who fail apparently continue on in the arena as agents of the forces of evil. Although the analogy to the Christian life is somewhat heavy-handed to be compared to the more delicate hand of C.S. Lewis, the book is nonetheless an worthwhile read. From Bethany House.

   David Weber's Honor Harrington acclaimed space opera series deserves significant mention, not because it has any explicit Christian focus, but because in some of volumes a form of religion plays a prominent role. But Weber's strength is that he understands the military, and doesn't make silly errors in describing how it thinks and acts, but in this series, his treatment of religion is somewhat caricatured.
But Weber's Safehold series, which I read after meeting and serving on panels with David at VCON in 2015 shows that he "gets" the concept of a relationship with the creator as the only legitimate foundation for religious practices, and that he does so as no other ASF or Fantasy writer I have read in recent years. This is a spectacular series, well-thought-out, well-presented, and having the elusive quality of sweep. As in my own books, a main "character" is the interplay between religion and technology--particularly that of the military kind. Very highly recommended.

   Tidbits:
  • Frank Peretti is far too dark (obsessed with demonic powers) to suit me.
  • The LaHaye/Jenkins Left Behind series comes too close to forcing the Lord's return into a railroad timetable to interest me. It may have been a temporary cult phenomenon, and a wild commercial success, but even though I share general agreement with its eschatology I don't find it well written or well plotted, and thought the quality declined sharply as it sputtered toward its end. No classic here IMHO, but your kilometrege may vary.
  • I haven't read Lawhead yet.

Religion and SF

By contrast to Weber, far too much fantasy and SF, loses credibility either by expunging religion altogether from the society they depict, or by presenting an almost entirely one-dimensional, stereotyped, quasi-Old Testament style organized religion gone corrupt as a major antagonist, yet without establishing any foundation for or the content of its beliefs (other than a tradition-based repressive patriarchal legalism trope with vague or no doctrines of God, sin, salvation, or sanctification). Why do so many authors research their science, trchnology, law, social customs, historical references, classical allegories, and character psychology so well, yet present religion (if at all) as a hollow man, or at best, stuffed with stale straw for trivially easy target practice? Improbable science can sometimes be forgiven as an author's request to suspend disbelief for the sake of a plot. However, improbable religion undermines credible character development to no good fictional purpose. History may well have seen false religions with such symptoms on the surface, but as a theme in SF (and other genres and media), it's superficial, overdone, and long due for retirement.

The struggle between good and evil is a common theme in both Science fiction and Fantasy. What is less often explored is the underlying assumption that good and evil exist and can be distinguished. Modern liberalism has taught for some generations that neither has objective and absolute reality, yet still finds it possible to express outrage, say, at certain political behaviours in the real world, and to identify with "good" characters in the fictional one. Why? The best answer liberal thinking could give is that "good" is a relative moral consensus. But that is unsatisfactory, for there have been societies (Hitler's Germany being the classical modern example) whose consensus the same liberals would claim was manifestly evil. Yet by what standards? Merely a broader consensus? What if there is a broader one still that contradicts the second? The Christian's answer is that God defines eternally both good and evil, and that all men and women, whether they believe in Him or not, have some residual sense of both (from creation, the imagio dei, and conscience). That is, these are absolutes, not relatives. Food for thought.

Many Christians, and even more of their opponents, seem to think that the existance (or not) of other intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe is a big issue, one whos resolution will either disprove (or prove) evolution, and hence the credibility of the Bible. Both sides are wrong. The issue is irrelevant to Christianity. Though certainly an interesting topic for discussion, it has no bearing on the scriptures one way or another. If there are other intelligent created beings, God has his own plan, consistent with his character, for all of them.

Classic Christian Science Fiction

   C.S. Lewis: His Narnia series may be the most popular Christian fiction ever written, and with good reason. Aslan is a wonderfully understandable picture of Christ, and children ought to be read Narnia, or read it themselves, at least once a year to age 120.
His space trilogy--Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra (Voyage to Venus), and That Hideous Strength--are less well-known, but equally deserving. I find the last of the three rather dark, and wouldn't recommend it to children, but regard Perelandra as one of the best books ever written on sin and redemption. Every Christian should read it--many times.

