Emissary by T. Davis Bunn (writing as Thomas Locke)
(Revell/Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2015)
Book Review by Lee Duigon
When a best-selling, award-winning author of “Christian fiction” and a major Christian publishing house get together on a literary project, I think we are entitled to expect something … well, Christian.
By that I mean a book anchored in a Christian worldview that conveys a message that conforms to Christian beliefs and attitudes. Regrettably, much of what is marketed as “Christian fiction” is an imitation of the not-so-Christian product, with some kind of “Christian” material stuck on like a decal.
But Emissary was going to be different. After all, this is T. Davis Bunn, an author with a wide, enthusiastic following among the Christian readership. With dozens of novels in print, high sales figures, and a passel of awards, Bunn looked like an easy bet to deliver something special.
Well, he hasn’t.
In His Own Words
For the past several years, I have been writing novels intended, so I hope, to reclaim ground for Christ’s Kingdom—in fantasy fiction, a genre in which C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have been holding the fort for decades. I’m always looking for new fantasy novels to arrive as reinforcements, to raise the flag in a realm dominated by non-Christian, or even anti-Christian, literature. I want to find such books and introduce them to a wider audience. So when I was offered a sneak preview of Emissary, slated for release in January, I jumped at it.
Here’s what Bunn has to say about his novel, quoted from the press package provided by his publicist.
“Growing up, I loved fantasy novels and the magic behind them, where absolute good would struggle against absolute evil. I’ve been excited about the chance to use that inspiration to tell my own stories.
“… This is something different for me. These Thomas Locke novels are completely secular, really very mainstream.”
What? And here I was, thinking Christianity ought to be the mainstream and that Christian authors ought to be working hard to make it so. And along comes this major Christian author going in exactly the opposite direction. Indeed, he’s gone so far in that direction that he’s given us a novel that is not merely secular, but downright pagan.
As if there were a difference.
A Wasted Opportunity
Bunn’s efforts to write a completely secular fantasy have resulted in a book that offers very little that’s original.
But what I really object to is the wasted opportunity. Here we have an author with a built-in readership, thousands of fans waiting to snap up the very next book they see with his name on the cover: a power in the literary marketplace, who might have done much to put “Christian fantasy” on the map. Instead, he only winds up doing what almost everybody else is doing.
So much in “mainstream” fantasy is dull, inane, or even unwholesome—and here was a chance to do something better. Why did the author waste this opportunity?
We are also left wondering why a Christian publisher would want to publish a completely secular fantasy in the first place; but to that we have no answer.
“The Power of the Earth”
So what makes this a pagan story?
There is an occult tradition of “ley lines,” currents of energy that run below the surface of the earth. Where these lines intersect, you have “places of power,” often the sites of prehistoric shrines or medieval cathedrals. Or so they say.
Hyam, the hero of Emissary, is a young man who has a mysterious access to the power of the earth. When he’s able to connect to it, he can perform mighty feats of magic. In fact, his magic is so awesomely powerful, the army that follows him seems to be going along just for the ride.
The point is that the “magic” comes from the earth itself, whose power is just sitting there until a specially gifted individual, good or bad, makes use of it. That’s what makes this a pagan book. There is no suggestion made that the world of Emissary belongs to any personal God who might be sovereign over it. Given the fantastic things that can be done by Hyam and his kind, there would hardly seem to be a place for God in this imaginary world. God would be redundant.
Hyam has to fight an evil “mage” who has access to this same power of the earth and uses it to massacre anyone who might stand between him and world conquest. The characters who help Hyam are nice, and those allied to the bad mage are not so nice. A little of this goes a long way.
Mr. Bunn populates his world with stock characters we have already met in other fantasies too numerous to mention. There’s the incredibly beautiful young woman who falls in love with Hyam and knows kung-fu (oh, please); the crusty but benign old wizard who mentors him and her; the inevitable female warriors who are much better than the men; and elves, of course. We gotta have elves.
Oh—and Hyam himself may be a survivor or a descendant of a possibly extinct race of people, once upon a time universally feared and hated, called “Milantians.” We presume that this has nothing to do with Mylanta, a classic heartburn remedy. It is implied that we’ll find out more about this in the sequels. Ho-hum.
One thing our culture already has more than enough of is completely secular fantasies. Hundreds of them are published every year. For the most part, these stories are awash with magic, wish-fulfillment, gorgeous young women, elves, and whatnot. You’d think writers in a genre whose supposed lifeblood is imagination would be more imaginative. You’d think the readers would demand it. But then the readers only see what’s out there. They haven’t been given much opportunity to opt for something better.
Fantasy matters for two reasons. First, there’s a lot of it, and it’s always popular. But more importantly, fantasy, like poetry, has access to regions of the human heart and mind not so easily reached by other forms of literature. It would be good to put that special quality to use in service to Christ’s Kingdom. T. Davis Bunn might have done that; but he didn’t.
So I suppose we’ll just have to keep looking for such stories till we find some.