Here we go, I’ve finally gotten around to finishing the next review. It’s been a crappy couple of weeks, so if you want to leave some excessively complimentary comments down below, I would appreciate it. I need some warm and fuzzies.
Anyway, Gaal the Conqueror. ‘Gaal’ is apparently the Hebrew word for ‘shepherd,’ and that in a nutshell is the kind of allegory we have here: so obvious that it barely counts as allegory. Fortunately the entire book isn’t made up of this, but hot damn is it face-meltingly, neon-bright obvious. That’s one of the things about Christian fiction that puzzles me: Just how ignorant do the authors think their audience is? We live in a culture where the vast majority is at least vaguely aware of the Bible. Noah’s Ark, Charlton Heston sword-and-sandals movies, the Christmas story, legends of Catholic saints, that kind of stuff, which is certainly a crapload more than the average person around here knows about Shinto or Tibetan Buddhism. Dudes, know at least something about your audience.
Anyway anyway, this book is way more interesting than Sword Bearer, but it still has its problems. Let’s just put it as great ideas hobbled by a stilted, rough execution and a huge problem with telling instead of showing. And really obvious allegory. And it was as if a thousand voices of writing teachers all cried out at once in pain.
The first half starts a little slow and gets bogged down a bit in unengaging description and narratorsplanation and general blah-who-cares. But the story is pretty engaging with some spot-the-Biblical-reference slipped in there for funsies. And I’m not being really sarcastic, as far as the first half goes.
John the Sword Bearer and his dad, from the first book, are now in the snowy bowels of Canada near Winnipeg, talking about his dad’s old buddy Robbie, who’s now a drunken, abusive asshole who just that evening chased out his ten-year-old daughter Eleanor out of the cabin with a knife.
This is the first point at which the discerning reader wonders why we’re being told this instead of shown it. But I’ve noticed that a lot of fiction likes to skate over the Tragic, Abusive Backstory. Skating-over is just not that engaging for the audience, and it’s pretty lazy writing.
But anyway, John and his dad are out in the snow, looking for Eleanor. They guess she went to the neighboring farm, but her footprints lead out onto the frozen lake and then vanish. There’s some blah about John has this crazy idea she’s been taken to Anthropos, and the audience pretty much knows this already and it’s just tedious so just get on with it. And he always carries the Mashal Stone in his pocket, just in case, because he had always suspected he would go back. Except his dad can’t go back, because as Mab the seer he would die. DUN DUN DUN, foreshadowing, but pretty standard and unobjectionable foreshadowing.
John steps past where the footprints end and finds himself in Anthropos to no one’s surprise. But it takes a pretty good turn toward the fairy tale-ish when he finds a black dog digging by a well guarded by a dragon named Pontificator. Pontificator explains, rather dryly, the backstory of his duty to guard the Holy Enchanted Well from everybody but a black dog and the true Sword Bearer. It’s a bit ruined by the exposition-blathering from Pontificator rather than being let out organically, but I do like the fairy tale feeling.
The dog digs up a moldy bag containing some sacred treasures — a book, a key, and an orb — and the dog finally speaks and asks Pontificator to burn her up since her mission was accomplished. John is understandably disturbed, and this is the point where we first hear the name Gaal being thrown around, in this case as an excuse why it’s okay for this dog to be murder-incinerated. The tone just…falls flat. This could have been pretty moving and tragic, but you just don’t feel it from the tell-and-not-shown. It’s all John feels disturbed. John makes objections and complaining sounds. John says this is nuts, and intellectually you can get that but you are so unengaged by this writing that you wish he would just shut the hell up.
So John can’t take it and runs off to do some plot-related junk that I can’t care about because it’s disjointed and confusing and comes the fuck outta nowhere. The more ’splainey, the more tell-not-show, the more it feels like bullshit.
Blah, blah, blah, John is nearly captured by Evil Bad Guy Shagah but is found by this dude Authentio, who is a friend of Pontificator. He finds out that the black dog was, in fact, Eleanor under an enchantment by Shagah, and the burning was part of breaking the spell. She’s also two years older by now, because timey-wimey for the heck of it, but ehh, it works.
So Eleanor, John, and Authentio must go on a journey to take the treasures to the Tower of Geburah, with a stop in Bamah, Anthropos’s capital where the Evil Bad is headquartered. And the journey is the good part which takes up about half the book.
Early on there’s an earthquake, and Authentio leaves to go run ahead because he’s afraid of what Shagah might have in store for them, and so it’s John and Eleanor for most of the journey, with an enchanted lake in the desert — with bonus reference to The Iron Sceptre (which, remember, was written before this one) — and an enchanted forest with evil elm trees that wade through the earth to get you. And an enchanted tower like Rapunzel’s, and a run-in with the pagan god Pan, with some good use of Elizabeth Barrett Browning poetry (though my personal favorite Browning is Robert) to make an acculturating bonus. Good stuff, though it’s still stilted, with the emotions of the characters, particularly the viewpoint character John, being told and not shown.
And then the second half of the book, when they reach the evil city of Bamah, is mostly bullshit-feeling, because there are half a dozen more characters thrown in that we barely know and don’t really care about, and it feels as though John White was stuck at this point and mashed all his rough-rough-draft ideas into the space so plot would happen.
This part is less subtle Biblical funsies and more like Biblical plagiarism. We get it, White: Gaal is Jesus and this is the Anthropos version of the Holy Week. Though it’s much more badass than our Holy Week, because there’s aerial combat with a dragon. It’s just…really, really obvious (have I said that enough times yet?), and most of it is that jumbled whatthefuck thrown on the page to keep the story moving. But the aerial battle is still pretty cool, and it gave us a badass cover.
Anyway, Gaal dies, drama, silent watch by night, then cue the Hallelujah Chorus because Gaal upgraded Jesus’ three-day delivery to overnight shipping. And I’m not sure how blasphemous that joke is.
So anyway, Arisen!Gaal gives John, Eleanor, and Authentio the task of taking the treasures (remember those?) to Geburah and to imprison Shagah there in the Tower in his portrait, kinda Dorian-Grey-ish except more like cryogenic storage instead of metaphor for the contamination of of vices or the dark side of man or whatever. It’s pretty much setup for the previously written The Tower of Geburah.
And Shagah doesn’t go quietly, playing with their heads, and he tricks John’s dad to come back as Mab and die. John is pissed and is ready to kill Shagah, but Eleanor saves the day by hanging the picture up and imprisoning Shagah. Gaal shows up and pulls a Lazarus on Mab, so the lack of tension in Mab’s death from wooden writing is pretty well justified. Some foreshadowing for The Quest for the King, blahblahblah, the end.
So really, this is about three stories jammed into one book. Or two, maybe two and a half, since the treasures-to-Geburah part and the imprison-Shagah part fit together pretty neatly in the setup-for-Geburah thing. The Compacted Holy Week bit just doesn’t fit in there, and it was handled very sloppily. It would have been so much smoother and so much more coherent if this book had just kept to the fairy-tale-ish, quest-with-the-treasures thing. And Compacted Holy Week just felt really, really unnecessary.
And the ship tease between John and Eleanor was also pretty obvious, but fortunately it didn’t take up much space.
But that first half, minus the ’splainey shit, was decent. Dammit, White, why couldn’t you do more of that? Why the Biblical plagiarim? WHYYYYYYYY?