Eternity Ends

Title: The Chronicles of Castle Brass (Eternal Champion Volume 15)
(Count Brass; The Champion of Garathorm; The Quest for Tanelorn)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Trippy Dark Fantasy
Pages: 432
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume concludes the story of the Eternal Champion (so apparently he isn’t quite as eternal as his title suggests?). The three stories contained in the volume focus primarily on Dorian Hawkmoon, but three other aspects/incarnations/versions/whatevers of the Champion play major roles: Erekosë, Corum, and everyone’s favorite emo albino, Elric (complete with evil soul-sucking black sword).

These stories would make little sense without reading previous volumes in the series that deal with these four aspects of the Champion. In the Orion/White Wolf volume numbering that would be volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, & 12 (and possibly 13 which I haven’t read). Other volumes seem to have little or no bearing on the overall story arc (and many of the stories in them seem to have been clumsily reimagined/rewritten as Eternal Champion stories simply to lengthen the series).

The stories in this volume a pretty much par for the course. There’s plenty of trippy jumping between planes of the multiverse, some repetition of previous stories from a slightly different point of view, some escapist swords and sorcery style action, a lot of moping and whining from the Champion about being the pawn of fate, and quite a bit of preachiness from the author.

The series ends appropriately for the direction it has been taking since the beginning. It wasn’t actually as unremittingly dark as I was expecting, which was a nice surprise. However, it did turn into a paean to atheism (and disparagement of theism) that echoed somewhere between William Ernest Henley’s Invictus and John Lennon’s Imagine. While not entirely surprising, this is diametrically opposed to my own worldview of a sovereign, loving God, so this somewhat curtailed my enjoyment of the book.

Overall, if you’ve read all about Erekosë, Corum, Elric, and Hawkmoon this is worth your time to round out the storyline.

De-bigoting Lovecraft

Reimagining Lovecraft: Four Tor.com Novellas: (The Ballad of Black Tom, The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe, Hammers on Bone, Agents of Dreamland) by [Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Caitlin R. Kiernan]

Title: Reimagining Lovecraft
Four Tor.com Novellas
Authors: Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Caitlin R. Kiernan
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 342
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy stories that incorporate H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, but some of Lovecraft’s stories can be cringe-inducing for the wrong reasons. The man was virulently xenophobic, racist, etc. (I would say well beyond the “product of his era” racism/sexism that you would expect in many older authors), and his prejudices made their way into much of what he wrote.

The Four novels in this collection skillfully riff on Lovecraft’s mythos while avoiding (or even subverting) his bigotry. A general knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos will make these more interesting, but isn’t strictly necessary. Here is a quick mini-review for each one:

The Ballad of Black Tom: (4.5 out of 5)
This story follows a young hustler from Harlem who gets involved in the events described in Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook. Having a relatively sympathetic black protagonist showing us “what really happened” turns a lot of the story’s racism and xenophobia on its head. This is the only straight-up retelling in this collection, and a knowledge of the Lovecraft original definitely gives it some extra punch.

The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe: (3.5 out of 5)
I find Lovecraft’s “dreamland” stories to be his least interesting (preferring his alien god-monsters), so this novella set in the world of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath wasn’t my favorite. That said, it was clever to reverse the story by featuring a resident of dreamland on a quest to the waking world rather than the other way around. At times the author seems to be more interested in making a point (“patriarchy & theism bad”) than telling a story, but overall this tale of a middle-aged woman on a reverse dream quest was a more interesting than the original.

Hammers on Bone: (4.5 out of 5)
This novella fuses hardboiled detective fiction with the Cthulhu mythos and places it in a more-or-less modern setting. The author doesn’t follow any particular Lovecraft story, but rather pulls elements from all over the mythos. It’s really weird (and gross), but it definitely works.

