REVIEW: Miserere by Teresa Frohock

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The forces of Heaven and Hell collide as a disgraced exorcist-paladin seeks redemption, to save his former lover, and to stop his demonically aligned twin sister from unleashing the forces of Hell in a world next door.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Very strong characterization and interactions between the principal characters; bonus points for a memorable villainess that breaks stereotypes.

CONS: World building is sketchy at best; the final act feels perfunctory.

BOTTOM LINE: A memorable debut with promise.

No help for it, he thought as he paced himself. Speight wasn’t the only danger to them; Catarina knew of Lindsay, and that put Lindsay’s welfare in jeopardy. Catarina would allow no one to stand in her way of Lucian’s affections. She had thought nothing of orchestrating Rachael’s ruin; she would easily eliminate a defenseless child.

“Lucian?”

“Yes, child?”

“It’s okay to cry when you’re scared, right? I mean that doesn’t make me whiny, does it?”

He remembered Rachael, who never cried.

Once he had asked her, Don’t ever you weep?

In the night, she answered, when I’m alone.

It wasn’t until his sister’s betrayal that he understood what Rachael meant. During the eternal dusk that had shadowed his life these last years, he often pondered Rachael’s words. He knew what it was like to weep in the night, and he knew what it meant to surrender.

“Lucian?”

“Of course it’s all right to cry.” He tugged her hood onto her head so she wouldn’t take a chill or see his eyes.

He was surprised when he felt Lindsay’s tentative touch. When he didn’t brush her away, she reached more confidently and placed her hand inside his. He would have to be careful with this child, or she would win his heart in spite of his resolve to keep their relationship distant. Lucian gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze and she rewarded him with a small smile.

For now, that was enough.

There’s a hell of a world next door, let’s go.

Or perhaps not. Woerld is a world parallel to Earth, and adjacent to both it and Hell. Years ago, Lucian and his twin sister Catarina were drawn from our Earth to the medieval world of Woerld to be paladins of God, or Katharoi. Since their call to service, things haven’t precisely gone well; Catarina has succumbed to the temptations of demons and Lucian has paid a heavy price for unrelenting loyalty to his twin. His student, Rachael, another Katharoi drawn from Earth, suffered when Lucian made a fateful choice that has left Rachael partially possessed by a demon. As for Lucian, he is isolated and distrusted by his former brethren, and a virtual prisoner in Catarina’s household. Catarina has plans to finally bring the demonic hordes of Hell she has made a pact with, to Woerld in full splendor, and her brother’s powers are key to that effort. Rejecting his sister’s plans and escaping from this imprisonment, a new chance for Lucian comes as the angelic powers select him to be Elder to a young girl (Lindsay) drawn to Woerld. But Rachael is hunting him, and Catarina’s fury at his escape has her hunting Lucian, too.

Will history repeat itself? How will the dynamics of Lucian, his sister Catarina, his student and former lover Rachael, and the young and inexperienced Lindsay play out, as their drama is central to the fate of Woerld, Hell, Earth and beyond?

Such is the Matter of Miserere, the debut novel from author Teresa Frohock.

Miserere, for all of its use of Christian iconography and religion, is really much more of a character novel than a religious novel. In this, it reminded me of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Prospero novels, where the religious overtones influence flavor, but do not dominate what the story is actually about. It’s about a quartet of characters, their pasts, and how those pasts are going to influence their present and future.

Miserere, indeed, is strongest in the characterization and the relationships between the four characters. Except for Lindsay, the three characters have long pasts together that are slowly (but not completely) revealed, and the novel is at its best when it explores their interactions. Lindsay works more as an agent of redemption than a character in her own right for a fair amount of the novel, and as a contrast for Lucian to compare Lindsay’s experiences in Woerld as compared to the tragedy of Rachael.

Where Miserere is weakest is in the world building. While Frohock keeps the focus of the camera lens pretty tightly on the main characters, questions and thoughts about how Woerld worked kept cropping up in my mind, questions that the text did not address. While the permanent nature of technology in Woerld was explained satisfactorily in a throwaway line, it was the geopolitical and religio-political nature of Woerld that was somewhat sketchy for me. While I admire the multicultural cooperation between the various religions that is demonstrated, I am not sure how stable such a setup is given our real-life history. Even with the threat of Hell’s demons very close and very real, how do Christians, Jews, Muslims and Pagans manage to get along? A story is told of how a breakdown in that trust led to the extermination of a religion on Woerld and devastated the land — why hasn’t that happened more often?

And where did the population of Woerld come from? Are they all descendants of Katharoi brought across the Veil from Earth or are they indigenous? Was there a Xanth effect at some point in the past and a large number of people were brought to populate Woerld?

I hope some of these questions are answered in future books. Frohock has set up an environment to tell character-based dark fantasy that is not afraid to use Christian themes and iconography as being real and true. The idea of paladin-like Katharoi standing up against demons while struggling with the consequences of their past actions and inaction is great grist for the mill. And as a roleplayer, the novel’s premise reminded me of games like In Nomine, where the players play servants of Heaven and Hell, with different powers and abilities, working against the other side. Or Nobilis, where the players play ordinary people chosen to fight in a War against nihilistic evil and empowered to do so. Or just variants on Dungeons and Dragons Paladins and Clerics.

And the characters work well. Catarina is a fully formed and memorable villainess, willing to use all of her abilities and brutality to get what she wants, when she wants. She breaks stereotypes in the kinds of antagonists we generally see in the fairer gender. And yet her relationship to her brother and their past gives her emotional depth and resonance that keeps her from being two-dimensional. Also, Rachael, Lucian and Lindsay emerge as well-formed individuals whose stories you care about and want to read.

The language used is relatively simple, well-formed and unadorned making the book a page-turner. I was disappointed that the denouement after the climax, though, goes almost too quickly, as if the author was hitting up against a word limit and wanted to tie things off with dispatch. This does, I think, dilute the power of that coda somewhat for not being more fully fleshed out.

Miserere is the author’s debut effort and I am confident that with subsequent books, she’s going to play her strengths and improve on the weaknesses. I look forward to what comes next.