Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Book review: The Gift, by Bryan M. Litfin

The Gift, by Bryan M. Litfin
 Wheaton: Crossway, 2011

Last year, Crossway debuted The Sword as the first book in The Chiveis Trilogy. The Sword posited a post-apocalyptic world in which a dreadful disease had prompted nuclear devastation, in effect bombing humanity back to the Middle Ages. Among the casualties was knowledge of the true God, kept alive among a tiny remnant, and nurtured by virtually no written Scripture whatever.

In my review, I recommended the first book as having an intriguing premise and an involving narrative. I expressed eagerness for the second volume. Now that The Gift, volume 2 in The Chiveis Trilogy, has arrived, does it carry on the vision of the first and create further yearning for a climactic conclusion?

Necessary (if ominous) aside. Candidly, whether you believe me or not, with virtually no exceptions, I hate to give negative reviews. Always have. Now, I anticipate reviews of my first and second books in just a few months (Lord willing), I become still more and more sensitive in that way, and more reluctant to write a negative or critical review.

Yet I owe it to God, you, and the authors to be just as honest as I try to be charitable.

Verdict? That being so, I am forced to render a mixed verdict in this case. I feel that the quality of writing has sagged, as has the plot's urgency and freshness. I still am interested to see the fruition of the story in the third book, and still look forward to reading it. But I feel as if this second installment is not a great deal more than a placeholder on the way.

I will of course elaborate.

The art of dialogue is exceedingly difficult. When an author is adept, it seems effortless and almost escapes notice. Think of Tolkien, for instance. Treebeard always talks like Treebeard, Sam like Sam, Gandalf (both Grey and White) like Gandalf, and Gollum like Gollum — to say nothing of Tom Bombadil, Gaffer Gamgee, Pippin, Aragorn and the rest. These are memorable, highly distinctive characters with their own unique ways of expressing themselves.

Or to take a very different author, Stephen King is uneven. His adults are memorable, but many of them talk just like each other from book to book, and virtually all of them have filthy mouths. King's child-characters virtually always sound ten years older than they are supposed to be. But some snatches of dialogue are very authentic and real.

Or, finally, think of Father Mapple's sermon in Moby Dick, brimming with nautical allusions appropriate to the character and setting; or even J. K. Rowling's singular creations of Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore, and the other distinctive characters dotting her stories.

By contrast, Litfin's dialogue in this book was often painful reading to me. His characters show little distinctness, and often speak in painfully stilted ways. As I've been helped with my own failings by my pre-readers and editors, I'm more conscious of their role. I think that perhaps the process failed Litfin in not catching "I shall motivation soon enough" (330). But that's simply a typo; other problems called for an early reader/editor's challenge and help, and a lot more work.

For instance, typo's don't explain:
Teo: "You're a fiend. A monster" (239, to a major antagonist)

Ana: "You are defeated" (277, after killing someone)

A captain: "Alright, what do you want, landlubber? ...You're dead, landlubber!" (308, 309)

Ana: "I became arrogant and sensual and...immodest!" (318)

A major antagonist: "I will have to pour out my anger on your woman instead" (349)

Teo (in reply): "Your pride will be your downfall, lord of darkness. Come! Test your strength against a servant of the living God" (ibid.)

Same antagonist (in response): "'Gladly,' he snarled" (ibid.)
There are more, but both in dialogue and in narrative, I found that I kept wincing. The villains tend to be cartoonish, like pagans in a Chick tract. This excerpt from a courtroom scene gives unhappy examples of both awkward dialogue and shallow characterization:
Ana lifted her chin. "Your courtroom is already a mockery. Your justice is a sham. I will never sign."

The judge went berserk. Through gnashing teeth he screamed, "Then I sentence you to death and condemn you to hell!" His unruly hair stood up like the mane of some crazed monster.

The feel of the book is no longer so much that of a fantasy/adventure as that of a florid gothic romance.The characters shift definition, as we have a series of situations in which Teo rescues Ana again and again.

This is a declension from the first book, in which we are introduced to Anastasia as a confident, competent woman who knows her own mind. In this book, by contrast, she is weak and inconstant; she falters and strays. Of course, that happens in real life, but here it doesn't feel real or true to character. She basically shrugs off Teo for a time and is caught up in Litfin's version of Vanity Fair (a character is even unsubtly named "Vanita"), during which she buckles to peer-pressure and goes topless in one scene.

As with the first book, there are "adult" elements which are surprising and sometimes do not seem fully-integrated. We are told several times that Ana has sexual thoughts and feelings. Odder, we are introduced to a character who is homosexual, who snuggles up at night to another auxiliary male character. What is that about, and where is it going? Anywhere? By book's end, we do not know.

Also odd: we are introduced to the leader of the "Christiani." He's in Rome. He's called "Papa," and he pretty much tells everyone else what to do. Huh? Where are we going with this?

As with the first book, there is a female conversion from hearty antipathy to a sort of faith and, as in the first book, it seems a bit sudden.

So the game-pieces in the overall plot arc are moved forward for what I hope is a satisfying resolution in the third book, but it does feel a bit as if we're killing time. Still, nobody in all of humanity has a copy of the New Testament? Old, but not New? And only traditional vaporous vestiges survive? One thinks of the days of Josiah; then one remembers the printing press, and the reality of millions of copies as opposed to dozens or hundreds.

