I’m usually the kind of reviewer that plans ahead which book I’ll read and, occasionally, when but I must admit that in the case of Teresa Frohock’s debut novel, Miserere, I picked it up on a bit of a whim. The premise is relatively simple: the worlds that the bible tells us exist, Heaven, Earth and Hell, all exist, as well as an extra one, Woerld. Hence, Miserere is an interesting blend of secondary world fantasy and Christian mythology. Woerld is a place where the Katharoi, servants of God, use magic to keep Earth and their own world safe from the Fallen which reside in Hell. In my mind, this was a risky creative decision, but Frohock pulls it off splendidly. Combining this intriguing world building with very touching and realistic characters, this debut, though not perfect, manages to be both moving and enjoyable.
Exiled exorcist Lucian Negru deserted his lover in Hell in exchange for saving his sister Catarina's soul, but Catarina doesn't want salvation. She wants Lucian to help her fulfill her dark covenant with the Fallen Angels by using his power to open the Hell Gates. Catarina intends to lead the Fallen’s hordes out of Hell and into the parallel dimension of Woerld, Heaven’s frontline of defense between Earth and Hell.
When Lucian refuses to help his sister, she imprisons and cripples him, but Lucian learns that Rachael, the lover he betrayed and abandoned in Hell, is dying from a demonic possession. Determined to rescue Rachael from the demon he unleashed on her soul, Lucian flees his sister, but Catarina's wrath isn’t so easy to escape. In the end, she will force him once more to choose between losing Rachael or opening the Hell Gates so the Fallen's hordes may overrun Earth, their last obstacle before reaching Heaven's Gates.
Religion is a touchy subject, to say the least. Often religious themes are explored in fantasy through fictional religions, but rarely are real-world religions featured very prominently in fantasy, let alone secondary world fantasy. I was a bit bemused when mentions of God, Angels, Fallen Angels, Heaven, Hell, prayers, Psalms, etc. began cropping up early on in the novel because not being a religious man myself, I wasn’t too sure whether I would be able to suffer through something that had such heavy-handed religious references. Thankfully, I was wrong, as it quickly became evident that the elements of Christian mythology/theology were there only as a means of putting a twist on a ‘familiar tale’ so to speak.
Frohock conjures an expanded version of that familiar Christian theology in the form of a parallel, fantasy world, alongside Hell, Heaven and Earth. In Woerld, exist the Katharoi – what we might call warrior-priests – who are on a God-given mission to keep the Fallen (read: demons) in Hell and out of the other three realms, Woerld, Earth and Heaven. Originally born on Earth, the Katharoi are transported to Woerld where they begin to train as Katharoi. This, pretty much, is what happens to Lindsay, one of the main characters. The world Frohock builds is a varied and complex one politically as well as culturally, with tensions between the various religions, the Kingdoms they inhabit and their continuous struggle with the forces of Hell.
Amidst this turmoil, our main protagonist, Lucian, is a man tortured and torn by his allegiances. His is the true heart of Miserere’s story. As engaging a character as he may be, he’s one we’ve seen many times before, but that’s ok. He is that one-time traitorous character we love to watch redeem himself in the eyes of those that were close to him and whom he betrayed. His budding parental relationship with Lindsay reads as heartfelt and authentic. Meanwhile, his troubled relationship with his old flame Rachael is heartbreaking and his tortuous relationship with his sister, Catarina, is equally tragic, if for different reasons.
Though a bit fast moving at first, Miserere eventually settles into a nice, more sustainable pace. The characters, like mentioned above, form the core of the story. Sure there are political machinations, a dark and dangerous conspiracy, and a decent dose of magic being thrown around, but those almost feel as if they’re elements of the background as the characters completely steal the show. In fact a large part of the plot hinges on Lucian’s divided loyalties between his lover and his sister many years before the story is set. Not until the very end does the focus shift away from the characters in order to advance the plot in a major – somewhat rushed – way in preparation, I assume, for what is to come in potential sequels. As great as the characters are, the lack of balance between them and the plot is not ideal – a better integration of the two would certainly have made this a much stronger novel.
Despite these few faults, Miserere was an enjoyable read. I honestly didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, so that can only be a good thing. Teresa Frohock can be commended for delivering such a fine piece of work as her debut novel. I look forward to delving into any further ‘Katharoi’ novels that might see the light of day. A recommended read if strong Christian references (admittedly done in fine fashion) don’t bother you and lots of emotion are your thing. Miserere: An Autumn Tale is set to be published by Night Shade Books on July 1st in the US.
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
Teresa Frohock's Website: http://www.teresafrohock.com/
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