Sketchbook of Scarlet by Josiah Lewis

Hello everyone!

I have the distinct pleasure to introduce you to Josiah Lewis, author of The Sketchbook of Scarlet. I’ve read and reviewed the novel for The End in Mind and there will be a link to the review at the end of the article.

Lewis was kind enough to write a guest post for me as a companion piece to my review. I’ll step back and let his words have the stage.

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Story and gospel: a fact-worshipper comes to peace with making up stories

I grew up in wonderful home and church, both filled with people who cared a lot about literature, and this context shaped the way I view stories. Even though I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was 14, I already had lots of ideas about what good literature and good fiction is. When I started writing, three big questions quickly began to gnaw at me. Sometimes they came from inside of me, sometimes from outside, but I worried about them persistently for the following five years, until my junior year of college, and they still echo in my mind.

The first question: Is writing fictional stories worthwhile?

Many of the people I most respect from my childhood were deeply in love with Christian truth and Christian intellectualism. They basked in books, but rarely in fictional books. Devotional, doctrinal, and biographical literature were their meat and potatoes. Fiction was dessert, and when they recommended such delicacies it was typically based upon its high intellectually nutritional value. That is to say, the Christian message was what caught their attention and earned their praise.

At the same time I was listening to fictional stories read aloud by my parents, and reading others for myself, from the classic science fiction works of Jules Verne, to the children’s fantasies of C. S. Lewis, to the children’s mystery series, The Accidental Detectives. These stories were beautiful, and not just because of their themes.

For example, I cannot at this moment tell you what I think is the theme of Journey to the Center of the Earth. But I can tell you about the loneliness of being lost in the caves, about the dark, and the facets of stone stretching off into eternity. I know what it is to hear the hope in the darkness, the voices of friends brought to my desperate, isolated ears by some trick of wave transmission. I have forgotten even the characters and the names of the characters, but I learned something experientially about humanity, relationships, and how we are isolated, immersed, smothered, and yet somehow connected by the physical world around us – something that until this moment I never tried to put words to. And what would the words have meant to me, less than 10 years old? What value do they add to me now? The story was sufficient to communicate that truth, not as a message, but as an experience.

In spite of my love for and experience of the value of stories, in my high school years I often measured the objective value of the written word by the correctness, clarity, and quantity of propositional truth it conveyed.

I feel guilty when I watch the scene at the beginning of The Dead Poet’s Society, the one where Robin William’s character has his students read from the introduction of their book of poetry. Poetry can be assessed on two axes, the author argues, perfection (I would say quality) and importance (I would say message), and the greatness (I would say goodness) can be calculated as the area. At this my analytical mind leaps for joy.

Oh boy¸ graphs and quantitative assessment! Appreciation of multiple axes of goodness! Hurray!

The guilt comes when Williams’ character has his students rip out the page because it’s a pack of terrible lies. Oh.

A confession: Sometimes I believe that if I do a good enough job believing the truth it will make me a good person. Propositional truth* is great for people who idolize having the right answers, because if you express yourself in logical propositions it’s easier to assess your rightness. So writing stories for the sake of story was dangerous – I wasn’t taking any steps towards proving how great I was by writing them.

By the end of high school I had done a lot of writing, and I often asked my question in an extended form: Is it worth writing fiction, since so many people have done it better than I ever could?

I wrestled with this question all through, and it still bothers me sometimes. Why should I bother doing something when I cannot imagine being better than the masters? Why should I add to the pool of poorly-written books? Why should my stories be worth reading? Is my writing good enough? Am I good enough?

The answer to these questions is “no.” My writing is not good enough. My grasp of the truth and my percentage of right answers is not good enough. I am not good enough. I will never find in myself or in the people, structures, and opportunities around me what I am looking for, what I need. I will never be a monolithic, invincible soul, able, alone and unaided, to define or find and fulfill my purpose.

Why is this surprising to me? After all, I believe God made me to be in relationship with him, to experience his greatness – his glory – and that the breach in that relationship cannot be filled with anything else. But still I try and so, it seems, does everyone else.

