Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Hidden Kings Trilogy: Pathways of Mercy

SPOILER ALERT - This post discusses some of the crucial plot elements of the novel.

Pathways of Mercy has the unusual distinction of being the only book of the trilogy that was not written in Africa and with no part written out by hand or told orally (Freedom Cry, incidentally, did go through an early stage where I was telling it as an oral story to a friend, in nightly installments). Pathways came together during the first few years of our marriage, while we were living in Colorado and studying at Denver Seminary. The title actually comes from a line of a poem that Rachel wrote to me during our season of dating/engagement. And although there were no elements of this story that were already in place in my mind when I first wrote Freedom Cry, it struck me as the natural next step as the closing chapter of the trilogy. Freedom Cry introduced a core set of characters, themes, and values, and gave a wonderful opening view into that world; and The Conqueror's Song explored its ancient history and its Creation/Fall narrative. The next step, from a Christian view, is the resolution of that story, where human history and salvation-history come together one more time in a grand, unexpected, miraculous explosion of grace. The history of this world needed the Gospel, and that's what Pathways of Mercy is--the story of Imminya's ultimate incursion into his world, bringing with him salvation to both Melatari and Arona, and the healing of the nations.

It was my most challenging novel to write, for two major reasons. First, it required me to create a fictional Christ, and to have him be a believable part of his world. One of the reasons why the novel follows the viewpoints of other major characters (Dryhten, Rehar, Jeolin, and Tavvis) rather than its central character, Hallanar, is because I found that I could not get close enough to his character as to describe him from the inside out and have it all hold together--there needed to be a mystery of holiness about him, and to do that, I found I could only bring him to life through other's eyes. But if we think about it, that's the way most of us see and experience Christ himself--mediated through the witness of the Gospels and the experience of his abiding presence with his church.

The second reason it was challenging was because I wanted to make this a novel of redemption, and the central transformative character in that regard was Addarax--the villain of The Conqueror's Song, and basically the right-hand man of the most wicked power in the world. Conversion-accounts are difficult to do because it's hard to make them actually believable--such radical transformations of character and outlook are exceedingly rare in real life (generally, people only experience such a thing once, if ever, in their lives). So I had to begin on a human level, by thrusting him into an unexpected friendship with Rehar, and only when we had seen his edges softening could we believe that he was capable of letting go of what centuries of wickedness had made of him.

As we did with the other books, allow me to frame some of the most important themes I was working with:

Grace: This is the heart of the Christian Gospel, and it's the heart of this book as well. In a world caught by sin and violence and war, the goodness and favor of God takes them completely by surprise. They're not looking for Imminya to come and strike straight at the deepest heart of all their problems, but that's exactly what he does. Through the mediation of Hallanar, who represents the re-incarnation of the Star King (who himself was an incarnation of Imminya), the root of their wars is taken on his shoulders and done away with. Forgiveness is offered for the ancient Fall at the dawn of time, and a way of reconciliation opened for the nations of the Arona.

God is searching for you: So many times in life we picture God as distant and removed, willing to sit back in the heavens and keep track of our failings until we finally muster up the strength to turn away from our sins and take a step toward him. That's not the view of God that Christianity teaches, nor is it the one that Pathways tries to show. Rather, God takes the initiative. He steps out into our world, intent on tracking us down, wherever we are. So Hallanar dives straight into the lair of his most ancient enemy, having made up his mind to find her and offer her the hope of redemption.

The treasures of the world are worthless compared to the grace of God: One of the supreme ironies of the book comes from the quest of Addarax and the Dark Queen, as they search for a relic that will bring them absolute power: the Star King's sword. This will bring them, so they believe, what they've always wanted: physical immortality and complete authority. But to God's eyes, those things don't matter. The misinterpreted prophecy speaks not of physical immortality and power, but of the eternal life of a relationship with God. In fact, the relic that they are willing to turn the world upside-down to obtain ends up being melted down by Hallanar and handed out for free to whomever he meets. The true treasure is not anything this world can bring, but only the favor of God himself.

Only God is strong enough to solve our ultimate problem: One of the surprises of this novel is that the Dark Queen survived. (And there are a few other, smaller surprises, too--insightful readers might have already guessed that Arman/Kelta are one and the same, but my hope was that that would be a pleasant discovery; as would be the fact of Rehar and Nara's marriage). The implied result of the battle of Varakis in The Conqueror's Song is that Warlent's stone, coupled with the floodwaters, killed the Dark Queen. This is what the characters there assume (and what the world at large assumes for a thousand years), but it's never stated directly; they never find confirmation of her death. And when we come to Pathways, we find that she's still there, and Addarax is still in her employ. The Dark Queen almost personifies the problem of the Fall and the sin nature in these novels--and these are things that we can't fix ourselves. Just as Warlent couldn't completely do away with this source of evil in the world; so we of our own accord can't fix the problem of sin. It's only in the age of grace, with Hallanar's coming into the world (the theological implication being that the incarnation itself begins the healing of human nature), that the Dark Queen's power is finally and completely broken.