   J.R.R. Tolkein:The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy defined the Celtic fantasy genre. It's unlikely anyone else will produce so monumental a work any time soon, so everyone who presumes to write or understand fantasy must read Tolkein, who "got" the struggle between good and evil to such a remarkable degree that most subsequent fantasy fiction leans on him heavily.


Other Fantasy On Religious Themes

   Dan Brown's 'The da Vinci Code' has been billed as a historical thriller. It would be more accurate to bill it as fantasy as there is no history involved, and his description of the historical figure of Jesus Christ is pure invention. The author's apparent insistence that the book is non-fiction should be taken as either advertising hype or a delusion. Not worth reading.


   Chelsea Anne Yarbro's Magnificat is fantasy-suspense on religious themes. In her world's approach to Y2K, Catholic Church officials and Protestant preachers are universally corrupt, the former seduced by the power and materialism their positions afford, the later obsessed by chiliasm and cultism. Both consume themselves in dissipate immorality.
   When the college of Cardinals mysteriously and unanimously elects an unknown Communist Chinese magistrate as Pope, it takes the death of an alternate candidate and a second such election to convince them. With the help of a worldly-wise, vision-plagued Texan cardinal, the head of the KGB, a lapsed Catholic journalist, and a British diplomat enduring a pro forma marriage (the latter two indulging a hot affair), a non-Christian widow becomes Pope An, bent on reforming a church she despises. Conspiracies to assassinate her multiply as various groups within and without the church are offended by her elevation, her pronouncements on the "real" sayings of Jesus, and her use of the magisterum to change Catholic doctrine and practice. Once she permits woman priests, abolishes clerical celibacy, rewrites doctrines on sin and guilt, and tolerates homosexuality, cardinals who were reluctantly willing to accept her decide Satan had tricked them. Meanwhile, "fundamentalists" denounce her as the Revelation's Antichristal "Whore of Babylon", and mount their own murderous plots.
   There isn't much subtlty here, for Yarbro makes her points with an axe, rather than a rapier. The mystic-Divine intervention behind Pope An's elevation shoves Yarbro's true but venal Catholic Church along the road to social reform and doctrinal reinterpretation even while her deluded Protestants, goaded by cartoon-like preachers, remain trapped in mindless fanaticism. Our world's religious media stereotypes of both Y2K frenzy and religion are ubiquitous realities in hers. Thus, though the true nature and original teachings of Christianity are central plot elements, Magnificat features nary a single right-living, clean-speaking, pious believer. Her characters clearly illustrate the scriptural dictum "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," ignore "repent and believe the good news," and do not know about "set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity." Outward social reform is religion's best raison d'etre, rather than but one inevitable outcome of a Biblical Christianity founded on repentant faith in God, who gives grace gifts to transform individuals from within. Unlike the Protestant reformers whose motto was sola scriptura, An founds her reforms on pragmatism, and attempts to recover Jesus's real teachings in "Jesus Seminar"-like scriptural deconstruction.
   Still, Magnificat is a well-written, well-edited fantasy yarn, free of the mechanical errors that sometimes plague e-books, and better organized than most for viewing on handhelds. The author maintains both page-turning suspense and the extravagant suspension of disbelief required to make the premise of an unbelieving Chinese woman pope plausible. The badly factionalized, worldly-wise College of Cardinals is also credible, and so is the whimsical desire of the KGB's head to take a hand on Pope An's behalf. The South American drug lords and their tame church officials who plot her demise are equally believable. On the other hand, only madness can explain Yarbro's pseudo-Protestant preachers, who, presented with an ideal whipping girl to stir deluded followers to loyalty and cash donations, irrationally plot her murder.
   Ultimately, in Magnificat's fantasy, visions come true, social justice and sexual equality get a leg up, organized religion a black eye, and Biblical, faith-based Christianity is ignored. Yarbro's world is not unlike ours after all.
   Magnificat is available in various formats from Hidden Knowledge