The good news about Jesus is the answer to my question “is it worth writing fiction?” My falling short of glory is forgiven. God loves me. I am set free not only to do my best but to risk failure. And as I am reconciled to God I am reconciled to my purpose, to who I am. I am a person made in the image of God. One of the things this entails is creativity.

Creative power is frightening. What we make is never as big or as good, as beautiful or as true as what God makes. But He wants us to make things anyway. By submitting ourselves to his rule and working out creativity in his kingdom we are reconnected to his grand master creativity. Our work begins to align with true and good purposes. While I use my discernment, intellect, emotions, and wise friends to make decisions about what and how to write and how to share it, I am not a slave to those things and people. Our creativity is good because God made it that way, not because I have a certain number of readers, have finished a certain number of books, or have communicated a certain number of godly themes. I do not serve popularity, productivity, or doctrine, I serve Christ.**

The second question I asked was: Should I put God in my stories?

My answer to the question, Is it worth writing fiction? lays a foundation for answering the question, Should God be in stories? Our creative work does not have to explicitly name God to be good – no more than Jesus, as a carpenter, had to make exclusively religious symbols or religious-themed art to do good creative work that perfectly pleased his Father.

I could just move on and let you wrestle with that; instead I will make sure I upset everyone. It is not bad or worse for stories to mention God explicitly. Example: Till We Have Faces. Bonus Example: Ruth. But neither is it necessarily bad or worse to not mention God explicitly. Example: The Lord of the Rings. Bonus example: Esther.

There are different kinds of stories, trying to be different things and wrestle with different ideas. In some it wouldn’t make sense to mention God. In others it wouldn’t make sense not to.

There’s a lot to discuss here. I am painfully aware of complex cultural and creative issues surrounding the question of how my relationship with God affects my writing. It is difficult for me to refrain from inserting another post here on this topic. To do so, however, would be dishonest. I do not have peace over this question because I have answered it. I have peace over this question because I know that all my wrong answers are forgiven. Believing the good news about Jesus does not keep me from deep struggles over what I should write today and questions about exactly how flawed my writing is. But it does set me free to struggle. God saves people before they are good enough, calls them children before they bear the family likeness, and changes them not by threats but by love. My identity is no longer at stake when I write – but the stakes are higher than I could have imagined. What I write reflects either well or poorly on the One who made the universe and dreamed up the first, best story. And I am discovering that He is better by far than my work would ever suggest. So I have both complete safety and inexorable motivation to try to make excellent decisions about what to write.

The third question I asked myself was: Will I ever be rich and famous?

Yes, I really asked this, and still do sometimes. It was actually the number-one question I had about writing when I finished the manuscript for The Sketchbook of Scarlet my junior year of college. I knew of only one way to be a successful author of a fantasy book, and that was to get famous and rich. But the fame and fortune a Christian should desire are for his Father in heaven – “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come on earth.” For ourselves we should desire what we need – “Give us this day our daily bread.”

How does one go about repenting of wanting the world’s stuff instead of what Christ wants? For me, repentance has happened as God teaches me that He gets to define success in writing, not the world and not me. I found peace knowing that if all I ever got to do was share my writing with a few friends, I could still trust God as I wrote. More recently I’ve been learning that even if no one else ever read my work, it would still be worthwhile, because of what I have learned about myself, people, and God through writing.

These benefits are an additional proof and confirmation of what we should already know: Creative work, including writing fiction, is worthwhile. Yes, Christian authors must pursue it with ever-repenting hearts. Yes, we must take care not to neglect other callings God has on us – these two caveats are true of every single thing God calls us to do.

Now, there’s another blog post waiting to be written. It is a study in particular things we can see that are good about writing fantasy stories. It will be full of quotes from C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and others. It is a worthy topic. But I chose to discuss coming to peace with writing fiction because of the Gospel first because, while my apologetic for my writing may involve intellectual arguments about what fiction is and does, and examples of the good God works through it, ultimately I believe fiction in its various forms is worth doing because God made us to be creative, and Jesus Christ is reconnecting us (along with our feeble attempts at righteousness) to the glory of his creative plan, his great story. God doesn’t have to submit the creative mandate to me for my review. But in his infinite kindness and gentleness He does show us lots of his reasoning. He is that good. And that is the point.