Evil is not strong enough to hold back the power of goodness: This is a further aspect of the "evil is a sham" theme that I wrote into The Conqueror's Song. The Dark Queen re-emerges as a villain in this novel, and readers will expect to find her much as we left her--an image of absolute, wicked power, with impressive skills in black magic, ruling a land darkened and chained by her terrible presence. But that's not what we find. This will surprise some readers; some might even find that it takes away from some of the suspense of the parts of the narrative that take place in "the Queen's hills." But I did what I did intentionally, to make a theological point. We find the Queen's realm to be a place of astonishing beauty and peace, and the Queen herself sitting broken and bereft of power in her cave. The Queen's condition is a reminder that the power that wickedness brings is never our own possession, and it is never lasting. Rather than finding her in control of these dark forces, as she once seemed to be, we can now see that she is merely a pawn of wickedness, a victim of her own choices, and that her power has faded away with the years, leaving her an empty shell. Her presence, though still considerable, is not enough to hold back the innate power of goodness manifest in the souls of her people--they are, after all, still the good creations of Imminya, regardless of the dark power that holds them in its grip.

Miracles: Once again, we also see the theme that began in Freedom Cry: that God is radically involved with his world, but that we see it most clearly through one another. God's chosen instruments for mediating his miraculous interventions and actions in the world are his people. This theme is illustrated all through the book, but is stated most directly in the conversation between Rennelson and Kyran after their capture by the Queen's forces.

The power of friendship: Again, a theme that began in Freedom Cry. I elected once more to have not just a single hero, but a whole band of heroes (including a "reunion tour" of the original cast during their southerly voyage), because it's important to remember that we humans are who we were meant to be only in community with others. This is illustrated most clearly in Addarax's character, in his straining to understand his millennia-long relationship with the Queen and his new, liberating friendship with Rehar.

Following in faith and following in doubt: We don't always understand what God is doing in our lives. Sometimes we might find a rich sense of the presence of God, and a clear trail to follow, as Jeolin finds in tracking down Hallanar and then joining his company. But more often, we find ourselves in the situation that Dryhten is in--a dark vale of unknowing, of wrestling with when and how to act in faith. In those places, I think we can best do what Dryhten himself does--trust in God to move in his own time, and in the meantime to step out and make the wisest decision we can.

Resurrection: This, of course, is what is implied by the end of the book. I even intentionally added a scene which alludes directly to the Gospel account--Jeolin (or, in the Bible, the women disciples) going to mourn beside the tomb. But I left the final realization unstated (much as the original ending of Mark's Gospel does); it is something so wonderful that words seemed simply inadequate to describe it. This is where the difficult events near the end of The Conqueror's Song come in, as a necessary "type" and foreshadowing of what would happen to Hallanar. But the final message is simple: goodness and grace win in the end, and nothing--not even death--is strong enough to hold them back.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Hidden Kings Trilogy - The Conqueror's Song


The Conqueror's Song was written a couple years after Freedom Cry. I didn't initially intend to write a trilogy; that's why Freedom Cry stands pretty well on its own. But I did intentionally weave in threads that hinted at other possible stories, just in case it could turn into a series. And after Freedom Cry was done, I found that I had enjoyed it so much that I wanted to keep going. One of the threads I had woven into the story was about the ancient history of that world, and particularly of one great event--the triumph of the legendary hero Warlent the Conqueror over the forces of an oppressive and seemingly invincible invader. I didn't have a clear idea myself of what Warlent's story was when I wrote Freedom Cry, so I thought it was worth exploring. If you know me, you know that I love history, and this gave me a chance to delve into a history of my own and explore its surprises and ironies along the way.

I started working on the book in the summer of 2005, after graduating from college, and most of it was penned by hand during my free time while doing volunteer work in Angola. We were living in tents and using kerosene lamps for light at the time, so there wasn't much chance of finding a computer to type away on. But, again, without the time-sucking temptations of TV and Internet, I was able to take my evening time and scratch away my new story into reams of notebooks.

It carries over a lot of the same themes as Freedom Cry: the cultural richness of the peoples, the central idea of friendship and life in community, and the belief that God's providence is primarily seen through one another. But there are also other themes and ideas underlying the plot of The Conqueror's Song. Here's a few of them:

Historical irony - I don't know if most readers will catch this, but for me, who thinks like a historian, it was one of my great joys in writing this book. We humans so often tend to idealize the past, and I wanted to show that this is exactly what had been done to the character of Warlent the Conqueror by the time of Freedom Cry. So at every turn of the story, I try to throw in surprises contrary to what one would expect to find if one only had the thousand-year-old legends from Freedom Cry to rely on. We discover that Warlent was not really a great warrior at all--he's a frail, skinny young man who doesn't like violence and especially doesn't like swords (ironic, of course, because of his later association with the sword Allaris). I try to leave open the possibility in the early sections of the book that perhaps the main character, Havarr, will not turn out to be the legendary Warlent--maybe it will be his courageous friend Redlai instead (for whom a couple geographic features in Freedom Cry are named, because of his later association with the Kayador ruling family), or the brave Alcomri leader Koy (there's another very subtle linguistic hint of this possibility in Freedom Cry, added to heighten the suspense for any particularly neurotic readers of my books)--but no, it turns out to be the skinny kid who's more keen to make peace than to fight. Not only that, one would expect from the descriptions in Freedom Cry for Alcomor to be a great and powerful civilization. But no, at this point it's a jarring collection of fractious tribes who live in huts in the woods. They're looked at as almost barbarians by the nearest great power, the Kayador. The Warlent character, Havarr, comes from the smallest and most obscure of these tribes. One would also have expected the Alcomri to have been passionate followers of Imminya, the one true God, but no, they're actually henotheists, honoring Imminya but also a host of other local divinities and reverencing the spirits of their ancestors. It's only along the way that Havarr's view of God begins to shift. Other ironies abound--the lords of Firth, who play a key role in swooping to Warlent's and Alcomor's aid in the legend, turn out to be a bunch of argumentative business-meeting types, so petrified of making a mistake that they're unwilling to act. It is their failure, more than almost anything else, that allows Warlent to become a hero, because he finds he has to do it without them. And, of course, there's the surprise at the end in which Warlent is struck down by an assassin. (My wife, on reading that part in an early draft, got so mad at me that she stormed out of the room. I had to plead with her to get her to finish reading the book.) All of those elements stem from my odd delight in making history realistic.

The Turnaround--a happy ending in the face of all odds - It seems strange to call this a theme, since it seems to be simply a commonplace method of storytelling in our culture. We like happy endings, and we like the drama of having them come after all hope seems to be lost. But for me, it's more than just a literary convention. It's a fundamental belief about the nature of things. It's redemption theology written in epic form. This is a thematic element for me because it's a part of the Christian allegory I'm trying to create. We, too, were without hope when, in the face of all the odds, God sent a turnaround that fixed everything, the ultimate deux ex machina. I adopt this form not simply because it makes for an entertaining and pleasing story, but because it's true. And, of course, I hint directly at the Resurrection in the sequence at the end, of Havarr's apparent death and then his revivification on the mountain, including his glorious final appearance. This element is not crucial to the Warlent story itself (really, the novel would be just fine without that sequence), but it is crucial to the trilogy as a whole, because it becomes a theological "type", a foreshadowing, of something yet to come in Pathways of Mercy.

Courage - This novel is, fundamentally, a book about courage. We have a timid hero who does extraordinary things. The reason he does this is because he chooses to do so. That is to say, courage is not something intrinsic to a person's nature--it's not some kind of emotional bluster that some people have and some don't. It's a decision to act in the face of our fear. It's something that anyone can have, anyone can do. This, again, is a biblical idea, drawn in this case from the beginning of the book of Joshua--Joshua is commanded to have courage, not because he is naturally courageous, but because he can choose to step out and act, knowing that God is with him. The lords of Firth are a parable of the lack of this kind of courage--locked into a fearful and literalistic reading of old prophecies, they refuse to step out and do anything worthwhile.

Evil is a Sham - This theme draws its inspiration from several sources, most notably G. K. Chesterton and some of the early church fathers. What I mean by "evil is a sham," is that we in our current condition are often tempted to think that the wickedness, brutality, and pain we see around us is fundamental to the way things are, and that people who are too caught up in goodness and happiness are just deluding themselves. But the Christian tradition has always said just the opposite--goodness and happiness are fundamental to the way things are (God created them good, after all), and evil and pain are merely perversions of that goodness, passing clouds that cast momentary shadows but cannot blot out the reality of the sun. In fact, the early church fathers define evil as literally nothing--it doesn't have an identity in itself, it is simply the absence or negation of the good that should be there. So in The Conqueror's Song, the evil which the characters face is tremendous--they are on the brink of absolute, utter disaster, and the empire conquering them is evil in every way. But, as we find out, it's just a sham. The brutish Shallki warriors are actually a pleasant, laid-back people who have been tortured and twisted into something awful, and even their battle-rage is simply a manufactured frenzy that is really quite foreign to their nature. And the two leaders of the invading force, who at first seem like powerful anti-gods, are really just sinners broken by the fall, trapped by their own mistakes and guilts and fears. They do not represent the way things really are; the true reality of this world is one of shocking beauty and goodness.

The Fall - This novel, although it's main focus is Warlent, is really just a frame for the telling of another legendary, pre-historical past. In The Conqueror's Song we learn the story of how the world began and about how the Melatari, the first created people, murdered the Star King, the divine incarnation of Imminya living among them. This is the story of the Fall, of sin entering the world, and a foreshadowing of the Christ-story in miniature (which we will see again in Pathways of Mercy). We find out that the history of this world is not so much about the political interactions of Alcomor and Ferranor and Firth and Rameress (as we might have thought after reading Freedom Cry), it's really the story of a world that is struggling to deal with the consequences of the Melatari's original sin, and it's those consequences that have created the monstrous war in Havarr's day. The resolution of the story provides a glimpse of hope--of good triumphing over evil--but it doesn't solve the basic problem of the original Fall.