Monday, April 17, 2017

Short story review: "The Dagger with Wings" by G. K. Chesterton

If you're a Christian who likes to read, sooner or later someone will recommend G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. They've certainly been recommended to me on multiple occasions, usually with adjectives like "charming" and "delightful".

I was always at least somewhat interested. I do make a point of seeking out fiction in which the Christian faith plays a significant role, especially when that role is not "evil oppressive antagonist". A series of detective stories where the amateur sleuth is a Catholic priest, written by one of the most renowned Christian apologists of the twentieth century? What's not to like?

Plenty, as it turns out. But the fault may lie in me as a reader more than in Chesterton as a writer.

One of the acquaintances constantly recommending Chesterton finally handed me a stapled copy of "The Dagger with Wings", printed (I believe) from some online source. He thought this story would be a good introduction to Father Brown, and Chesterton's work in general.


Read "The Dagger with Wings" in The Incredulity of Father Brown
                                                           

[SPOILER ALERT]

In "The Dagger with Wings", Father Brown has been asked by an officer of the local police force to go talk to a man who's requesting police protection. Both the man's brothers have recently died, one an apparent suicide, the other in a factory accident. The surviving brother, however, believes that both were murdered and that the murderer is coming for him next.

Why does he believe this? Well, the three Aylmer brothers were born when their father was fairly old. Sometime before the father got married, when he assumed he was going to die a bachelor with no heir, he adopted a boy whose "origin seems to be vague; they say he was a foundling; some say he was a gipsy" (does this remind anyone else of Wuthering Heights?) When the old man died, he left most of his considerable estate to this adopted son and almost nothing to his "real sons". They disputed the will, claiming that the adopted son, John Strake, had intimidated their father into disinheriting them, and that their father hadn't been in his right mind when he did it. The courts took the sons' side, and they got the inheritance instead. Strake was furious and threatened to kill them all.


Wuthering Heights by [Brontë, Emily]
Not by G. K. Chesterton
                                                 
Since there's no evidence of foul play in the first two brothers' deaths, the police department isn't sure how seriously to take the last brother's claim that Strake is coming for him. Is he in genuine danger, or simply delusional? Father Brown is supposed to call on the fellow and do what we might call an informal psychiatric evaluation (Catholic priests apparently being in greater supply in 1920s rural England than actual psychiatrists).

When Father Brown gets to the house, there appears to be no one home. Which is odd, since Arnold Aylmer is reportedly too afraid of Strake to go outside. So, as any good cleric would do, Father Brown pokes around the exterior of the house until he finds an unlocked French window and lets himself in. Whereupon he meets Mr. Aylmer, in his dressing-gown, and is regaled with a wild story of how Strake used sorcerous powers to murder the first two brothers. The details don't quite add up, Father Brown calls the police when Aylmer steps out to "show you something", and it turns out that the man the father has been speaking with isn't Aylmer at all but Strake, who murdered Aylmer just a few moments before Father Brown appeared on the scene and then pretended to be him when the priest found a way into the house. (The sorcerous powers aren't real either, just a clever lie Strake thought up on the spot, expecting a priest to be gullible enough to believe any story invoking the supernatural.)

So, first of all, I'm probably not the ideal reader for these stories. While I did go through a phase in high school where I read almost all of Agatha Christie's novels, I'm not a big mystery fan. I'm especially not a fan of detective fiction at the short story length. There isn't space to introduce enough characters to make it at all challenging to figure out who the murderer is. In this particular story, we have Father Brown, "Aylmer" (actually Strake), and Dr. Boyne at police headquarters who sends the detective on his "quest". That's it for speaking parts. I knew Father Brown couldn't be the murderer. Dr. Boyne seemed equally unlikely, as we hardly see him at all. And the fake Aylmer acts suspiciously erratic all the way through their conversation. It's a bit of a twist that he isn't actually Aylmer at all (though reasonably well foreshadowed), but it wasn't that much of a leap to conclude that the apparently unbalanced fellow rambling on about hell-hounds and white magic was probably the real murderer, whomever he turned out to be.