Agents of Dreamland: (4 out of 5)
This first installment in the aptly named Tinfoil Dossier combines Area 51/tinfoil hat/black helicopters style conspiracy theories with Lovecraftian horror (especially The Whisperer in Darkness). It’s trippy, disturbing, and pretty open-ended. It was a bit more profanity-laced than I usually like to read, but another well-thought out reimagining of the mythos.

The Serpent Slayer

Title: The Serpent & the Serpent Slayer
Author: Andy Naselli
Genre: Biblical Theology
Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/2020 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.

Who doesn’t love a tale of dragon-slaying? This book traces the theme of serpent/dragon-slaying through the Bible from the first promise of a Savior who would “crush the head” of the serpent (Genesis 3:14-15) to the final defeat of “the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the devil” in the book of Revelation. Along the way, the author also draws comparisons to other serpent/dragon-slaying stories, both mythical and popular fantasy.

I love the idea of this book, and the theme is definitely there in Scripture and in popular stories. Naselli does a decent job of tracing the thread, quoting extended passages from the Bible throughout the book. However, I do think that some of his examples are a bit of stretch, particularly in the passages pulled from the eras of judges and kings (and points made from The Lord of the Rings which does not in fact feature any dragons or serpents even though it has a strong biblical good overcoming evil vibe).

In areas related to the fulfillment of prophecy and the role of national Israel, the author’s theology is quite a bit different from my own. While these aren’t issues over which we should call each other “heretic,” they do significantly affect how we understand some of the passages he highlights. Someone who is a bit more amillennialist, preterist, and/or supersessionist than I am will probably have a greater appreciation for certain parts of the book than I do.

Overall, this is a pretty cool little biblical theology book. It speaks to me as a theology nerd, fantasy geek, and follower of Jesus Christ who is the ultimate dragon-slayer.

It’s All Koiné to Me

Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate by [David Alan Black, Benjamin L. Merkle]

Title: Linguistics and New Testament Greek:
Key Issues in the Current Debate
Editors: David Alan Black & Benjamin L. Merkle
Genre: Linguistics / Biblical Studies
Pages: 288
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 11/2/2020 – Thank you to the editors and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This is no way affects the content of the review.

When I was in seminary (10+ years ago), my favorite professor/mentor was Dr. Rod Decker who taught most of the Koiné Greek classes. He kept us up to date on the latest goings on in the world of New Testament Greek linguistics, because getting the most out of learning the biblical languages takes more than memorizing vocabulary and verb conjugations. This collection of scholarly essays provides that kind of help for the intermediate Koiné Greek student (or pastor who is trying to keep current).

This book does require some knowledge of the subject matter and academic jargon. For example, expect sentences like, “This, Barber rightly argues, encapsulates the basic polarity between the active and middle voices, and it does so in categories that manifestly entail a difference in transitivity.” These essays come from presentations at a conference, so their overall tone is slightly more conversational that normal for an academic work, but they are still fairly dry overall.

Most of the chapters relate to one of three topics: linguistic theories, verbal tense/aspect, and the best way to teach/learn New Testament Greek. The authors are not all in agreement on some of the issues (e.g. the aspect of the perfect/pluperfect tense), so you get to see some scholarly interaction in those cases. I thoroughly enjoyed dipping back into the academic world, and picked up at least a few things that should prove helpful in my personal study. I would highly recommend this book to those with some knowledge of Koiné.

Creepy Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to outpace my reviewing again, so it’s time for some mini reviews. In honor of October, I’ll focus on my recent horror/gothic/weird reads. Presented in order read:

Last Days by [Brian Evenson, Peter Straub]

Title: Last Days
Author: Brian Evenson
Genre: Cult-related Horror
Pages: 200
Rating: 3.5 of 5

There’s nothing supernatural in this crime novel, just the horror of human beings with wicked hearts and weird beliefs. In this case, the belief that voluntary amputations are pleasing to God (the more, the better!). The plot follows a former cop who suffered a traumatic injury and is now being forced to investigate a crime related to the internal workings of this amputation cult. This was a disturbing, disorienting read with moderate amounts of profanity and a lot of gore. Don’t read the intro as it contains spoilers (and is pretty pretentious besides).

