Monday, May 14, 2012
Since the second book in this series is due any day now, I want to give a long-overdue review and analysis of Awakening, the first book in the Emblem and the Lantern series. I have to confess that this is going to be a bit difficult on two unrelated grounds. Firstly, this is the introductory novel of a four-book series. The first book in any series (or most media, for that matter) is difficult to evaluate since it has to devote a good deal of time expounding the geography, culture, zeitgeist, and history of the setting AND flesh out the characters the reader will follow for the rest of the series. In a sense the first book must be left unfinished--for there will be nowhere for the story to go if things are too-tightly resolved at its conclusion. Many locals and characters and questions must go unexplored and left dangling for a later date. (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a tight narrative, but its not clear that Lewis intended to write a Narnia series until completion... though Lewis wrote Prince Caspian almost immediately after it.) Thus, the first in a series has to juggle a lot of things subsequent stories or standalone works don't. Secondly, this series is written by Dylan Higgins, a personal friend of many years. A reviewer may praise or scathe a stranger's work with impunity because an unknown exists as an abstract. I can ascribe godlike insight or demonic laze to J.K. Rowling or T.S. Elliot because I don't know either. I don't plan on meeting the former, and the latter is immune in death to all reproach. But a work of fiction is a necessarily personal work in a way even nonfiction isn't, so there's a personal dimension to any thoughts. The author may regard scorn of the book as personal attack (akin to denouncing his child); disinterested third parties will regard praise of the book as affinity for the author and blind to its flaws. So I will try to be as honest as I can, confessing upfront the difficulty of my charge. Dylan didn't ask me for this and didn't know it was coming. My thoughts are mine, colored though they are by friendship and discussions of history, theology, philosophy, religion, politics, the writing process, and beard-grooming techniques.
Awakening was first self-published in 2010 by Dylan Higgins, an author from Griffin, Georgia. A second and third edition followed, finally published by Hill Harrow Publishers of Peachtree City, GA. It tells the story of Ethan and Eisley Lambent, two twins living in a village called Luminae in a country called Glaem, a land of eternal light. The twins are on the eve of their Awakening ceremony, a local rite of passage in which every thirteen-year-old child spends a night camping on their own. The ceremony recalls the story of Riley, the Boy of Legend who ventured to a far-off land called Gloam with only a magic lantern. He journeyed all the way to this land of perpetual darkness before returning with several Gloamers. The twins discover that Riley is their ancestor and are stirred to follow his journey into Gloam to deliver its denizens from darkness.
Most of the story is told from the perspective of Ethan, giving his thoughts and impressions most often. Ethan is a reflective student, often drawn into study and books. He seems destined (or doomed) to the life of a scholar. He is typically more cautious than impulsive, so the reader is automatically impressed that he is the character first drawn to travel into the unknown. He is also duty-bound and considerate, first planning to travel to Gloam without Eisley and demonstrating time and again his devotion to her safety above his own. He tends to abstract situations, often disembodying himself from a situation and analyzing it from every possible angle. He shows no aversion to contrary ideas, entertaining the alternative cosmology of the Maridians (maybe more than he ought). Like another Gloam-bound ancestor Earnest Lambent, he suffers from a serious poisoning. We can assume that this poisoning is more insidious than the literal poison which killed Earnest because it sickens his soul, not his body. (It is ambiguous as to whether or not Earnest also had his soul poisoned while in Mardia). Ethan shows the natural strength and weakness of the curious; he is open to new experiences and ideas, yet the more he considers them, the more he loses his connections to what his true. This is again a symptom of his abstracting. The real danger Ethan faces here is not that he will be seduced by riches (for he is far too idealistic) or wearied by the journey (for he is far too driven) but that he will abstract himself from the narrative in which he finds his identity (the omnibenevolent Light which created and sustains all things). I identify much with Ethan and his flaws; in the end he is saved and embraces the Light because of his family "embodies" him, tethering him to the reality of good and evil, love and hate, family and enemy, truth and falsehood. Whether because he is the main actor in the story or because the narrator more often notes his thoughts and impressions, he is the most nuanced and developed character in the story.
Eisley is the "heart" to Ethan's "head". She is brave, impulsive, and gentle. Her character is mainly revealed through reactions rather than original actions. Upon discovering Ethan's plot to abscond from Glaem, she decides to follow without hesitation. When Alaric Jukes shares Marida's cosmology--that the world was created by impersonal forces--she balks and rejects it as pure folly. Her impressions of Deerborn as warm and compassionate despite his gruff demeanor prove accurate. She makes friends easily wherever the duo travels, even in the wholly-alien village of By-Down in Gloam. She accepts the Light much more easily and much more quickly than Ethan. And far from being a mere damsel, she also learns swordplay alongside Ethan. She empowers Ethan's resolve even when he is tempted to quit. She is also a more embodied character than Ethan, running to clear her head rather than puzzling over dilemmas as Ethan would. Her flaw is her naivete. Though she is able to detect the good in others, she sometimes misses the ulterior motives. Toward the story's conclusion, she rightly detects goodness in the heart of an apparent ally--sadly missing the shell of deceit encasing it. Unfortunately, I do not think Eisley is as well-written as Ethan, often seeming derivative of him and best understood in light of him rather than a complete character in her own right. Apparently, Book 3 of The Emblem and the Lantern will be entirely her story. This ought to go a long way in explaining what drives her and what her ultimate goals are. However, based solely on Awakening, she is a likable yet underdeveloped character.