And ... I am first and foremost a fantasy reader. I prefer stories where the supernatural element is real. "The Dagger with Wings" basically has a Scooby-Doo ending (despite pre-dating Scooby-Doo by almost 40 years). After all the build-up--silver bullets, cloaked and levitating sorcerers--it turns out that the murderer is just a common criminal who can spin a convincing yarn, and who hid the body by wrapping it in a long cloak and hanging it from a hat peg in the hallway when he heard Father Brown creep into the house. ("And I would have gotten away with it, if it hadn't been for you meddling priest!")

My understanding is that the debunking of an apparently supernatural explanation is pretty common in Father Brown stories. And while I can appreciate this in real life,* it's not why I read fiction.

I was also bothered by some of the story's underlying assumptions. Look at the back story from John Strake's point of view. An impoverished child in Victorian England, either orphaned or abandoned by his birth parents. For whatever reason, some wealthy landowner decides to adopt him. Then the guy gets married and has three kids of his own (his "real sons", as the police officer explaining the background to Father Brown calls them). No, I'm not suggesting that Strake's precarious position in an inegalitarian society justifies his attempt to have his step-brothers disinherited, and his subsequent murder of at least one of them (it's never made clear whether he was actually responsible for the first two deaths). But it's not clear that we're supposed to think anything except "justice was served" when the Aylmer brothers get the will thrown out and leave Strake with nothing.

Finally, there's the religious aspect. I appreciate that Father Brown is a more complex and believable Christian character than I usually encounter in fiction. That his belief in the supernatural and in the Devil doesn't mean he believes every yarn someone spins about either. Unfortunately, Strake gets to be the crazy religious fanatic, and I'm not sure the story is any more balanced in its treatment of westerners dabbling in eastern mysticism than all those other stories where one-dimensional Christians get to be the unhinged straw man villains.

"I've scarcely ever met a criminal who philosophized at all," Father Brown tells Dr. Boyne in the "drawing-room scene" at story's end, "who didn't philosophize along those lines of orientalism and recurrence and reincarnation ... It may not be like that in its real religious origins; but here in our working world it is the religion of rascals." I'm no expert on the spirituality of the English criminal underclass in the 1920s, but I can't help suspecting that an obsessive interest in eastern and other alternative spirituality may have been more typical among the wealthy (those with whom Chesterton often debated?). And, while the elder Mr. Aylmer did have a reputation for dabbling in the occult, the story seems to blame his adopted son for leading him astray. (The boy was how old when Aylmer adopted him? Thirteen, fourteen? And his adoptive father's obsession with mysticism is all his fault? Really, Chesterton?)

It's not easy to write fiction about religion or spirituality--or any strongly-held views--without making the protagonist a clever mouthpiece for your own opinions. It's also difficult to make characters express beliefs you disagree with, and may even consider harmful to society, without turning them into obvious villains or shallow caricatures. But until you can, no one who doesn't already agree with you will accept that you understand what you're arguing against (a corollary of the Chesterton's fence** principle, perhaps?).

I didn't dislike "The Dagger with Wings", exactly. Some of the prose is lovely, Father Brown gets some great lines, and I wouldn't have so many complaints about the way the story treats Strake if Chesterton hadn't filled in just enough of the back story to make me think there was more going on under the surface than even the author had imagined. But, unless someone can convince me otherwise, the other Father Brown stories will probably stay pretty far down on my ever-lengthening to-read list.


*I believe that demons exist and are active in the world, but also wish that evangelical Christians would be a little more circumspect about blaming so many negative outcomes or feelings on "spiritual oppression" or "spiritual warfare", especially in cases where there's a reasonable explanation that doesn't depend on the supernatural. Double especially when the reasonable explanation is that you were disorganized, or slacked off, or couldn't come to agreement with other members of your church committee because everyone insisted on getting their own way (or any other situation where blaming demons might be an attempt to absolve yourself of responsibility).

**Chesterton's fence: In his 1929 book The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, Chesterton writes, "In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'"

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Reviews

As you may have noticed, we're starting to do reviews here at Mysterion. In our theme guidelines, we mentioned a number of stories and books that have the sort of Christian elements we'd like to see in what we publish. We were thinking that people who are interested in what we're trying to accomplish with our anthology might also be interested in reviews of other work with Christian themes.