“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer.  You are yourself the answer.  Before your face questions die away.  What other answer would suffice?” ~C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

*Also logic and science. Is it any surprise I’m a physicist?

**Christ gets to say if a particular expression of popularity, productivity, and doctrine are or are not good things to focus on in a particular creative work.

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To read my review of Lewis’ article, please visit:  http://theendinmind.net/?p=44497

The End in Mind

Hello all!

Here is an excerpt of my latest article that was featured on The End in Mind.

“When asked to write an article that focused on “the end in mind,” I decided to share about an area of my life that is both precious and terrifying to me: my writing. I was making up stories before I could write my own name. I didn’t understand character development, plot, or how to write decent dialogue, but I knew that stories were something special…”

To read the full article please visit:

http://theendinmind.net/keeping-end-mind/

In other news:

Stay tuned for an article written by guest blogger Joben Lewis, author of Sketchbook of Scarlet!

Sketchbook of Scarlet is currently # 13 on Amazon’s Best Christian Fantasy list.

I’ll be writing a review of the book soon, and am thrilled to have Joben share his journey as a Christian fantasy author.

Exciting things are in the works.

-A.

Time to Refocus

Hello all!

I’m back. I’m sorry that I haven’t been around these past few months. I wanted to post, but could not find the words. I’ve recently had some changes in my life, but things seem to be ironing out a bit now.

I’ve decided to widen the horizon of this blog. Yes I will continue to review books as I can, but I’d like to post more often so I am going to begin posting about a broader range of topics. These new posts will include but are not limited to:

My own experiences as a fantasy writer

Illustrations

Posts from guest bloggers

The occasional personal essay

Some Q & A

Interviews with authors

and more!

To get things kicked off,

I am excited to announce that I am working on a new fantasy trilogy. I’ve begun the drafting process of book one, and will continue to update as I move forward.

Please leave me a comment and let me know what types of posts you’d be interested to see on this site, aside from book reviews.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A.

The Blood of Olympus Review

“In this fifth and final installment of the Heroes of Olympus series, author Rick Riordan pulls together a myriad of storylines, characters, and ancient myths that keep his audience glued to their books until the final sentence. I wouldn’t normally write a review for the last book in a series, but Riordan’s work has made such an impact on pre-teen and teenage audiences that I wanted to share my experience with his books, and especially his latest novel. I will try to avoid spoilers, and I will flag any spoilers I do share in order to adequately review the work…”

This review was published on The End in Mind. To read the full review, please visit:

http://theendinmind.net/?p=42550

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Dealing with Dragons

“In a world full of grand balls, social engagements, and etiquette lessons, a princess is supposed to be beautiful, poised, and empty-headed. She is supposed to wait for her parents to decide which prince will make the best match, and must not complain if sleeping spells, poison apples, or being kidnapped by a dragon is involved. That is what a proper princess does…or at least, that’s what everyone keeps telling Princess Cimorene. Unimpressed with the duties of a “normal” princess, she would rather learn fencing, cooking, and Latin rather than focus on being a “proper princess.” Unfortunately, no one in her kingdom is open-minded about that sort of thing. On a trip to a neighboring kingdom, her parents decide that Cimorene will marry the prince of that kingdom, and she has no say in the matter. Not wanting to marry someone just because it is the “thing to do,” she runs away to the dragon caves, and offers to become a dragon’s princess, no kidnapping necessary.”

The above is an excerpt of a review I wrote which is featured on Heart of the Matter Online this month. To read the full review, please follow this link: http://wp.me/pmHoR-aw7 Also, I’d love your feedback! Is there a book you’d like reviewed? Have you read any of the books I have reviewed so far? If so, what did you think about them? That’s all for now! A.

Soman Chainani’s A World Without Princes

A world without princes

This is a follow up article to last month’s review over The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani. Chainani’s first book centered around Agatha and Sophie, two friends who were kidnapped from their town, and taken to the School for Good and Evil. Beautiful Sophie was placed in the school for evil, while spunky Agatha was placed in the school for good. The story revolved around both girls trying to switch schools, until it became clear they were exactly where they needed to be. Sophie gave in to her selfishness, and transformed into a horrible witch, while Princess Agatha had to defend the school from the ensuing attacks.