By the way, this does continue to be an ongoing intriguing element of the overall arc: what faith would people come up with if they had only an Old Testament, no New Testament, and no Calvin or anyone to help in any way? Even so, one wonders if they would be so free from any interest in locating Israel as a place or nation, or would formulate faith as these characters do, neither expecting miracles nor direct revelation (though there is some of this in the first book), nor wondering whether they should offer animal sacrifice and keep to a special diet, and so forth. They are more or less living like NT Christians without a NT.

In sum, I truly am sorry to say this volume has the feel of a cut of steak that needed to marinate a few hours longer. It feels like a first or second draft, in need of work, tautening, deepening, and more intricate coloring.

If you adjust your expectations, I'd still recommend following the story. I still cherish hopes for the d√©nouement. If you like florid gothic romances, you're in luck, no adjustment needed. But while some authors' styles droop considerably from book to book, others clearly work at their craft and bring up their game; J. K. Rowling comes to mind as an example of the latter.

I hope the same for Litfin, who has an intriguing tale to bring home in the final volume.


JackW said...

I totally agree with your well thought out and thorough review. I felt the same way reading it, but would not have been able to explain it as clearly. It just wasn’t the same Ana who killed and dressed wild bears and then you have Teo, the champion of Chiveis, almost killed in a barroom brawl by a couple of drunk sailors. Huh?

I am still very much drawn to the story though and have high hopes for the finale.

Milton said...

I haven't read either The Sword or The Gift, but the premise you describe for The Sword sounds very much like Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. I highly recommend "Canticle", though I would have to re-read it now some 20+ years after my first read as a non-Christian to see how it stacks up theologically. But it did seem even then to affirm man's fallenness and pride that ever lead him to rebel against God, never learning from even the most devastating catastrophe.

John said...

I agree with your review as well. It's as if you stole my thoughts from my mind and wrote the review using them.

I'm still going to read the 3rd book when it comes out.

Chris H said...

Apparently, these books are not available in Canada, because no store/site I've checked has them available.

Apparently with books, as with watching tv shows online, I live in a gulag. :P

DJP said...

Hated to turn in other than an A+, but it's somewhat reassuring that (A) you both saw it as I did, and (B) you both clearly got the mix of what I was communicating.

Fred Butler said...

This is why I read secular non-fiction.

That line about pagans in a Chick tract was great, btw.

George Adams said...

And really -- a cover picture of a woman with a bloody, ripped dress pulled up her leg? I don't think I want my coworkers seeing me read this.

DJP said...

Thanks. I hated having to write it, but it said just what I wanted to say.

I've talked with my boys about this. For instance, that's a huge "fail" of J. K. Rowling's (to pick on someone I praised). The Dursleys are one-dimensional and unbelievable from their appearance virtually until their end. They are cartoonish blots in volumes otherwise filled with surprisingly inventive characterizations.

Contrast with Stephen King (to praise someone I picked on). He really gets under his villains' skins, and makes full-orbed, 3-D personalities. He's uncomfortably effective.

DJP said...

Not to harp, George, but the cover actually forwards what I said. The woman looks very photo-realistic — yet she is expressionless, and doesn't look like what the description of Ana creates for me. By contrast, the wolf is static and stylized, looks as if it's from another school of art. In the background, Teo also looks static, awkward, posed and motionless.

One-word review of book one would be "Promising!"

One-word review of book two would be "Disappointing!"

Please believe me that I still hope and pray that my one-word review of book three will be "Amazing!"

mikew116 said...

I haven't read any of the books but from what you shared I agree. Great review.

George Adams said...

Dan, understood, and I suppose I'm wandering a bit off topic. What struck me first about The Gift, though, was the sexualized depiction on the cover rather than just the mismatched aesthetics.

The few immoral scenes in The Sword were actually dealt with pretty tastefully, and I hope the author has done that as well in The Gift. But it's one thing to say "Here's a non-explicit and yet realistic depiction of the evil of immorality, which sets the stage for redemption and restoration." It's another to say "Here's a picture of a sexy woman in a torn dress - buy this book!"

Maybe it's just me... but I'm not sure what Crossway was thinking here.

DJP said...

For my part, I agree with you about the first book, and it's pretty much the same in the second. It's not really an objection... they just tended to surprise me a bit.

And I don't see this cover the way you do. She's really basically fully-clothed. But I did think, as I said, "Wow, this is really kind of emblematic for the book."

JackW said...

The Ana of book1 would have had wolf sausage frying over the fire.

To avoid the cover art get the Kindle edition.

DJP said...

There you go, exactly. To say nothing of Christof, or Vanita's wheedlings.

The Blainemonster said...

I appreciate the review. I read The Sword after you pointed us all to it when Amazon had it for a buck on Kindle. I enjoyed it for what it was: a decent bit of easy fiction that provided a break from other heavier reading I'd been doing.

I've been hoping to find The Gift show up for a dollar as well, though I almost bought it full price just to see what happens next. Perhaps I'll wait for the sale... :)

David Kyle said...

I wish I had read this review before my wife bought the book for me. It was over sexualized and I kept thinking... "the author is going all catholic on me!"