(Book Two of The Merlin Spiral; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2013)
If Robert Treskillard were just some poor, untalented fellow stumbling through a mass of self-published twaddle, I would ignore him. But he’s a talented writer with the resources of a major publisher behind him, and these books are beginning to get on my nerves.
I want “Christian fantasy” to succeed. Young Adult fiction, especially the fantasies, is dominated today by books ranging from the merely inane to the downright pestilential. Works that glorify God and edify the reader are few and far between.
Robert Treskillard is an author who could produce such works, if only he would shed some bad habits. We Christians are very badly outnumbered in this market, and one of our books has to do the work of ten God-ignoring fantasies just to get noticed. And it hurts us when a book billed as Christian fantasy comes across as silly or inept.
Let me blow the whistle on Treskillard’s infractions. And then I’ll tell you why I think his further progress as a writer is something worth waiting for, and that we ought to encourage.
It’s Not What They Say, But How They Say It
One of the most annoying, distracting, and easily repairable features of the first book of this trilogy, Merlin’s Blade, was the author’s penchant for plugging current American slang into dialogue spoken by characters living sixteen hundred years ago. I am sorry to say this fault has not been corrected in book two. How any editor at Zondervan could permit an associate of Merlin to say “A bard’s gotta do what a bard’s gotta do” mystifies me.
Then there’s the Lady of the Lake. Treskillard makes her talk like an Irish longshoreman on the Boston docks, only without the profanity. Elsewhere, some of the dialogue reads like text messages. It’s just plain awful.
A fantasy that fails to spark a sense of wonder in the reader isn’t much of a fantasy. When you meet the Lady of the Lake, you should fall under her spell; this is special, it’s not something that can happen every day. But time and time again, just as you’re getting into the story, out comes another monstrosity of dopey dialogue and the whole mood is destroyed.
Plain and simple English is what’s called for here. Treskillard’s narrative prose demonstrates that he is easily capable of writing suitable dialogue. I wish he’d try.
He Takes a Licking but Keeps on Ticking
In Merlin’s Shadow, Merlin and his friends are taken captive by the savage Picts. Merlin has sworn to protect the infant who will one day be King Arthur; and to do that, he must stay alive under some appalling circumstances, and endure abuse without fighting back. And the Picts are cruel and brutal masters.
To show how hard it is for Merlin to carry out his mission, Treskillard subjects him and his little band of survivors to an endless ordeal of graphic violence. Poor Merlin gets more physical abuse than a Timex watch. Again and again he’s beaten, stabbed, starved, lacerated, trounced, and buffeted. He must have the constitution of an elephant. Anyone else would have died before the book was halfway through.
For one thing, there’s way too much graphic violence here. Don’t young readers already get more than enough of that? And the end result, after chapter after chapter of it, is to desensitize the reader. Oh, well, Merlin takes another drubbing: what else is new?
Another effect is to create a book that seems much longer than it really is. The chapters dealing with Merlin’s captivity in Pict-land make for dreary reading.
I’ve noticed that graphic violence is not exactly unusual in today’s Christian fantasy (see the Customer Reviews of assorted books in that category on amazon.com). Are the authors using it as a substitute for graphic sex?
As one of Treskillard’s characters would say, “Hey, man, no offense—I was just askin’ ya.”
Magic That Isn’t Magical
More questionable than the minutely-described violence in the story, at least to me, is Treskillard’s depiction of “magic” as something very powerful that really works—especially when the story’s villains use it.
One of Treskillard’s strengths as a writer is his ability to depict, very realistically, the conditions of life as they might have been in the fifth century. Food, housing, clothing, the various means of making a livelihood—it’s all very convincing. I believe no small amount of research went into this.
Many fantasy writers (C.S. Lewis and Frank Belknap Long come to mind) set imaginary events against real-world backdrops. It helps the reader to believe in the fantasy. But this is not as easy as it sounds. We all live in the real world, I hope, and so we know that there is no such thing as dark, powerful “magic” that really works. Setting the right balance between the real and the imaginary is a challenge for the writer.
By and large, Treskillard succeeds in doing this, mostly because he succeeds in getting us to believe we’re in Merlin’s world, in the Dark Ages. But then he brings in “magic”—which is another thing that the audience gets too much of in Young Adult fiction.
In non-Christian fantasy, “magic” is wielded by teens who learn it at a wizards’ school, get it out of a book, acquire a magical item (like a flying carpet, or a cloak of invisibility), or are somehow endowed with super-powers by hobgoblins, fiends, or pagan “gods.” The kids use their magic to get whatever it is they want: not a nice lesson for young readers.
Here the magic powers seem to originate from a mysterious Stone that fell to earth at the beginning of book one. We suspect that the “magic” ultimately leads back to Satan, but we’ll have to read book three to find out for sure.
The “magic” wielded by the villains in The Merlin Spiral is powerful enough to kill people and circumvent the laws of nature, which are decreed by God. In fact, God is the law. That’s why, in the Bible, God can make the sun stand still for Joshua, but Satan can’t do anything at all like that. But in this fallen world, wicked people are able to do tremendous harm without the help of any magic whatsoever. So why do Treskillard’s villains need so much of it?
The real magic in any fantasy is getting the reader to believe in it. But just describing “magical” acts is something anyone can do.
I don’t see how a Christian fantasy glorifies God by ascribing power to evil that we don’t see it possessing in the real world and which it doesn’t have in the Bible. In opting for so much “magic,” Treskillard has worked against himself and made all of it less capable of exciting wonder. In this case, less would be more.
God Is Not Man’s Servant
Despite the serious flaws that mar these books, Treskillard still manages to come up with one flash of insight that deserves a good round of applause—although it’s going to be hard for me to discuss it without spoiling the climax of the story.
Christians today are no strangers to special items, special prayers, which, it is claimed, when used properly, get God to do what you want Him to do. This has been with us since the Middle Ages, when the relics trade began to boom. Relics of saints were believed to have extraordinary spiritual power. We Protestants don’t do relics anymore, but there’s still a thriving trade in vials of this or that specially “blessed” liquid, formulaic prayers “guaranteed” to work, and so on.
What Treskillard does—brilliantly!—in the climax of Merlin’s Shadow, is to blow the whole un-Biblical, quasi-pagan notion right out of the water and throw his characters back on the sovereign power and holiness of Almighty God.
I mustn’t tell you how he does it. Suffice it to say that Merlin learns a mighty lesson: that God cannot be used. As C.S. Lewis said, “He’s not a tame lion.”
On account of this, we pray that Robert Treskillard will grow in the mastery of his arm, leave his nagging faults behind, and maybe even, someday, produce a masterpiece.
The potential is there.