Night Shade Books
Miserere: have mercy. Well might the characters of Teresa Frohock’s dark debut beg for such a thing. Some of them might even receive it… but not before Frohock drags them through a gauntlet of emotional, physical, and spiritual trials. This grim fantasy is certainly not for the faint of heart – but despite its darkness and the ugly challenges its characters face, Miserere contains a core of beauty and hope.
In the parallel realm of Woerld, divided from present-day Earth by a mysterious Veil, life is hard, to say the least. For Woerld is the last line of defence between Earth and Hell. Peopled by warriors called Katharoi, Woerld’s bastions of faith are in constant battle with the Fallen: the angels expelled from Heaven who now languish in Hell. The Fallen’s attempt to escape their prison is never-ending; their aim is to break through Woerld’s defences, taking over Earth so that they can return in force to Heaven. Only by remaining true to God, and thus channelling their own spiritual species of magic, can the Katharoi hold the Fallen back, and save both Earth and Heaven from conquest.
Frohock’s cosmos, split into the four dimensions of Heaven, Earth, Woerld, and Hell, is a fantastic concept, made all the better by the way Frohock skilfully transforms these celestial/abstract realms into palpable, realistic settings. The majority of Miserere’s action is set in Woerld, and as such the reader has abundant opportunity to explore this fascinating locale. A quasi-medieval realm infused with a gloomy, purgatorial atmosphere, it departs from the standard epic fantasy setting in many ways, but notably in the manner that it interacts with Earth. For whilst the denizens of Earth are blissfully unaware of Woerld’s existence, the same is not true of Woerld’s citizens. Indeed, many of them actually come from Earth, having been drawn through the ‘Crimson Veil’ that occasionally opens between the realms. Consequently, although the magical resonances in Woerld interfere with modern technology (there’s a cool moment involving a mobile phone), the characters are aware of modern advances despite their own medieval-style living conditions. Not only does this add an interesting complexity to the worldbuilding, but it also gives Frohock logical reason for the characters to express modern sensibilities and to use contemporary language that in a standard quasi-medieval fantasy would be anachronistic and/or evidence of lazy writing. In Miserere, however, the occasional ‘okay’ is by no means out of place.
I also admired the way that Frohock’s novel, whilst obviously grounded in theology, did not become preachy at any point. The existence of a higher power (God, if you will) is a given in Woerld, and his power is the basis for the Katharoi’s magic system. Nevertheless, this is not ‘Christian fiction’ in the sense that I understand it (i.e. actively promoting Christian faith and teachings). Religion forms the foundation of the cosmos and the magic, but it is not present for any overt didactic reason. Miserere’s concept reminds me more of Pullman’s His Dark Materials than anything else, though it lacks the actively atheist sensibilities of that series as well.
What makes this novel all the more impressive is that despite its sweeping, epic outlook, the story is character-driven. Long-suffering protagonist Lucian is held hostage by his twin sister Catarina, for whom he betrayed his lover, Rachael, abandoning her to Hell’s torments years before. In doing so, Lucian became tangled in his sister’s machinations, becoming complicit in her scheme to help the Fallen to gain a foothold in Woerld, and consequently exiled from the Katharoi’s Citadel. But when, at the start of Miserere, Lucian escapes his sister’s clutches, he unexpectedly gains a companion: Lindsay Richardson, a child from Earth who has been sucked through the Veil with her brother. Such children are known as ‘foundlings’ – those with the potential to become Katharoi – and Lindsay’s sudden entrance into Lucian’s life changes everything. Pursued by his sister’s minions and tracked by his resentful ex-lover on behalf of the citadel, encountering demons and dark spells, travelling through the Wasteland with a crippled leg and a weight of guilt, and all the while trying to protect Lindsay and teach her about this strange new world… Lucian is forced to reassess his life. Can he keep Lindsay safe and uncorrupted? Is there the slightest chance Rachael will forgive him? Is redemption even possible for him anymore, after what he’s done?
That cast of Miserere is a particularly strong one. Lucian is a brilliant protagonist, simultaneously noble and culpable, tortured and determined. Rachael is similarly awesome: struggling with her conflicting feelings towards Lucian, wracked with memories of her horrific time in Hell, and possessed by a demon known only as ‘the Wyrm’, she is hard-as-nails but also emotionally (and physically) scarred and vulnerable. Catarina, meanwhile, is appropriately terrifying, but Frohock gives us enough insight into her past to understand why she has turned to the Fallen. Lindsay worried me slightly at first, as I wasn’t keen on the ‘girl drawn through portal between the realms’ thing, but I needn’t have fretted. Frohock handles her adroitly and without the usual clichéd pitfalls, and I really warmed to Lindsay as the novel went on. She and Lucian made a great duo, and their interactions made for some truly affecting scenes.
Frohock does not flinch from being cruel to her characters – which, personally, I think is crucial to crafting an effective tale (cf. Robin Hobb!). Miserere is dark stuff, and the level of threat remains high throughout. Between the Wyrm, the Barrens, the Sacra Rosa, Catarina, and Catarina’s truly hideous henchman Speight (*shudder*) the reader is kept in a state of constant tension and fear for the characters. There are also enough action sequences to satisfy any thrill-seeking reader – sequences made all the more effective by the attention Frohock pays to her characters’ emotions throughout.
There’s little to fault with the writing style either. Frohock’s prose is accomplished and relentless, and both settings and characters are luridly realised.
All in all, Miserere gets a fervent recommendation from me. It’s harsh, bleak, and often twisted, but as its title suggests, it’s not completely merciless. For within the darkness of its world, a light resides – and its that spark of hope that keeps you turning the pages, rooting for Lucian and his cohorts as they battle through their numerous tribulations. I can’t wait to follow it into the next instalment.