Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Shadow of the Lion review

I previously reported in this blog about This Rough Magic, a book in which magical Jesuits scry for information in Jesus' Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity (in liquid form). I'm a masochist, though, so I wanted to know why even alternate universe versions of the founders of the Company of Jesus would be performing sacrilegious acts upon their Commander-in-Chief. So I broke my usual rule (Don't read Mercedes Lackey until she becomes a good writer again) and looked into Shadow of the Lion. (It's available gratis in electronic form as part of Baen's Free Library, and it's probably at your local library if you can pry it out of the Lackey fans' hands.)

First off, I've got no problem with the political maneuvering. Good stuff. I've got no problem with the writing, in general; it's competent, and Lackey may finally be getting better again. There are sufficient fun bits for anyone, and the co-authors are at least willing to acknowledge the importance of religion to society.

There's one story problem. The project was apparently conceived so that Lackey could get another day's wear out of the stories she wrote for Cherryh's shared world anthology series, Merovingen Nights. So serial numbers were filed off and names changed to protect the guilty. The problem is that, while the new versions of the characters are lively and interesting, the parts where their old identities show through are lukewarm and summary-like. So the second half of the book (which has less of a basis in previous stories) is much better than the first.

In theory, this should be a fun sort of alternate world. The philosopher Hypatia was converted and became a great theologian. The Orthodox/Catholic breakup seems to be over the issue of who's allowed to practice magic. The Orthodox (Petrines) still control Rome and much of Italy; the Pope is called the Grand Metropolitan, and St. Ignatius and his buddies are sworn to him. The Paulines (founded by baaaad ol' St. Augustine, of course) think magic should only be done by priests. They are found from Milan north and are supported by the Holy Roman Empire. There's also a separate Irish church (yes, I rolled my eyes, too) and an Iceland/Ireland/Vinland axis called the League of Armagh.

But there's this little problem. A lot of the worldbuilding doesn't make sense.

We are eventually told that the magic system (for Christians) consists solely of prayer. This begs the question: why don't Christian people in this world call it prayer, then? Why don't people say, "Ooh, my cousin went to the holy man down the street and had him pray over her fever" or "It was a miracle" or "What a grace from God!" For that matter, why would a visionary mystic like St. Ignatius Loyola have to scry at all, when he could just close his eyes and ask?

Later on, when we see actual "sacred magic" being worked, they use almost the exact same warding prayer/spell to four archangels that Katherine Kurtz used in her Deryni books. Then two saints are petitioned, and they appear to one character. As self-described sexless spirits.

Now, if they were supposed to be angels, that's okay. But "soul" does not equal "spirit", nor are human saints ever supposed to be sexless. (Unless this is bringing in the Neoplatonic notion that Matter is Evil, to which I say Bah and Humbug.) So this is pretty silly. It gets sillier if you've actually read St. Ignatius on the discernment of spirits, in which he notes that true visions and religious experiences from God make you feel joyful, content, and rested. Flint, Lackey and Freer follow the standard take -- magic makes you tired. Ergo, if you asked Eneko, he'd tell you those "saints" were evil spirits, and the warding spell obviously didn't work for beans! Heh!

There are some other problems. The major one is that there's an Italian witchcraft religion running around, and this is what the St. Ignatius analogue says about it:

Again, Eneko bestowed that mild gaze upon the Savoyard. "The Church does not consider the Strega to be 'pagans,' I would remind you. Outside our faith, yes. Pagans, no. The distinction was implicit already in the writings of Saint Hypatia—-I refer you especially to her second debate with Theophilus—-although the Church's final ruling did not come until—"

No doubt this explains why later in the book we find the Strega praying to Janus, Aradia, and a host of other deities. 'Cause, see, they're not pagan or Jewish, so this must be some strange form of Judeo-Christianity I'm not familiar with.

I was also annoyed by the random comment that St. John Chrysostom was anti-Semitic, when a short Google found that Chrysostom wrote Against the Judaizers, not Against the Jews. We then get some commentary, again put in St. Iggy's mouth:

He gestured with his chin toward the frescoes above him. "He was a false man, you know, in many ways. Intemperate, harsh, often arrogant, full of error and wrong-headedness. Still, they made him a saint. And do you know why?"

He swiveled his head to bring his companions under his gaze. Diego and Pierre said nothing. After a moment, Eneko looked away.

"They made him a saint," Eneko said harshly, "because whatever his faults the Golden Preacher understood one thing clearly. There is such a thing in this world as evil. Not simply—"

The next words came out almost like a curse: "—error and misunderstanding."

Lackey likes to make a point of pointing out that there is evil in the world, and for this she should be praised. But unfortunately, this is not why Chrysostom is a saint. Nor is there a requirement that all saints must be gentle of word and deed at all times. There is more to being Christian than being nice, because love manifests itself in many ways. Fighting evil is a sign of love for the good, and for those whom evil preys upon.

As for Chrysostom, he was an outspoken man of holy life who always cared for the poor and his flock, and who was both a great theological thinker and speaker. He then finished off by being exiled and essentially martyred for his opposition to unjust government. (Martyrdom, of course, is a sainthood guarantee. A martyr with a shady past is a saint who repented his sins.) If that's not enough for sainthood in the world of Flint, Lackey, and Freer -- I'm glad they're not the Holy Trinity.

There's an unfortunate lack of interest in the different sorts of spirituality favored by the different branches of a religion. Why make St. Ignatius Loyola an Orthodox if you're not going to take advantage of it?

I probably shouldn't even mention that Loyola changed his name from Eneko to Ignatius shortly after he began his new life of serving God, because he so admired St. Ignatius of Antioch. Or that St. Augustine, St. Justin Martyr, and the rest did a perfectly adequate job of adopting the good bits of Plato and Neoplatonism, so a St. Hypatia is hardly needed. (I find her legend rather charming, but the effects of a vision of Truth on an Alexandrian mob are more likely to be positive than punishing. I would expect joy and sorrow with a few prostrations, not the staggers and jags.)

However, I did find out where they got the last name "Lopez". The Catholic Encyclopedia says it's an old scribal error. much research did Flint, Freer and Lackey do?

As always, the problem with Baen Books is insufficient editing...though at least this one is tightly bloated. Eric Flint is overworked, and reallllllly needs to hire a junior editor in charge of this sort of thing.

But it's an interesting story, once you get to the second half.


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