At the end of the story Agatha had a choice to save and return to the town with Sophie, or to stay with her prince, Tedros. Agatha chooses Sophie and the two are transported back to town to live “happily ever after.”

The problem?

Agatha still wants her prince, and makes a wish to be back with him, thus inciting the events of the sequel A World Without Princes.

In this installment, Agatha unknowingly re-opens the portal between worlds because of the strength of her wish, and the two girls are taken back again. This time, things are different. No longer are witches and princesses enemies–this time it’s men who are the enemy. (Yes, you read this right. I had to set down the book and groan when I read that part, so I understand if you need a moment.)

Because of Agatha’s choice to return with Sophie at the end of the first book, princesses from all parts of the enchanted world are throwing their husbands out, or “asserting” their rights to rule alone. This, of course, makes the men angry and hostile, and the general notion is that in order to get balance restored, Agatha and Sophie need to be killed.

To make matters worse? The one leading the charge to restore order is Tedros, Agatha’s prince. He believes that he must kill the “witch” in order to win the heart of his princess, and Agatha is told she must either choose Sophie again, or kiss Tedros. Again, Agatha is caught between her best friend and her true love, and there is no easy way out of the situation. To raise the stakes, Tedros, believing that Agatha has betrayed him puts a price on her head, and Sophie may or may not be showing symptoms of turning back into the evil witch.

It’s up to the two best friends to restore balance in the kingdoms, or a full out war will ensue between men and women.

The biggest problem is the fact that the series target audience is children aged 7-12. This book was sold in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble. Chainani’s first book focused on blurring the lines of good and evil, and this one focused on blurring the lines between gender roles. These books are too old for their target audience, and promote moral and gender confusion at an age where children are bombarded from all angles with the confusion of just growing up. They don’t need more confusion from the books they read. Chainani’s writing, being hailed as original and a fresh look at fairy tales borrows troupes from classic fairy tales and twists them into a “modern” perspective. The books are too long, with the endings springing up quickly from drawn out middle scenes. Character development is minimal, while sentence structure is confusing, and dialogue is cliché. Chainani’s immature writing style muddles any message he would send to the reader.

On the topic of muddled messages:

First of all, readers see that Agatha’s choice set off a chain reaction she never intended. When the girls return to the school, they see it split, not into good and evil, but into the boy’s school and the girl’s school. All the girls whether from the “good” or “evil” side are allowed into the school for girls, and are also allowed to do whatever they want with their appearance. Princesses can have mohawks, and witches can try to improve their appearance. Girls are encouraged to read, study art, play instruments, and better their minds. This should be a good change, but it makes the girls hard, cruel, and they are encouraged to be both men and women in attitude. Their femininity is now perceived as weakness. Meanwhile, the boys school disintegrates into hormonal chaos, as there is no softening element to “hold the boys in check.”

Agatha, like the reader wonders why girls couldn’t improve their minds, strengthen their bodies, and still be feminine? Why couldn’t boys work alongside their princesses, without being pushed out? Sophie even asks the question of “Why can’t a girl have both a best friend and a prince?”

Neither men nor women were portrayed in a great light in this story. The men were violent, and the women power hungry. I don’t even know why Agatha wanted to be with her Prince so much. He was shown throughout most of the story to be focused on the fact that because his mother betrayed the family when he was a young child, that every woman must betray him. He is too full of bitterness and distrust to have a healthy relationship, and the author presents “true love’s kiss” as the healing element. That is not a good message to be sending out to young girls. “Oh just kiss him, and all of his bitterness will melt away.” Not likely.

Sophie, throughout the story, is afraid of losing her best friend to a prince and will therefore do anything to keep the two apart. She is not doing this for Agatha’s benefit, but for selfish reasons. She believes that if Agatha has a prince, then their friendship will be over. She does everything in her power to prove she’s changed, that she is not evil, but her actions still come from a place of self-protection.