The King in Yellow Rises [Annotated] [Illustrated] [Translated]: The Lost Book of Carcosa (Lovecraftian Librarium 3) by [Charles Baudelaire, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Schwob, Kent David Kelly]

Title: The King in Yellow Rises
Authors: Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Robert W. Chambers, and Others
Translator (and Editor?): Kent David Kelley
Genre: Classic Weird Fiction
Pages: 246
Rating: 4 of 5

This volume collects Robert W. Chambers’ original King in Yellow stories as well as classic works that influenced or riffed on his ideas. There is no denying the quality of the stories contained here or their influence on later weird fiction and cosmic horror. The editor (I think it is the same person listed as the translator) is what cost this book a star. I appreciate him rounding up these stories and printing them all in one place, but his commentary is sporadic and uneven in style. He wraps up the book with a rambling section about these stories’ influenced on H. P. Lovecraft and then apologizes for not including any Lovecraft stories (yet) because he’s not sure if they’re in the public domain…but he promises to add these and others later if he is able. It all felt a bit unprofessional.

Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H. G. Wells
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 167 (usually quite a bit shorter, but this was an illustrated edition)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This isn’t really horror/weird, but the invisible man was one of those classic black and white movie monsters, so I’m including it here. This is a pretty slow book, taking way too long to get to the big reveal that this mysterious stranger is an invisible man (which seems especially pointless given its title). After we finally get that out of the way, things get a little more interesting as we see how being invisible might affect a person mentally and morally. Add in some solid cat and mouse stuff toward the end, and it’s an interesting enough read.

The Necromancers Kindle Edition

Title: The Necromancers
Author: Robert Hugh Benson
Genre: Moralising Gothic Fiction
Pages: 196
Rating: 2 of 5

This book amounts to little more than a warning against Victorian era spiritualism (as well as any other dabbling in communication with the dead). As a Christian I wouldn’t disagree with the overall point, but it’s a pretty dull read for the most part. After a lot of breathless hinting about the grave spiritual dangers and some minimally described seances, we finally get some real creepiness and ill-defined spiritual confrontation around the 85% mark. Meh.

The Abyssal Plain: The R'lyeh Cycle by [William Holloway, Brett J. Talley, Michelle Garza]

Title: The Abyssal Plain: The R’lyeh Cycle
Editors: William Holloway & Brett J. Talley
Genre: Splattery Cosmic Horror
Pages: 300
Rating: 2 of 5

The four loosely linked short stories in this volume describe a world in which “the stars are right” and the old ones have returned. Cthulhu’s spawn rampage across the drowned world as civilization falls apart and strange cults rise. As with any anthology, quality varies, but the first story was just too much for me. It was about life-destroying decisions and addictions with Lovecraftian elements as a mere backdrop/counterpoint. I guess it was clever in that it showed that realistic graphicly described human misery is more disturbing than splattery sci-fi, but the torrent of profanity, booze, drugs, vomit, adultery, abortion, theft, murder, and other human misery and self-destructive behavior was more than I wanted to read. The other three stories were fairly standard (if extra splattery) post-apocalyptic Cthulhu fare that could definitely hold their own within the genre.

Read This First

Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask by [David Platt]

Title: Before You Vote:
Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask
Author: David Platt
Genre: Theology/Politics
Pages: 120
Rating: 5 of 5

If you are Christian who claims to live by the principles of God’s Word, you need to read this book. All too often, professing Christians act as if certain biblical principles are somehow suspended during election season. Getting “the right candidate” elected takes on a higher priority than love for our neighbor, unity in the church, or the pursuit of holiness. This should not be!