Let us know if you have any ideas about what we should review, including any of your own books and stories. We'll need the following information:
  • Story name or title
  • Author (let us know if you're the author)
  • Publisher (including self-published)
  • A link to where we could read a sample, or the whole thing.
Of course, we can't promise to read or review what you send us (or to give only positive reviews). In order to be considered, the work must engage with Christianity (Christian themes, characters, or cosmology), but also be of potential interest to readers who don't identify as Christian. There's no requirement that the work be "clean", or written by a Christian author, or that the treatment of Christianity be entirely favorable.

If it's a self-published fantasy book, Donald may post a review at Black Gate as well, if it's appropriate for that audience.

Send review requests to editors@mysterionanthology.com.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Book Review: Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw

We've decided to start posting book reviews on the Mysterion blog. Like the stories we publish, books reviewed here will feature Christian characters, themes, or cosmology. They won't necessarily be "Christian" books, as the CBA would understand it, or books written by Christian authors, but rather books that speak to our faith in some way, and that we think might appeal to readers interested in what we've tried to accomplish with Mysterion.

Dawn of Wonder cover
Our first review is for Dawn of Wondera 700-page novel of epic fantasy by Jonathan Renshaw. Mr. Renshaw doesn't need my help selling his book, as he's sold over 200,000 copies, has over 2,500 Amazon reviews, and has won a bevy of awards. I first encountered this book while doing reviews of self-published books at Black Gate, where a version of this review first appeared.

It is certainly a well-written book, with rich and poetic language and strong characterization. Aedan, the main character, is instantly likable, adventurous and bold but with a grave weakness that will haunt him throughout the novel. We're first introduced to Aedan as a boy, together with his friends, most notably Kalry, the daughter of the local noble. When tragedy strikes and Kalry is lost to slavers, Aedan is blamed, and his family has to leave the area. It is here that we are introduced to the source of Aedan's fears and weakness, his father's abusive temper. When they arrive in the city of Castath, Aedan's father separates from his family to return to the criminal lifestyle he had practiced before marrying.

Aedan quickly decides that what he wants is to become a soldier, independent of his father and the domineering woman his mother finds shelter with, and more importantly, able to pursue revenge on the nation of slavers who took Kalry. When he seeks out the training to become one, he quickly catches the eye of General Osric, and is offered a place at the Academy, studying to become a gray marshal, one of the spies and scouts who are Castath's first line of defense. Believing that becoming one would give him an even better chance to avenge Kalry, he leaps at the opportunity.

And it is here that the book bogs down, becoming more Harry Potter without magic than the epic tale of revenge I was anticipating. We learn a great deal about Aedan's training, in more detail than we need. We also learn of the antics he gets up to as a student, of which there are many, but mostly involving tame stakes. It is a credit to Mr. Renshaw's writing that he was able to make those scenes interesting enough that I did want to know what happened next, but I found the school scenes much less engrossing than the few exciting outings, involving monsters and spies, interspersed with them. The book would have benefited by cutting some of the training and class scenes and focusing on the adventures.

One thing the school does provide is an opportunity to meet similarly minded young people. Among Aedan's new companions are Peashot, a small, mischievous boy; tall, awkward Lorrimer; and headstrong Hadley. These marshals-in-training become Aedan's friends and rivals, and play off his strengths and weaknesses very well. While Castath is not egalitarian enough to train women as marshals, there is a separate program for the queen's envoys, teaching young women not just in languages and medicine, but in their own unique fighting style. Liru, one of those young women, is a foreigner with noticeably darker skin, and so an outsider among her classmates. She and Aedan gravitate toward one another, and her temper and quick wit help to keep Aedan in line.

There isn't a lot of magic in Dawn of Wonder. There are no magicians or wizards. There are odd, unexplainable events, such as strange bolts of light striking the ground like sustained lightning, and monstrous animals that may be related. But for the most part, the world consists of ordinary people faced with the threat of war, and training their utmost to be ready for it, with just bare hints that there may be something other out there.

