Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: Miserere: An Autumn Tale (Book 1 of the Katharoi) by Teresa Frohock

Woerld stands between Earth and Hell, an eternal battleground where Fallen Angels seek to overwhelm the Katharoi, warriors who wield the magic of Faith. As Miserere begins, we learn Catarina has entered into a covenant with the Fallen to slake her thirst for power. An entire city scrapes to her. But Catarina is not satisfied with a city—the Fallen push her onwards, and she will not be content until all bow before her, and it may be that all that stands between Woerld and destruction is Catarina's twin brother Lucian, Rachael, the woman he betrayed, and Lindsay, an Earth-born girl new to Woerld.

Miserere is the first installment in a Fantasy series of the darkest kind; there are no gentle tales of dwarves and elves to blunt the harsh reality of Woerld. Demons and forays into Hell are the rule: Teresa Frohock's characters risk not just death but an eternity in Hell and its tender mercies, as betrayers slip among the Katharoi's ranks and the Fallen seduce the corrupt to deeper abandon. The universe is rich and multi-layered, with motifs influenced by history and myth, but not ruled by them. Frohock bases Katharoi magic in faith, an inner light, and though the main characters are largely Christian, the Katharoi represent many religions. (One might hope the subsequent books in the series might explore the use of magic among religions other than Christianity more deeply than in Miserere—but I cannot fault Frohock for concentrating on her MCs' practice, as to do otherwise would bog down what is a lively plot.) Miserere does not read like a fumbling first book. Unlike the openings to so many Fantasy series, Frohock's confidence in her world-building and prose brings to mind writers who work from established canon—Woerld never feels like it leapt into existence where Miserere begins; her characters and Woerld's history have always existed, and this is simply where her readers are let in on the tale.

Miserere introduces us to a wide swath of well-developed characters, from twelve-year-old Lindsay to John Shea, Lucian's former mentor and leader of the Katharoi, forming a solid base to the series without littering the way with extraneous characters who come into play at a later date. Frohock chooses to focus on Lucian and Rachael, two slightly older (forty-ish) Katharoi, pulling the narrative away from the typical fantasy path. Rachael and Lucian are battle-worn and scarred, inside and out. Although they know their strengths, never do they fight with the overconfidence of newly-found power or take glory in the battle; they have failed against these foes before, and witnessed their own weaknesses all too often and well. They have known and paid dearly for love, and their battle is as much with the past as it is with Hell's minions. Lindsay, on the other hand, is a Katharos newly pulled from Earth—innocent, but fierce. It is Lindsay who is our purest hero, self-sacrificing and loyal, even when she is outmanned—unlike the elder Katharoi, her bravery comes without confidence in her skill and knowledge of her power, and her faith is born in her bond to Lucian and from her rejection of the Fallen, not a strict faith in God. She is balance to Catarina's foolhardy arrogance and lust for power, and as Catarina falls further, sacrificing her humanity for ever more magic, Lindsay must test her own depths of strength, and resolve. Actually, my one criticism lies in Catarina, Miserere's villainess, who at times borders on a stereotypical symbol of corruption, steeped in sexual debauchery and general evilness. However, she serves the plot, and her behavior is well-backed as the nature of her childhood and relationship with Lucian is revealed, so I am happy to waive my reservations.

For all its outward show of light versus dark, this story is a deeply personal one of regret and forgiveness, raising questions about the true meaning of loyalty, strength, and mercy. It also happens to be a highly entertaining page-turner and a compelling introduction to Woerld and Frohock's cast of characters, complete with a hopeful ending to balance the darkness of the universe. I recommend Miserere for readers with a taste for dark fantasy, but suggest you consider it even if it sounds outside your usual fare.

Now of course, we must experience that exquisite frustration as we wait for the author to finish writing the next in the series, Dolorosa: A Winter's Dream. Oh, how slowly the days pass...

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