In this short book, David Platt uses seven questions to help Christians keep a proper focus and God-honoring mindset while deciding how to vote and while interacting with those who decide differently. This is a non-partisan book, and not like the “non-partisan voting guides” that carefully curate their questions to push you toward a certain candidate or party. Platt recognizes that different Christians who have the same commitment to biblical truth may weigh issues differently and arrive at different decisions on who they should vote for in good conscience. He interacts with biblical principles, not party platforms. His seven questions are:

  1. Does God call me to vote?
  2. Who has my heart?
  3. What does my neighbor need?
  4. What is the Christian position?
  5. How do I weigh the issues?
  6. Am I eager to maintain unity in the church?
  7. So how do I vote?

Question seven is kind of the odd one out. Rather than focusing on a biblical principle, it fleshes out Platt’s personal system for weighing issues (using two hypothetical examples rather than his own personal position). This provides a method for organizing thoughts prompted by questions 1-6, but is not necessarily the only way to do so.

My one (very) minor quibble with the book is an omission that I found surprising. When Platt discusses voting options, he speaks of the three options for “stewarding your vote” as: voting for the Democratic candidate, voting for the Republican candidate, or “convictional inaction” (choosing to deliberately refrain from voting in a specific race if you cannot in good conscience vote for either major party candidate). Missing is the option of voting for a “third party” candidate. While very similar to “convictional inaction,” it is different enough (you are expressing your conviction in a way that will be tabulated) that I think it should have been mentioned.

Overall, this is one of the best books I have read on Christian engagement with the political process (see also How the Nations Rage by Jonathan Leeman). It is a much needed reminder that we may disagree on issues of conscience, but such disagreement should not cause us to lay aside love for our neighbors and unity of the body of Christ. To borrow a few phrases from Romans 14 (where varying convictions about food have become a divisive issue in the church): Let us each be “fully convinced in his own mind” because “everything that does not come from faith is sin,” and “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” or, in this case, votes.

Thirdhand Lovecraft

Title: The Last Ritual
(An Arkham Horror Novel)
Author: S. A. Sidor
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 352
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/20 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review.

I have never played any of the H. P. Lovecraft-inspired Arkham Horror cooperative games, so I have no idea how well this novel ties into the characters and mechanics. However, I have read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction and 1920’s detective fiction and, to be perfectly honest, this comes across as a watered down version of both.

There are some decent moments of surrealistic horror and creeping dread, but outside of those moments the writing and plotting did not impress. The investigation is desultory, characters react to disturbing events with unbelievable sangfroid, and the only real indication that we’re in the 1920’s is the presence of prohibition and bootleggers. Even “witch-haunted Arkham” seems watered down, deriving its sinister reputation primarily from prohibition-related crime and corruption rather than the sorts of things that Lovecraft et al. wrote about.

The horror set pieces saved this from being a complete waste of time, but its thirdhand nature (novel based on a game based on a writer’s works) weakened it to the point where it nearly slid into Scooby-Doo territory at times. If you’re a fan of Arkham Horror games you might want to give this a try, but if you’re just looking for Lovecraftian cosmic horror you can do a lot better elsewhere.

Endless Flooded Halls

Title: Piranesi
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy?
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

The author of the character-driven alternate-Regency-era fantasy tome Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has finally written another novel! In style and subject matter it differs significantly from her previous work, but it does not disappoint. Clarke continues her mastery of fantastical worldbuilding that leaves you with a sense of wonder and light narration that sparkles with humor.

The setting is an airy, seemingly endless house, swept by tides and filled with statuary but largely devoid of people. As with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, the dreamlike setting is one of the book’s main attractions.

The narration takes the form of journal entries that have a slightly stilted or childish feel to them. At first I worried that the author had completely lost her touch, but the farther you go into the book the more it makes sense. And that’s all that I’m going to say about the plot, because this is the kind of book where the slowly dawning understanding of “what’s going on” (both in terms of figuring it out yourself and then watching the characters figure it out) is the plot. Like her previous book, I think that the strange, low-action, meandering story is going to make this very much a “love it or hate it” read for most people.

