The Sword by Bryan M. Litfin
The Sword by Bryan M. Litfin
Crossway Books, 2010, 412pp
The Sword is the first novel in a fantasy trilogy by a publisher that is better known for theological non-fiction books, so don’t expect anything new, but with that warning, let’s dive in:
In the mid-21st century, Earth is struck by a virus that takes out a good portion of the population. Then, shortly thereafter, a nuclear war erupts, plunging what’s left of civilization into a nuclear winter that pretty much wipes the slate clean. Mankind survives, but knowledge of the past is reduced to almost nothing. What rises from the (almost literal) ashes is an agrarian, medieval society that has forgotten mostly about the great technology of ‘the Ancients’ and has almost no documentary record. The survivors have, in other words, had to build the world again on their own. One of the new nations is the kingdom of Chiveis, which resides in the area of Switzerland and some of France. (The author doesn’t specify this, but I think it’s a fair guess from the many clues he gives.)
Chiveis is a monarchy, but the reigning religion that worships the god Astrebril and a triad of lesser gods really runs things. Knowledge of the religions of the past, especially Christianity, has been eradicated. Instead, the power-hungry high priestess of Astrebril manipulates things to her advantage. In other words, in some respects, not much has changed.
Teofil is a captain of the King’s Guard, as well as a professor at the university at Lekovil. One day, while patrolling the border woods of Chiveis, Teofil comes across the beautiful Anastasia who is out hunting and saves his life. Shortly thereafter, Anastasia is almost kidnapped by raiders from ‘the Beyond’ (ie, outside of Chiveis), but Teofil saves her and takes her back home. They part company, Teofil going back to his studies and teaching at Lekovil, but soon they are brought back together again. It is not long, however, before another attempt is made to kidnap Anastasia (with help from the high priestess of Astrebril) and succeeds. Teofil sets off to rescue her and on their return home, they stumble across an old cathedral (I think it’s Notre Dame, but Litfin doesn’t let us know directly) and find there the remains of a Bible, a book that no longer exists in Chiveis thanks to the diligence of the followers of Astrebril.
As I warned at the beginning, if you’re at all familiar with evangelical-genre fiction (and it’s quite popular these days), you know where this is headed: Teofil, Anastasia, and their friends become followers of Deu (the One True God), run afoul of the ruling authorities, and then find themselves in a moment of inner crisis where they must choose either to follow Deu or turn from Him. Unfortunately, most such evangelical-genre fiction suffers from not just predictability, but also from tin-eared dialogue and unrealistic characterization. The Sword starts out avoiding these problems, and actually goes in ways quite unexpected from a Christian publisher. The second section of the book (of three) deals mostly with Teofil and friends becoming Christians and unfortunately reads very much like so many other books in this sub-genre. Thankfully, though, the narrative gets beyond this and by the third part of the novel, Litfin’s emerging skills as an author once again emerge, and the book concludes (as much as the first novel of a trilogy can ever be said to ‘conclude’) with a satisfying ending.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that novels that include evangelical-based conversion narratives are a priori weak novels, but they definitely have that tendency. And the weakness is not because of the conversion narrative, but it seems that it is always that portion that weakens what could be an otherwise strong book. It seems as if the authors set aside everything they know about how to write a good novel, and instead become polemical in their narrative structure in order to drive home a point. This doesn’t have to be the case: I can think of novels that avoid this (such as Taliesin by Steven Lawhead), but it is too much the norm for this sub-genre. And sadly, Litfin’s novel does succumb to this, but thankfully Litfin appears to be a strong enough author to save the book from this. When I was mired down in the conversion narrative in the second section, I never once wanted to pitch the book (which is often my response), but instead I persevered, and in the third and final section of the novel, Litfin’s skills again came out shining with a plot line that is engaging and characters that are believable. The result is a fun novel that makes me want to look out for the subsequent novels in the series as they come out.