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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

“Miserere: An Autumn Tale” by Teresa Frohock (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Order “Miserere: An Autumn TaleHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE (PDF)
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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Raised in a small town, Teresa Frohock learned to escape to other worlds through the fiction collection at her local library. Miserere: An Autumn Tale is her debut novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: Exiled Katharos Lucian Negru deserted his lover in Hell in exchange for saving his twin sister’s soul, but Catarina doesn't want salvation. She wants Lucian to help her fulfill her dark covenant with the Fallen Angel Mastema by using Lucian’s power to open the Hell Gates. Catarina intends to lead the Fallen's hordes out of Hell and into the parallel dimension of Woerld, Heaven's frontline of defense between Earth and Hell.

When Lucian refuses to help his sister, she imprisons and cripples him. After sixteen years living with the pain and guilt of what he did, Lucian is finally offered a second chance when a Katharos spy helps him escape from his sister’s clutches. During his flight from Catarina’s soldiers, Lucian comes across a foundling trapped in Hell. To save her, Lucian must open a Hell Gate, violating the terms of his Ban, which is punishable by death.

Now, not only must Lucian evade Catarina's wrath while trying to protect an inexperienced foundling, but he is also being hunted by Rachael, the lover he betrayed and abandoned in Hell, who is dying from a demonic possession and seeks retribution...

FORMAT/INFO: Miserere: An Autumn Tale is 350 pages long divided over three Parts and twenty-one numbered/titled chapters. Narration is in the third-person, mostly via Lucian Negru and Rachael Boucher, while other POVs include Lucian’s twin sister Catarina, the foundling Lindsay Richardson, and Lucian’s Elder John Shea. Miserere: An Autumn Tale ends at a satisfying stopping point, but is the first book of the Katharoi, which will have at least two more sequels: Dolorosa: A Winter's Dream (Book 2) and Bellum Dei: Blood of the Lambs (Book 3). July 2011 marks the Trade Paperback publication of Miserere: An Autumn Tale via Night Shade. The lovely cover art is provided by Michael C. Hayes.

ANALYSIS: Teresa Frohock’s impressive debut, Miserere: An Autumn Tale, takes the concept of characters passing from the real world into another world—think The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice In Wonderland, both of which are referenced in the novel—and sets it in the middle of an ages-old war between Heaven and Hell. In this war, Hell is a prison where its inhabitants, the Fallen, seek their freedom so they can return to Heaven. In order to accomplish this though, the Fallen must first conquer Woerld, a dimension that exists between Hell and Earth, with Earth the gateway to Heaven.

Defending Woerld from the Fallen are the Katharoi, warrior-prophets blessed with the ability to perform talents such as healing, telekinesis and commanding Hell Gates by channeling God’s spirit. Katharoi are originally from Earth. As children, those who are deemed worthy by the Celestial Court to defend Woerld from the Fallen, are allowed passage through the Crimson Veil which shields Earth from Woerld. There, foundlings are raised by Elders, who teach the foundlings how to control their abilities and the ways of a Katharos.

Into this setup, Miserere: An Autumn Tale revolves around four main characters: Lucian Negru, an exiled Katharos who abandoned Rachael, the woman he loved, to save the soul of his twin sister Catarina sixteen years ago; Lindsay Richardson, a 12-year-old foundling from present day Earth who bonds with Lucian as her Elder; Rachael Boucher—a Katharos Judge suffering from the possession of a demon called Wyrm—who has been tasked with hunting down Lucian, her ex-lover and betrayer; and Lucian’s twin sister Catarina, a former Katharos who now serves the demon Mastema and seeks to use Lucian’s powers to free the Fallen.

Between these four characters, Miserere: An Autumn Tale plays out like a Shakespearean drama because of the intense emotional turmoil that exists among the foursome. There’s the love that Lucian and Rachael once shared, the guilt & sorrow that Lucian feels for his betrayal and Rachael’s anger & pain for being betrayed, and the feelings they still harbor for one another. Then there’s the complicated love/hate relationship between the twins, with Lucian torn between his oath to always protect Catarina, his despair at what his sister has become, and his feelings for Rachael, while Catarina struggles between her twisted love for Lucian and her desire for power, which she will obtain by any means necessary, even if it means giving up her soul. Finally, there’s the special bond that develops between Lucian and the foundling Lindsay, a relationship that draws numerous parallels to the tragic events that occurred sixteen years before between Lucian, Rachael and Catarina; and serves as a key element in Lucian’s absolution—a reference to the novel’s title, Miserere, which is Latin for “have mercy”—Rachel’s deliverance, and Catarina’s just reward. Of course, all of this emotional drama would mean nothing if the characters were not convincingly written, highly sympathetic, and, in the case of Lucian, Rachael and Lindsay, extremely likable.

That said, it’s a good thing that Lucian, Rachael, Lindsay, Catarina and their drama are the focal point of Miserere: An Autumn Tale, because the rest of the novel doesn’t measure up to the same standards. For starters, Teresa Frohock’s world-building lacks depth, especially when it comes to describing Hell and the various places introduced in Woerld (Hadra, the Wastelands, Ierusal, the Citadel). Also, while I understood many of the rules governing Woerld and the Katharoi, the book still left me with several questions: Does time move differently in Woerld because Lindsay Richardson is a 12-year-old foundling from present-day Earth, while Lucian came from the 13th century, but is only forty years old? If the Fallen can only escape from Hell through Hell Gates, why are Katharoi born with the ability to open Hell Gates? Are the inhabitants of Woerld all originally from Earth, or were people there before the Katharoi arrived? Can Katharoi procreate, and if so, are their children born with the powers of a Katharos? If the Crimson Veil only opens for children on Earth, and only allows passage into Woerld, how do the Fallen plan on crossing the Veil into Earth? And so on...

Speaking of Woerld, supposedly every religion on Earth is represented through one of Woerld’s many bastions, with the different religions working together and respecting one another. Unfortunately, readers never really get to see this ideal world in action because the novel is primarily dominated by Christianity, which was a little disappointing considering the interesting potential this concept offered. On the plus side, Miserere: An Autumn Tale never gets preachy or heavy-handed, despite the novel’s emphasis on religion.

Moving on, Teresa Frohock’s writing in Miserere: An Autumn Tale may be accessible and emotive, but it’s also plain and unsophisticated—“The land surrounding her was flat with rock formations jutting out of the darkness. In the distance, mountains lined the horizon, and a volcano belched smoke and fire into the sky.”—which made it feel like I was reading a YA novel. Personally, I have nothing against YA fiction if that’s what the author was trying to accomplish, except Miserere: An Autumn Tale would occasionally venture into territory that bordered on dark fantasy and horror—torture, rape, the Simulacrum, demonic possession, the Sacra Rosa, profanity, etc.—which jarred uncomfortably with the book’s YA sensibilities. The YA-like writing also extends to the story, including shallowly developed subplots—traitors within the Citadel’s Katharoi—and predictable plot twists, not to mention a fairy-tale ending that dampened some of the emotional drama that came before. Lastly, as much as I loved the characters in Miserere: An Autumn Tale, I felt the author focused too much on Lucian and Rachael, in the process undermining Catarina and Lindsay, while the tragic events between Lucian, Rachael and Catarina sixteen years ago could have been explained in better detail.

In spite of these various issues, Miserere: An Autumn Tale remains an impressive and entertaining debut, led by an interesting concept in Woerld and the Katharoi, great characters, and compelling drama. So even though Teresa Frohock’s craft has plenty of room for improvement, I look forward to experiencing the author’s growth and development in the Katharoi sequels...

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