Overall, I found it to be enjoyable and thoughtful. The author explores the nature of reality, identity, and more. There are even a few fun “Easter eggs” scattered around, including references to Narnia and Doctor Who.

My one criticism is that there were a couple times where the book skated pretty close to my pet peeve of characters acting a little too stupid/clueless/random to be believable just to keep the plot going. However, within the story it made enough sense that I felt like I could overlook it, and I ended up loving the book. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another 15+ years for another book from this talented author!

A Rebuke of Blatant Hypocrisy

The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values by [Ben Howe]

Title: The Immoral Majority:
Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values
Author: Ben Howe
Genre: Politics/Theology
Pages: 265 (plus indices, citations, etcs.)
Rating: 4 of 5

How could so many Evangelical Christians go from howls of “Character matters! He must resign!” during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to declaring “we’re electing a president not a pastor” and “it’s just locker room talk” in defense of the flagrant immorality of Donald Trump? How can they not see this blatant testimony-destroying hypocrisy? How can we speak with any kind of moral authority when the majority of self-identified Evangelicals unreservedly applaud and defend the every action of a man who in his personal conduct is the antithesis of our Lord and Savior? If nothing else, this book has let me know that there are at least a few other conservative Christians out there who share these grave concerns.

Ben Howe, a self-identified Christian and political conservative, takes a hard look at the “Trump Evangelicals.” He traces the steps that led from “not my first choice, but…” to full-fledged defense, support, or even celebration, of behavior that should appall a follower of Jesus Christ. He tries to uncover and understand the underlying motives (concluding mostly self-interest & retribution after years of feeling like they were being unfairly mischaracterized), and shows how any “gains” made through policy are essentially “gaining the world but losing your soul.” He ends on a call to return to trusting God’s to accomplish his will as we consistently obey him rather than trying to help God out with an ends-justify-the-means plunge into hypocrisy.

As far as weak points: His definition of Evangelical was incredibly imprecise, some of his attribution of motives may have been overly cynical, and he seemed to go back and forth on whether it was a problem to support Trump at all or just a problem to support/defend his flagrantly immoral behavior. In spite of these imprecisions, I would still highly recommend this book as food for thought and a biblically solid rebuke of the ends-justify-the-means thinking that far too many Christians have adopted in the arena of politics.

I leave you with this quote: “Our job is to ensure our devotion to Christ’s teachings in the means. Our trust is to believe in God’s will as it relates to the ends.” (p. 229)

Music from Narnia

I haven’t finished any books worth reviewing in the last week, so I decided to do something a little different and review a (book-related) music album. Like my other favorite group, The Gray Havens, this artist is heavily influenced by my favorite author, C. S. Lewis.

Into the Lantern Waste

Title: Into the Lantern Waste
Artist: Sarah Sparks
Genre: Folk
Length: 36 minutes (10 songs)
Rating: 5 of 5

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of my favorite series of all time, second only to Lord of the Rings (see my full review of Narnia here). It works as both a set of charming fantasy stories and a theologically rich exploration of the person and work of Jesus Christ. C. S. Lewis viewed these books as a “supposition” of what it would look like for Jesus to appear in another world.

This album picks up on many of the theological themes that Lewis wove into his stories. Songs center around major characters and events from Narnia as well as parallel thoughts from Lewis’s other writings (e.g. Mere Christianity) and the Bible. I was pleased to notice that the song order matches the books’ original publication order rather than the chronological order that prevails in newer editions…it’s a small, nitpicky thing, but it made me happy.

The folksy/ballad style and jazzy vocals lend the perfect contemplative air to the album. The haunting Blood for Blood about the redemption of Edmund is especially effective. Occasionally, the vocals may be a bit too soft compared to the music, but overall I highly recommend this to any fans of Narnia and Lewis!