Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Book review: The Sword, by Bryan M. Litfin

The Sword, by Bryan M. Litfin
Wheaton: Crossway, 2010

I dug into The Sword eagerly, the day my review copy arrived. The genre seemed to be Christian fantasy/adventure, framed in an archaic future, and it was from Crossway: all promising factors.

"Promising," I say, but not completely reassuring. I'd gotten a copy of Beyond the Summerland from another beloved publisher (P + R), and had finally had to bail out from sheer boredom. Would this be another disappointment?

The premise was intriguing. Since it's laid out in the first few pages, I won't feel guilty about summarizing it. Our story is set in the 25th century. As a briskly-narrated backdrop, Litfin envisions a devastating, Ebola-type plague breaking out in 2042 and laying waste to humanity. During the resulting maelstrom, nuclear war breaks out, sending the human race back to the Middle Ages. Few survive the disease, war, famines, and climactic upheavals. In the centuries that follow, among other things, knowledge of Christ and of the Bible virtually vanishes.

I don't find the premise to be a stretch at all. The fabric of technology is pretty thin and dependent. It's a commonplace among Christians who are uncomfortable with Biblical prophecy to mock "literalists" on the issue of the presence of swords and archery and horses in prophetic passages. While I think taking the weapons detailed emblematically both makes sense and preserves a respectful (i.e. "literal") approach to the text, I'd not rule out the possibility that we will return to arrows and spears by the time the days of fulfillment finally arrive.

It is a bit harder to make the leap that God would permit all knowledge of Christ to vanish as utterly as this novel assumes thus far. Christianity is not dependent on any particular advanced level of technology or even civilization. But I can grant the premise, given that the focus is local, and the story just gets going in this book.

So this is in effect an ancient society cast centuries in the future. The book cover nicely catches it: glance at it, and you have the impression of a typical fantasy cast in the past. Look more closely: that's a modern building, and a modern car carcase in the foreground.

What you're wondering is, Is it a good book? Is it fun? Is it well-written? Or is this yet another embarrassing, over-ambitious attempt by a Tolkien/Lewis wannabe, such as only Christians would forgive?

Basically yes, yes, basically yes, and (thank God) no, respectively.

Litfin is an apt storyteller, and he solidly held my interest and curiosity from the first page to the last. He introduces his two main characters in the opening pages of the narrative, Anastasia ("Resurrection," get it?) and Teofilo ("God-lover," get it?). They're both interesting folks, only about 2-5% larger than life, and good, likable focii for what follows.

Well, what does follow? I enjoyed encountering some surprises in the story structure. Because of the genre, you go in thinking "There's going to have to be a Quest. I'll bet it's ____." And then, sure enough, you think, "Here it is." But no; that one's begun and resolved. Hunh! Then another crops up, and you think "Yes, here we go" -- but no, we don't. It also resolves. Hunh! This actually happens several times.

As I say, I like that. I like not being sure where I'm going, as long as I can hope I'm going somewhere. (The movie "District 9" -- definitely not for everyone -- affected me that same way.) Such is the course in this novel. Litfin spends the novel introducing us to the Chiveis world, the society, and the main characters. Then he leaves the novel in tension, pointing forward to Book II.

In fact, I'm really not certain what is going to be the specific focus of the trilogy, in terms of plot-specifics. I don't want to be spoilery, but I'll say that the major tension is between a remnant who has discovered a portion of Scripture, and the dominant polytheistic culture and power-complex. It is interesting to see folks who are reading Scripture for the first time constructing their view of the Bible's God purely de novo, with nothing but a portion of Scripture itself as their referent. (Unexplained: why don't all the males decide they need to be circumcised?)

I never had a "Should I bail?" moment, and that's good. In fact, I was always wanting to get back to the book, and sometimes stayed in it longer than I should have. Also good.

I'd rate it PG; there are some very mild sexual allusions, which surprised me. However, they're subtle enough to sail safely over younger heads.

The Sword is unlikely to be either deathless literature, nor epochal in any Tolkienic sense. One finds instances of overwriting, such as when a character is introduced as wearing "a beard, whose smattering of gray spoke more of wisdom than of feebleness." This sent me to the mirror, wondering what the smattering of gray in my goatee bespeaks. I think it bespeaks that I'm at the age where I get some gray hairs. But thankfully, such instances are relatively few and far between.

I recommend it, I"ll pass it around my family of readers, and I'm looking forward to Book Two.


JackW said...

First ... I enjoyed it a great deal, though it's a bummer that it's going to be another year before book two comes out.

GrammaMack said...

By the movie "District" do you mean "District 9"? It was too freaky by far for my husband and me, but our two sons who are into fantasy and science fiction loved it. This book sounds like something they would enjoy--and me too.

DJP said...

Yes, District 9. Don't now where the number went. Fixed, now.

Brad Williams said...

Dude, I actually stuck through the entire "Beyond the Summerland" series because...
I don't know why I did that. I think maybe I kept reading good reviews and thinking, "Am I missing something? Why is the seven chapter description of this monstrous black hole of a cave not as riveting for me as it is for everyone else?" I was also thinking, "Didn't this happen in the Wheel of Time series, except it was cooler there?"

DJP said...

Brad, I totally hear you. Some great review got me to buy the first book. Was reading it to my bride, forced ourselves to continue, to endeavor to persevere... until we Just. Couldn't.

Brad Williams said...


You know, the scenario the book describes is not so far fetched. During the days of Hilkiah the priest and King Josiah they found "the Book of the Law", which I take to be the Torah in its entirety and not just Deuteronony, and no one seemed to have a clue what it was. Truth more horrid than fiction, I say.

Bryan Litfin said...

To Dan's point about Hilkiah the high priest...who was the scribe who assisted him? See 2 Kings 22:8-10. That name is in the book!

Thanks for the nice review!

Bryan Litfin

Unknown said...

I enjoyed the book. I got a free audio copy of the book at christianaudio.com

DJP said...

I wonder how. Just checked, it isn't free.