Sunday, July 18, 2010

Startlighter, by Bryan Davis - Day One of the July 2010 CSFF Blog Tour

Starlighter, Book 1 of the Dragons of Starlight series by Bryan Davis
Published by Zondervan, 2010

Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing a copy of Starlighter for review on the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Starlighter is a story of two worlds, one inhabited by dragons (Starlight), the other by humans (Darksphere). A hundred years prior, humans where abducted and taken back into the world of the dragons. They are known as the Lost Ones. The Lost Ones labor in servitude for the dragons, performing many chores of which the most important is to work in mines to retrieve a precious gas that the dragons need to survive.

About a year after the abduction, Uriel Blackstone, one of the kidnapped humans, escapes and return to Darksphere. Upon proclaiming what had happened, he was declared a lunatic by the authorities and confined, but not before predicting that one day the hidden underground gateway to the dragon world would be found and the Lost Ones rescued.

The story unfolds in a set of events that works toward the ultimate rescue of the Lost Ones, though the rescue itself waits fulfillment in subsequent installments of the series.

The reader encounters the appearance of at least five key personalities: Adrian, a boy-warrior; Elyssa, a Diviner; Koren, a gifted story-teller; Randall, of spoiled nobility turned bold warrior; and Tibber the Fibber, a whacky old man, whose knowledge is key to the success of the quest to find the underground gateway that leads to the dragon world and ultimate rescue.

Interspersed in this are references to the Code, a banned book on Darksphere, but which is read and memorized by believers (in the Creator) for its wisdom and guidance. It appears to be ancient wisdom literature in which some of the sayings are reminiscent to those of Jesus, such as, “If you wish others to treat you and your belongings with respect, then let respect for them flow in your thoughts, your speech, and your deeds.” (page 23)

The central dark secret of the tale lies in a dragon egg on Starlight. It portends the end of human existence on that planet, and possibly on Darksphere as well. It figures prominently toward the end of the book and presumably continues that prominence in the next.

I want to preface this review with a clarification that though I will use the term Christian fantasy for young adults (CFYA), I have in mind those works whose readership is between the ages of 13 to 16 (7th - 10th grade). I believe Starlighter falls in this category. Setting a limit to the age range does not mean that a book written for that audience will not appeal to those who are older. On the contrary, I think a novel written for the thirteen year old, if written well, will appeal to anyone of that age or older. The Harry Potter series is a case in point.

My impression of the story itself is mixed. I like how the story takes shape on Starlight, especially the events that center on Koren, and the venerated dragon egg toward the end of the book. The beginning was likeable as well. The middle recounted the quest for the underground passageway and its traversal, but it was not very believable to me. In particular, Achan and Elyssa taking on impossible odds and making it through with what would require superhuman strength and skill. Yes, it is a fantasy, and the fantastic does give some wiggle room, but it cannot ignore human frailty either.

One thing about the story that didn't enamor me was that it was about dragons, again. That is what Bryan Davis specializes in so it should not come as a surprise. I am not saying that a dragon story is bad, but I have yet to read any current Christian fantasy novel in which I can really ‘see’ the dragon. I know what a dragon is supposed to look like, but I find it hard to visualize one in any of those books. I lay the responsibility for that more or less on me; there may be a flaw in my imaginative abilities when it comes to dragons. Those who have enjoyed Bryan Davis's stories and dragons will undoubtedly like this story as well.

True to what is expected of today’s Christian fantasy the story begins with an action scene in which Jason and Randall face each other in a tournament. After a trick maneuver, Jason wins, and the story begins in seriousness. Contrary to the action-scene of the tournament, the story eases up - it does not race along with continued rapid-fire action. Yet, it moves quickly enough that there’s no threat of it stagnating along the way. For reasons which I will give below, I prefer a slow, steady pace (which is not the fashion as I have been told), and though Starlighter is not action-packed, it moves along more quickly than I like.

Perhaps as a symptom of trying to get things going as quickly as possible, the novel encounters a problem before the first chapter ends. It introduces so many characters in such quick succession, it became confusing for me.

I think that’s the temptation, even bane, of today’s CFYA: to bring it on fast and keep the pace going. Though the action in this novel didn’t fly, it still suffered because it moved faster than what I think a story should.

As I see it, there are two looming difficulties with fast-paced and quick moving stories:

(1) The characters tend to have little depth, little personality; the reader only knows about them, but doesn’t know them. The reason: to accommodate the pace, the scenes have to change before the characters take on color and life. There is one exception to this in Starlighter, which I’ll look at in my second post. But the novel’s characters suffer for lack of vivid personality, and the pace is probably a significant reason why.

(2) Coexistent with shallow characters are events that lack authenticity, believability, and pertinency, events which fail to elicit empathy or arouse emotions of fear, humor, joy, pain, and so on. Just as the reader does not become acquainted with the characters, neither does he live (imaginatively) within the event. He stands outside and observes, but he doesn’t have the sense of being there.

As much as the pace of the story has an impact on the authenticity of its characters and events, there is something even more fundamental than that - the writing. Good writing brings the imaginary world and its characters together in such a way that the reader ‘feels’ like he is there in the middle of it. No matter how good the story itself is, or appropriate its pace, the resolution of (1) and (2) will not come about without good writing, and much of today’s CFYA fails miserably in this area. Instead of painting masterpieces, we are producing poor quality paint-by-number imitations. In my estimation, Starlighter falls within the latter. (But see my review of By Darkness Hid, which I hold as a long awaited and happy exception to this).

I know that some would disagree vehemently with me about the quality of writing in today’s Christian fiction. Rebecca LuElla Miller, whose opinion I respect highly on all things fantasy, countered the charge against the writing quality of current Christian speculative fiction in a recent post (Jumping into the Christian Speculative Fiction Discussion) by citing four authors who, in her thinking, have produced works in which the writing is quite good. I tend to agree with regard to George Bryan Polivka, but I differ about the others. Even so, as far as I can tell, the authors cited were not writing for the younger age group, so whatever one may think of how good those writers are, they don’t represent well the group I have in mind.

I am more and more convinced that the lack of recognition for Christian fantasy for the young is not for a paucity of literary works, but for a dearth of good writing in the genre. We all, myself included, have got to do better. We are obligated to strive to excel above our secular peers, and I think very few of us really understand that. I have more to say on this, but I’m going to save it for my third post. I hope you’ll read it.

See a list of the participants for this month's blog tour.
See Starlighter on amazon.
See Bryan Davis's website and blog.

Rating Chart

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