Other Speculative Fiction

   Crimson Dawn is a new-age operatic fantasy, probably suited to the YA market. StarCom astronaut Adrian Berry discovers an Egyptian-style Martian mummy, then becomes embroiled in a cover-up back on earth. With archaeologist Mike Starling, he flees in a home built spaceship back to Mars, there to discover surviving Martian/Egyptians living in a mentally maintained "holosphere." They witness pyramid power at work, become embroiled in plots and counterplots, find false love and betrayal, then supply the means for enigmatic King Raneb, vampish Queen Mernatha, and duplicitous Synchronicitor Weni to transfer their ancient feud back to earth. When an angry god decides to collapse the universe as punishment for their interdimensional tinkering, the plot becomes a race against time and into other universes.
   Author Tracy Jones employs flowery, somewhat stilted dialog, a mixture of magical psychic powers with unexplained technology, and abrupt changes in plot direction to evoke wisps of memory from Barsoom, Podkayne, and other yarns of fantasy's early days. If you're just getting started in the genre or that's the era where your comfort zone lies, and you hanker for an afternoon's lightly-entertaining suspension of disbelief, Crimson Dawn may well be to your liking. Available from e-book publisher Wordbeams.

   A Circle of Arcs is a time-travel-paranormal-romance with religious motifs. The Artemesians were charged by the mysterious lake-of-fire-dwelling N'Prvi to keep the spiritual and mortal entities of the universe in balance, but instead fell into bored degeneracy, giving themselves to elaborate entertainments. Their tertiaries exist only to provide sexual gratification, and their primes meddle with dark magic. Achir, a tertiary, runs afoul of the Emperor whose daughter he covets, and travels to our earth to rescue Jeanne D'Arc and her compatriot Gilles de Rais just prior to their respective deaths at the stake to be his stars in a new diversion. Thwarted by de Rais, who bribes the Maid's executioner to strangle her, Achir searches for a replacement star, tossing the unsuspecting Gilles centuries forward in time, where he meets descendent/analog Darcey Norris, who is no Maid, despite the resemblance. She, the lecherous tertiary advises, will complete de Rais' redemption and ensure the Horned One remains bound by Jeanne's powers.
   Author Kate Saundby never tells us what entertainment Achir planned, for once he has ensnared Darcey in Giles' fate, his own agenda is diverted by his Artemesian co-conspirators, by the N'Prvi, by the Horned One whom Giles' relatives worshipped, and by the Maid herself, who hangs about in a nether dimension making sure the Artemesians don't release the Horned One from her centuries-old binding. Treachery and duplicity abound, and Achir is not only himself not who he thought, but is also the target of others' manipulation. The plot jumps about rapidly from fifteenth to twentieth century locales, steamy sex to occult scenes, earth to Artemesia, and back again before leaping to implicit resolution/conclusion. A suitably grand conceit for the paranormal romance fan. From Crossroads E-Books ISBN 158338-468-5

   Riley Eye in the City by Ken Mason (e-book from Crossroads Publishing) is the second in a supernatural-action-fantasy trilogy about a boy with who is stolen at birth and raised in a secret army facility. Discovering their duplicity and his own magical powers, he slaughters his tormentors and flees, becoming the Archangel of Purgatory and taking on certain duties in the cause of an inner voice. In this volume, he sets out to find his mother, rescues a girl from the mob, makes many new enemies to disembowel, and tangles again with the army, whose vengeful General Luker has not forgotten him. Riley uses magic to heal one group of people shot by the mob, but apparently cannot do the same for his mother when she meets the same fate, so he retires to Purgatory to plan a private war.
   If your fantasy taste runs to non-stop action in the form of repeated graphical depictions of extreme violence, sexual assault, shape-shifting, and blood-lusting dragons from the nether reaches; and if your spiritual interests include an absent, uninterested god, morally ambiguous characters, and an angel who has sex with a teenaged girl and dismisses the bible as a book written by men, you might find something here. Of course, the author may have Riley repent of his ways in a future volume.

   Tidbits: Heinlein was interesting in his early years, but his later characters were lechers, with little to commend them. Asimov's Foundation series was the best thing he wrote, and a true SF classic.


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