Monday, July 12, 2010

By Darkness Hid, by Jill Williamson, a Review

By Darkness Hid Blood of Kings Book I
Marcher Lord Press, 2009
Jill Williamson

By Darkness Hid traces the paths of two people, Achan, a male born a stray, and Vrell, a seventeen year old girl, of noble birth, who under her mother’s direction, has left her family and changed her identity (because of her small frame she is able to dress as a male roughly fourteen years old) to avoid being married off to the loathsome Prince Gidon. Her love is for Bran, of lower social rank, but who has the sympathy of her mother. Achan also has a love, Gren, of higher social rank. Because Achan is a stray, Gren’s father would not think of giving her to Achan in marriage. Achan is a not-so-devoted polytheist, Vrell is an ardent monotheist who believes in Arman, the one true God.

The story takes place in the Kingdom of Er’Rets (Hebrew Arets, meaning land or earth?), whose western portion, Therion, has been enshrouded in Darkness since its king died thirteen years prior. Darkness has overtaken the land because Arman has withdrawn his presence.

By the order of Lord Nathak, Poril (Nathak’s cook and Achan’s guardian) stands over Achan daily to ensure he drinks a foul tonic that requires Achan to chew mentha leaves to assuage the repulsive taste. The alleged purpose of the tonic is to keep disease away, but the real purpose turns out to be vital to the overall plot. Achan’s fortunes look like they might change for the better when a knight, Sir Gavin, takes him under his tutelage to become his squire. He is hopeful that this new status might eventually win the approval of Gren’s father.

Achan and Vrell have a special gift, bloodvoicing, the ability to mentally hear the thoughts of others, and to communicate telepathically with others who have the same gift. This gift is another critical element to the story.

Achan resides in Sitna. Vrell, in self-exile, resides in a fishing village called Walden’s Watch, under the care and confidence of Lady Coraline Orthrop who knows Vrell’s mother. For different reasons, both are required to go to the great city of Mahanaim, where the ‘Council of Seven’ governs. A large part of the story is their journeying to the city. Eventually, their paths cross in such a way that Vrell and Achan, though not close companions, are thrown inextricably together. What happens with Vrell and Achan at Mahanaim is key to the climax, setting things up nicely for what presumably continues in the next book.

When I have set out to read the Christian fantasy for young adults (CFYA) of our current day, including the works of the most popular authors, it has been a test of my will to persevere; I constantly come upon something about the writing that makes me look up from the reading and shake my head in despair or disbelief.

Not so with By Darkness Hid. It was a delight to read. Characters are developed well. It avoids trite, hackneyed, or melodramatic description and dialog. The various settings are described sufficiently to give the reader a participating sense of the Kingdom of Er’Rets. One empathizes with Achan who, in his low station, longs to win his beloved Gren, frustrated that her father will have nothing to do with it. The same for Vrell, who longs to be back home again, with the love of her heart, Bran.

Williamson steadily, patiently unfolds a tale in which the reader ‘feels’ the frustration and disappointment of Achan and Vrell as events carry these two farther and farther away from their hopes. It develops gradually without stalling. I like that in a novel, especially one that portends an epic saga. In my thinking, that’s the only way to do it, and Jill Williamson has done this well.

This is the author’s first novel. Compared to the current-day CFYA, it stands apart in such stark contrast I am forced to say it is in a class by itself. Its beauty and writing is unmatched and has set a new standard for CFYA, particularly for those stories that tend toward epic fantasy.

But is it among the elite? By this I mean, how does it compare to the classic Lord of the Rings, or to more modern day secular fantasies such as Harry Potter? Granted, there are distinctions to be made when making such comparisons. By Darkness Hid and its medieval setting is more akin to high fantasy than it is to fantasy set at the end of the twentieth century. In some respects you simply cannot compare it to Harry Potter because they are different types of fantasy.

But there is more than just genre comparisons. The writing itself, though controlled to a certain degree by the genre, can be compared. Admittedly, each author has his or her own style. But the question I have in mind is, regardless of the style or the genre, does the writer skillfully and artfully produce a work that approaches ‘master’ status. We often refer to the ‘old masters’ when we think of classical paintings and other works of art. That is what I mean by ‘master’ status. I think time will prove Rowling’s writing to be ranked among the masters. Does Williamson’s writing have the same quality?