You may be wondering where the Christian content is. There is no church, no doctrine of the resurrection, and most people practice a religion that is decidedly not Christianity. There is, however, an old faith, a belief in a supreme deity called the Ancient that only a few still seem to follow--among them Kalry, though we only see this in her diary.

Near the end of the book, Aedan experiences what can only be described as a theophany, a meeting with the Ancient. This is a turning point for Aedan, and the place where he starts to overcome his greatest faults. It is an important part of the book, and unfortunately not as original as I would have liked. As one of the editors of Mysterion, I've seen a lot of stories where God makes an appearance. Theophanies are hard to write, and the way Dawn of Wonder does it follows the conventions used in Christian speculative fiction a little too faithfully. There's a tendency in Christian fiction to write theophanies as if they're altar calls. I would have liked to see more of the strangeness, fear, and bewilderment found in the theophanies you read about in the Bible. They are warnings, commands, prophecies. Even Paul's road-to-Damascus calling was more challenge than instruction. He needed other people to explain to him what he was supposed to do about it.

Where the book works, it works really well, and events set up hundreds of pages ago can have significant payoffs. Aedan grows and develops in believable ways, maturing without losing that boyish sense of adventure, and characters like Peashot and Liru are great supporting characters, with their own faults and character arcs. But where the book falters, you're left worrying about whether things will ever get moving again. I found Aedan's brief infatuation with a fellow student to be particularly annoying. I've never seen anyone, even teenagers, experience quite that level of brain death the first time they fall in love. Thankfully, that section was mercifully short. There are also a few places where a professional editor might have helped. In particular, I noticed that Lorrimer just disappeared at one point during the winnowing process the Academy uses to choose only the best students. I was sure he had flunked out, until he suddenly showed up again later.

Fortunately, the book gets more right than it gets wrong, and even the slow parts usually have compelling writing, so even when I got annoyed I still wanted to read more.

Dawn of Wonder is available at Amazon for $4.99 for the ebook, and $14.96 for the paperback.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mysterion stories on Tangent Online Recommended Reading List

We're excited to report that 4 stories from Mysterion made it onto the Tangent Online 2016 Recommended Reading List.

Short stories

  • “Forlorn” by Bret Carter
  • “Golgotha” by David Tallerman
  • “Cutio” by F. R. Michaels

Novelette

  • “The Monastic” by Daniel Southwell

Congratulations to those whose stories were recommended!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Boskone 2017

Update (2/3/2017): Unfortunately, there's been a change of plans. Due to a death in the family, we will not be able to attend Boskone this year, so we're afraid we won't be able to host a party. Fortunately, Robert B Finegold has very kindly offered to attend the Boskone Book Party in our stead with copies of the anthology, and there will still be copies with Ian Randal Strock at the Fantastic Books table in the dealer's room.


Join us at this year's Boskone!  We'll be showing off Mysterion at the Boskone Book Party, with--schedules permitting--Mysterion authors Robert B Finegold and Kenneth Schneyer.  We're also throwing a party on Friday night, and Kristin has a reading and is on 5 panels.

Copies of Mysterion will be available for purchase, either directly from us, or from Ian Randal Strock at the Fantastic Books table in the dealers' room.

Here's our complete schedule.  All events take place at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, 425 Summer St.



Friday, 8:00 PM
Don’t Quit Your Day Job Just Yet
E. C. Ambrose (M), Kristin Janz, Jennifer Pelland, James Patrick Kelly, David Anthony Durham
Marina 4 · 60 min · Panel

Mentors, teachers, agents, and editors continuously encounter new authors. These hopefuls possess abilities ranging from brilliant to talented but unpolished to … well, not so much. How do we balance criticism and praise, and to what degree? While it’s our aim to guide emerging writers and to help strengthen their work, is there ever a time to just say no? If so, how?