At the end of the story, Agatha is again given a choice: Tedros or Sophie, and this time she chooses Tedros. What is alarming, is that the aftermath of that choice makes the reader question if her decision was correct. Sophie, heartbroken, runs straight into the arms of the series villain, and the last line of the book reads: “…two girls now pulled apart like strangers, each in the arms of a boy, Good with Good, Evil with Evil…”

It is a terrible thing to instill in children from an early age that they must “choose” between friendship and romantic love like it’s a choice of life or death. The author is trying to create an edgy fairy tale for children, but is leaving out the redemption, the solidity of friendship, and the beauty of real love. Everything is tainted with lust, ambition, and selfishness.

Perhaps the final installment will clear some of this up, but as of now, both books in the series have left a negative impression with me. I wish I could encourage the reading of these stories because it is a creative idea, but the poor writing style combined with the inappropriate material for the age level forces me to encourage readers to let this one pass by.

The School for Good and Evil: Soman Chainani

Image

“Welcome to the School for Good and Evil, where best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.

The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, thrust among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.

But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are . . . ?”

-Amazon

I read Soman Chainani’s debut novel in one day. I’d seen the gorgeous cover for the book on a fairytale site I frequent and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the story. My hopes were high. I dove into the novel headfirst and immersed myself into his created world where Good and Evil are not what they seem.

At the beginning, I thought the book was going to be about two friends who discover that physical beauty is nothing compared to the condition of their souls. Sophie was physically gorgeous but her attitude towards others was shallow and at times even cruel. Agatha did not consider herself physically attractive but through the story she is revealed to be a brave, kind, and complex character.

After their placement, Sophie was furious at being put into the School for Evil and did everything in her power to “fix” the situation. She was not above manipulation, violence, or seduction to get what she wanted. At one point, after she’d performed her first act of pure evil, she decided to seduce her way into people’s good graces by wearing skimpy outfits to flaunt her body. This was not shown as acceptable in the story, but the scenes where the author describes Sophie’s transformation are too risqué for younger readers.

At the heart of the conflict is a handsome prince (Surprised? Me either) who is more annoying than charming. Prince Tedros is obsessed with his looks, and the looks of others. He hates Agatha from the beginning because she looks different from the “beautiful” girls in the school. Tedros is physically attracted to Sophie and vows to help her get out of the School for Evil. Through a series of events, it becomes clear to Tedros that Sophie is not kind at heart and his affections shift to Agatha. The scenes where Tedros was allowed to express his point of view were supposed to create complexity in the character, but only made me roll my eyes at the stereotypical “misunderstood hero” who couldn’t be held accountable for his actions because he’d had a rough childhood. Despite this, he did grow as a character and honestly he and Agatha made a great pair, but this was only explored near the end of the novel after the reader had been exposed to his melodramatic side for over four-hundred pages.

The ending of the novel was vague (to many readers) about the course of love and this opened the doorway for the sequel A World Without Princes in which Chainani says that not only will the lines between good and evil be blurred, but so will the lines of gender expectations.

I was severely disappointed by this story because of the content being explored in a novel for a target audience of middle grade readers (ages nine to twelve) and I was confused as to the message being sent to readers. For clarification, I decided to do some research on the author. In interviews he stated that he wanted to re-invent the ideas of good and evil in his story to show kids today that they do not have to be what society demands of them. He wanted to create an unfamiliar world for the readers where conventional ideas are cast aside and people are allowed to explore different ideas of morality and gender. He wanted to show that we are all human, that we all have areas of light and dark in our hearts, and are all in are in need of redemption. While this is true, his “redemption” or conclusion to the story caused more harm than good.

Blurring the lines between good and evil does not necessarily equal a complex story. Some novels with a clear cut “good vs. evil” theme have seemed contrived as of late, but I blame authorial laziness and not the theme itself. It’s time for authors to leave behind the idea of “perfect” heroes and “one dimensional” villains. That’s one thing Chainani and I have in common. But I believe the exploration of humanity’s utter depravity and our desperate need for redemption should draw readers towards hope, not point them down a path of moral ambiguity. 

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