I would have to say no. Does she have the potential? Maybe. We may someday sit back in awe over her craftsmanship and wonder if we could ever be that good. But though she hasn’t attained that yet, she is the first CFYA author of recent years who has come anywhere close to it.

By Darkness Hid is a very good read, not only because of the story itself, but because the writing is good. Williamson’s talent for simple and artistic description, a vital component of all good writing, is evident in the following sample. Vrell is standing on the banks overlooking the sea, below Walden Watch Manor. She, with the four Orthrop children, has come to watch Lady Coraline depart by ship to visit her ill father:

The unfamiliar warmth of the sea breeze tousled
Vrell’s short hair in and out of her eyes. Her
skin felt damp with the abrasive smell of seaweed,
fish guts, and paraffin oil from boat lamps. The
smell stuck to her. With Lady Coraline gone, Vrell
would not have a decent bath until her return.

The sea stretched out before her, calm and heavy.
Gulls swarmed the rocky shore, nipping bites of
whatever creature had died among the rocks. The beach
rose sharply up the hill until sand gave way to green
grass that ran all the way to the greystone manor walls.

I’m not a lover of the ocean and seashore, but I’ve been there, and have found some pleasure in it, in spite of my greater desire to be among the hills and woods. But I can wonderfully visualize this because there is a combination of vocabulary, syntax, grammar, mood, and craft that transports me by imagination next to Vrell, feeling the same breeze, breathing in the same scents, witnessing the same gulls.

We don’t find this quality of writing in the Christian fantasy for the young that has been written over the last decade or so, not even among the popular, lauded, and award winning authors. In my opinion CFYA has been very mediocre. Williamson has risen far above that.

One thing that has annoyed me in the current writing of CFYA is the so-called use of free indirect speech which, in the instances where I find fault, comes as a series of rhetorical questions that more or less intrude onto the page. I say intrude, because the mood of the moment does not call for them. I think it is distracting, and possibly a sign that the author is a poor writer or has been given bad instruction on the use of that technique. Unfortunately, Williamson at times makes use of this style of free indirect speech, contrary to what I would expect of such a good writer.

Here is an example:

He started off at a silent jog, keeping on
his toes. The frigid air stung his eyes. His
mind raced. All his life he’d dreamed of being
a knight; riding a horse and wielding a sword
to protect the weak. Could the gods have finally
taken notice of his measly offerings over the
years? Could his station in life really change?
If so, would Gwen’s father look at him differently?

It’s not so much that this is bad; I just think the positioning of those questions is out of place, leaving the mood flat and sterile. It misses an opportunity to use a prose that reveals rather than simply states a series of bland questions. Again, it is not that such a device is never appropriate, but I think for such questions to naturally appear, it is better for them to come in a fit of emotion (joy, fear, anger, hope, etc). Otherwise, work them in as introspective observation in which the reader gets a peek into Achan’s contemplation over his plight without encountering a colorless series of questions that presumably are passing through his mind.

To illustrate, I offer an alternative to that series of questions. (Please forgive me Jill for presuming that I could have written this better than you, but indulge for a moment my egotistical, annoying delusion that I think I know what I’m talking about).

The gods had finally noticed him. Achan quashed
that thought right away. Whatever he was getting
into, he still knew deep down he was nothing to
be noticed. It was foolhardy to think his place
in life could change. But it never hurt to dream;
dreams sometimes come true. And if this one did...
Achan took in a sudden icy breath at the thought
of this... Gwen’s father would have to change;
he’d just have to. He’d have to look at him

Written this way, I think an author is able to put his own voice into the story, which is always helpful. In this illustration, it gives the reader a sense of Achan’s temperament, revealing a bit more of what he thinks of himself and what matters most to him right now.

By the way, I do think Williamson, had she chosen to, could have done better than my proposed alternative because she knows Achan better than I do, and because she is a good writer.

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