Though not a primary protagonist, Deerborn is a fan-favorite and merits his own treatment. He is the fearsome captain of the Maridian guard. He has trained in aggressive forms of combat in a peaceful time. He commands his men with full authority, yet he functions more as a police captain than a military general. His stern demeanor is a front for (or maybe a product of) a fatherly disposition. He apprehends the children for trespassing in Maridian territory without remorse. He relents only when he realizes the twins are harmless and ignorant of their law. He has the paranoia characteristic of a man who has had to defend his city before, though we are not explicitly told that he has ever done so. He is dutiful like Ethan, though hardly stoical as we see his interaction with his wife and their pet. As the most skilled warrior, he proves pivotal at the novel's climactic battle. Given his popularity (and Higgins is totally aware of it), I expect to see much more of him as this tetralogy continues. While he too isn't as developed as Ethan, he isn't a protagonist and we oughtn't expect it as we do of Eisley.
Light and Darkness
The themes of light and darkness pervade the novel and serve as the foundation of the narrative. The imagery is unabashedly Johannine. Even a cursory reading of the Gospel of John and John's epistles will give the reader a full blueprint of this story's workings. The image of moving from darkness into light, living boldly in the light, and ministering to those lost in darkness dictate the course of the story. It isn't the most nuanced story motif, but it works well. In fact, it's so prominent in the New Testament that I am surprised that another author didn't write a story like this first! Higgins translated the simplicity of the apostle's analogy into a beautiful story about compassion, adventure, and love. Given the target adolescent audience, this is great choice. The imagery is admittedly simple, yet both expansive enough to provide for further exploration and well-established in Christian history as a way of envisioning Christian theological anthropology.
One result of this imagery is that the worlds of Marida and Gloam prove much more interesting than Glaem does. Maridia exists (as one might expect) as a world in-between, seeing both light and darkness and understanding both. In many ways this makes Maridia more relatable to our own world. Ours is a world of both literal light and darkness, and in Christian cosmology created good yet marred by darkness and sin. Gloam is most intriguing of all because Higgins must describe a culture of total darkness. The Gloamers are a musical people, their history sung. It is reminiscent of Homeric oral history and even the theory some historical linguists have that Ancient Greek was spoken not just with inflection but with musicality. (A more historically-accurate version of The 300 might have been produced as a musical.) The reaction of Gloamers to using their eyes for the first time is a fascinating read and bares more exploration in further novels.
But Glaem suffers the fate of many fictional paradises--it's perfect. It is described idyllically, nostalgically, and warmly. It evokes all our feelings of home when we're homesick. Yet like most fond reminiscing, it glosses over or hides all flaws. The religion of the Creator's Light is certainly true, but we know almost nothing about its doctrines or beliefs. Hopefully future stories will elaborate on this a bit. What's wrong with Glaem? Is it really perfect? Are there spectra of beliefs, a rainbow of denominations in the spectrum of Light? We do get an implicit, subtle sense that Luminae is somewhat complacent and possibly ignorant. The Glaemians (and the village Luminae in particular) all know the story of Riley Lambent. So, beyond Earnest, Ethan, and Eisley (and maybe Grandpa Emmett), why has no one else sought to seek out Gloamers? Their schools seem inferior to Maridia's, and while the twins have never heard of Maridia the Maridians know all about Luminae and Glaem. Why is geographic education so lacking there? I certainly hope some these questions are answered in future stories; Glaem needs fleshing.
Editing and Pacing
One flaw of the book is in its editing. This is a tough critique to make; I am fairly sure that I am acquainted with the editors as much as with the author. Plus, I know that more than a couple of editing mistakes and vague sentences have made it into my own work. I have one go-to editor, and sometimes I don't have him read over things because I am always frustrated at the mistakes I make. And to be fair each new edition of Awakening (now in its third printing) has improved not only spelling and grammar but also the pacing and clarity. That said, even in the newest edition of Awakening published a year after the first still has some odd mistakes. The meaning is never lost and they are rarely jarring but they are present to be seen. This critique may seem petty, especially since no meaning is lost, but it can serve to take the reader out of the flow of the story. One oughtn't speak overmuch about professionalism and presentation in a fantastic story for children. Still, I know that schools have used this book for their reading classes. It can undermine the lessons teachers are trying to instill if their reading assignments make similar mistakes to their own. Again, no one's perfect (least of all me), but I had hoped that after three editions nothing notable would have slipped through.
As compared with the rest of the story, the ending feels a bit rushed too. The final confrontation with the main villain is introduced and finished within the span of a few precious pages. Who he is and his motives are wisely left for later novels, but given his hold on this world and how the story had built to this point I feel a bit more could have been said. Ethan reaches his endpoint as a character within the last three pages of the story. The villain is vanquished very quickly too. Again, this could be understood as merely introducing more conflict to be resolved later in the series. However, I think I got a little whiplash from the abruptness of the ending.
Awakening is a solid book and an easy read. Like many books introducing a series, the first few chapters move a little slowly but the story really picks up in the fifth or sixth chapter. The characters are well-written and three-dimensional (though Eisley is lacking), and the narrative introduces many questions about the world the characters inhabit. While this could be seen as a failing, I honestly see it as a strength (in spite of what I may have implied earlier). I am very interested in seeing how this plays out, after all, and if all my wonderings will be answered. I care about these characters and I want to see the further adventures of Ethan and Eisley. I want to learn more about the world they live in. I want to see more of Alaric, Canis, and especially Deerborn. I want to know more about Riley and Earnest and the history of this wonderful world. Just what is the deal with the Lantern and what's up with the Emblem anyway? Is Poudis the potato-dog the key player in Smarr's evil plan?
Simple yet compelling; this story is above all about adventure, the perilous journey we all longed for as children and still secretly hope we're in on as adults. This is a book for everyone, childlike but never childish, which stirs the heart and excites the dormant adventurer in us all.
You can order Awakening here.