Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Notes: "Mysterion"

It’s always at least a little hard to review an anthology, because it’s the work of so many different people, and you can love some of the stories and really hate others. But despite that, every anthology has its own flavor, thanks to the hand of the editor(s), and Mysterion, edited by Donald S. Crankshaw and Kristin Janz, is no different.

So, I’m going to start this review with my impressions of Mysterion as a whole, and then go on to talk a bit about the stories I really disliked, the ones that intrigued me but maybe didn’t quite work for me, and then the ones I really enjoyed (happily, the last two categories are MUCH larger than the first).

General Impressions
Like many anthologies, Mysterion is centered around a theme. Like very few other anthologies, Mysterion’s theme is “speculative fiction that interacts somehow with Christianity”. What makes Mysterion even more unique is that the authors of its stories were not forced to make any concession to the usual CBA content guidelines that limit profanity, sexual content, theological orthodoxy, etc.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I just love that this anthology exists. I’m not a reader who goes for extreme content for the sake of extreme content (as you'll see in my review), but I do think that when you’re a Christian author writing about a fallen world, artificial limitations about content can really  make your story ring false. And so I deeply appreciate the editors’ aims here.

But did it work for me? The answer is…mostly. It was more heterodox than I would have liked, and there was at least one story I regret reading because of the extreme ugliness of its images. But I also found, in this anthology's pages, Christian science fiction that actually felt like legitimate science fiction—there were worlds in this book that were as fascinating and enthralling as the worlds I’ve found in books edited by the best secular presses. I loved that.

The Stories That Didn’t Work for Me
While there were several stories that just weren’t my thing, or that I had trifling disagreements with, there were only two I heartily disliked.

Let me stop here and say: I know that sounds harsh. But two important points:

1. That’s a MUCH smaller percentage than I usually find in sci-fi anthologies.

2. I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, and so honest is what I’m going to be!

Well, and—okay, I guess I have one more point:

3. Since I’m a writer myself, I always want to cringe away from negative reviews. In fact, I rarely post them—I don’t lie, but I just avoid reviewing the book if I didn’t like it. But since I can’t do that in this case, I do want to say that my criticism is criticism of the stories, and not of the authors as people. Also, I want to say: I could be wrong. I could be totally missing the value of these stories. So please, dear authors of the stories I didn’t like, feel free to ignore my review. Don’t hate me. Thanks.

Right, the two stories I really disliked were “A Lack of Charity” and “Golgotha”. The first was simply ugly. It was horror that was very, very horrific. It gave me images in my head that I sincerely don’t want there. However, if the author wanted to give a great picture of total depravity, I congratulate him, because it worked as that.

“Golgotha”, on the other hand, was horrific in a much less visceral way (though it had a bit of that, too). Instead, what I disliked here was…well, the conclusion felt like blasphemy, to be frank. HOWEVER (see, I’m really terrible at negative reviews), that conclusion came in the mouth of a character who you might have reason to disbelieve. So…again, this might be one that was just not for me. If it meant what I think it did, I hate it. If I missed the point completely…well, I still don’t like it, but it might be a much better story than I realized.

The Stories that Really Worked for Me
Yes, I’m skipping all the stories that were somewhere in the middle. There were many (the majority!) that I enjoyed while I was reading them, but that weren’t (for me!) those unique jewels that you read anthologies to find. But there were a few that were just joys.

Here are the ones that really stuck with me:

-"The Monastic”, by Daniel Southwell. This one had something to its atmosphere that reminded me, in a good way, of Lars Walker’s writing. And this exchange, where our priest protagonist is trying much too hard to be culturally sensitive to the Ojibwe man who is helping him, made me laugh out loud:

Father Kyle looked the little stone hermitage up and down, looked the ragged hillside up and down, and suddenly decided that he was happy. He liked this silent, ludicrous little church house. 
“It’s beautiful,” he said. But he didn’t want to offend his only human contact, so he added, “I’m sure your places of worship are beautiful, too.” 
John shrugged. “I’m a Methodist.”

Gotta watch those assumptions!

-"A Good Hoard”, by Pauline J. Alama. Very much a fairy-tale sort of a story. Predictable, yes, but that’s fine, because it was told well and that’s really the important part. It did strike me as more of a children’s story than anything else, but it seemed like a children’s story I’d enjoy reading to my own kids, and so that’s a plus in my book.

-"Cutio”, by F. R. Michaels. This was another predictable one, but again, it was well-told. It was a creepy story, but creepy in a really fun way, if that makes sense. A professor discovers an ancient automaton, but doesn’t pay enough attention to the signs that it might be a bad idea to make it functional again…this one was also told entirely through emails and text messages, and that structure really worked well with this particular plot.

-"This Far Gethsemane”, by G. Scott Huggins. This story was the one in the anthology that most made me think, This is just good sci-fi, period. I’ll be honest: I’m still not sure you can extrapolate Christianity out onto alien worlds and alien races with any kind of theological integrity. But if you can, then it’s going to look like this. Also? Just a good setting, a compelling narrative driven by interpersonal conflict, and aliens that felt really, truly alien. I liked it.

-"Ascension”, by Laurel Amberdine. This one had just a slim, slightly-supernatural thread (both literally and figuratively, actually). I really liked Amberdine’s light touch in this story. She doesn’t have her main character go overboard on speculation, but instead keeps the whole miraculous element subtle and unexplained…and interesting. A lovely little story.

In all, I recommend picking up a copy of Mysterion (but, honestly, skipping “A Lack of Charity”, because you truly don’t want those pictures in your head).  Some of the stories have questionable theology, some are better than others, but the mix on the whole is quite good, and it has that sharp, strange, interesting energy that, real life has, and I really appreciate finding Christian fiction where that is true. It's good stuff.

And that’s my review! I want to thank the publisher of Mysterion for providing me with a review copy. All opinions here are my own. And I’ll be watching with interest to see what Enigmatic Mirror Press does next!

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

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Scott said...

I just wanted to say, thanks for the awesome review. I am glad that you liked "This Far Gethsemane," which I wrote years ago, and finally found its proper home.
Honestly, I'm not sure you can extrapolate Christianity onto alien planets or worlds with theological integrity either. But I do believe if we ever meet them, someone's going to try it. That's just the way we are. But I am extremely pleased that it worked so well for you. Peace of Christ.

Jessica Snell said...

Hi Scott! You're quite welcome, and thank *you* for stopping by. I hope I'll get the chance to read more stories by you; you do such a wonderful job of creating new worlds and characters!