Friday, 9:30 PM-midnight
Mysterion Party
Location TBD (our hotel room)


Saturday, 9:30 AM
Reading by Kristin Janz
Kristin Janz
Griffin · 30 min · Reading


Saturday, 1:00 PM
Bioethical Issues Raised by SF … and Real Life
Stephen P. Kelner Jr., Priscilla Olson (M), Ken Altabef, Kristin Janz, JeffWarner
Harbor II · 60 min · Panel
Ongoing advances in biotechnology and biomedical research have delivered some important benefits, and promise more. But they’ve also brought ethical concerns, calls for moratoria, fresh regulation — and new moral dilemmas. There may or may not be something wrong with playing God: but are we playing blind? What might we unleash with stem cell research, modified viruses, bioengineered cures, self-replicating nanobots, cloning, and regrowth of organs or limbs?


Saturday, 6:30 PM
Boskone Book Party
Galleria – Stage · 60 min · Event
Join us for Boskone’s Book Party! See what’s just out from authors you love, and discover new favorites. The book party will include E. C. Ambrose ( Elaine Isaak ), Neil Clarke, LJ Cohen, Milton Davis, Grady Hendrix, Carlos Hernandez, Jeremy Flagg, Kristin Janz, Hillary Monahan, Cerece Rennie Murphy, Ian Randal Strock, Christine Taylor-Butler, and more!


Saturday, 8:00 PM
A Muddle of Mad Scientists
Jordin T. Kare, Debra Doyle, John P. Murphy (M), Kristin Janz, John Langan
Burroughs · 60 min · Panel
From Dr. Frankenstein to Dr. Faustus, Mrs. Coulter to Dr. Horrible, genre fiction is filled with a long list of the crazily creative geniuses known as mad scientists. Why do we love them? What makes the mad scientist character so appealing in horror, comedy, and everything in between? Join us for a mad, mad discussion featuring some of our favorite screwy scientists/inventors from the past, present, and future.


Saturday, 9:00 PM
Cooking with Chemistry!
B. Diane Martin, David G. Shaw, Kristin Janz (M)
Burroughs · 60 min · Panel
Foodies love to experiment with new equipment and techniques that reformulate their favorite ingredients into exciting new dishes. On the menu: unexpected contrasts of taste and texture, changes in serving temperature, and how to exploit naturally occurring components in new ways. Our panelists discuss chemistry, cooking, and cool culinary science.


Sunday, 10:00 AM
Chemistry: Spec Fic’s Critical Compound
Milton Davis, Kristin Janz, Mark L. Olson (M), Justine Graykin, Steven Popkes
Marina 2 · 60 min · Panel
It’s got a long history within speculative fiction, but it’s often overshadowed by biology, physics, and astronomy. From transmutating metals to creating fuels, gunpowder, poisons, and (in The Martian) oxygen, chemistry is often the unsung science of our genres. We’ll discuss chemistry’s practical aspects, and how they are successfully applied within a story. We’ll also look at a few bang-up examples where the science went wrong …

Monday, January 23, 2017

Awards Season

As some of you know, nominations are now open for the Hugo and Nebula awards. To assist any readers wanting to nominate their favorite stories from Mysterion, we've assembled a list of award-eligible stories, sorted by nomination category.

Short story

  • “When I Was Dead” by Stephen Case
  • “Forlorn” by Bret Carter
  • “Too Poor to Sin” by H. L. Fullerton
  • “Golgotha” by David Tallerman
  • “A Good Hoard” by Pauline J. Alama
  • “Yuri Gagarin Sees God” by J. S. Bangs
  • “Cutio” by F. R. Michaels
  • “Yuki and the Seven Oni” by S. Q. Eries
  •  “Ascension” by Laurel Amberdine
  • “The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta
  • “Horologium” by Sarah Ellen Rogers

Novelette

  • “The Monastic” by Daniel Southwell
  • “Of Thine Impenetrable Spirit” by Robert B Finegold, MD
  • “The Angel Hungers” by Christian Leithart
  • “This Far Gethsemane” by G. Scott Huggins
  • “Cracked Reflections” by Joanna Michal Hoyt

The other four stories are reprints, and do not qualify for this year's award nominations.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Arisia 2017

Enigmatic Mirror Press (i.e., Kristin and Donald) will be at Arisia in Boston next weekend!  Come to our party on Saturday night (check the party board for room number), or stop by our table in the Artist/Author Alley on Sunday and Monday.  We'll have copies of Mysterion for sale, and free cookies.

Arisia 2017
January 13th-16th