I feel like I’ve been waiting forever to share this with you guys! I was asked to write a guest post for The Reading Women about my favourite female Canadian authors. Click the picture below to check it out!
I am lucky enough to have talented friends who are willing to write guest blogs for me when they feel passionately about a particular book. This guest blog is written by Scotto Williams, the often irreverent and always hilarious man behind scottowilliams.com and @scottowilliams
When I first cracked open Blake Crouch’s new novel, Dark Matter, I was expecting something like a sci-fi It’s A Wonderful Life or The Family Man, the Nicolas Cage movie where a ruthless businessman gets a glimpse of his life if he had chosen a different path. Except this would be the reverse, since the protagonist here, Jason Dessen, has been living a comfortable suburban life with a wife and teenage son when, as characters repeatedly tell him in the opening chapters, he could have made a big world-changing scientific breakthrough in his late-20’s if not for all that. (Cold.) It’s a tried and true formula: after a requisite amount of “What’s going on here?” Our Hero takes a tour of his new surroundings, maybe for a minute he likes what he sees, but ultimately he learns it’s not for him, things worked out the way they did for a reason, and he finds his way back. It’s a predictable journey, but one with room for twists and turns. With a premise like that, there would be a lot of room there to explore what drives Jason, what caused him to make the decisions he did, what comprises the ‘self’ and what role compromise plays in all of our existences – choosing one path over the other. But what ensues isn’t quite that.
Instead, Dark Matter spends most of its 330-odd pages as a suspenseful thriller – one with enough excitement and thrills to keep the pages turning but that never quite rises to the occasion of its premise. While never far from the broad questions about the multiverse and the self, the book is mostly comprised of a series of pursuits, captures, narrow escapes, and harrowing visits to ghastly alternate realities (some aren’t that terrible, but they’re not right.) The multiverse-cracking technology is largely just a backdrop for these action-oriented scenes. The book never really puts its ideas under the microscope, so to speak.
One could easily draw a close parallel to Andy Weir’s The Martian, for the way this book takes a hard-science, problem-solving, verisimilitude-heavy approach to a far-out scientific concept with a “survival-at-all-costs” bent. The story is mostly told in first-person-present-tense prose that goes a long way toward keeping the visceral, in-the-moment tension tight. But that style becomes a failing here and there, where Dessen finds himself recounting events that we’ve already read and absorbed, either for his own benefit or to explain to someone else. Whether that’s what would actually be said or not, it’s a drag to read. And there are a small number of chapters that break from this format to check in on characters who are not in the here-and-now with Dessen, but this isn’t done enough to make the breaks comfortable; it feels like Crouch is taking a shortcut outside of his narrative setup to give us some extra colour we couldn’t get if it sticks to the path.
As the plot unfolds, there are a couple of intriguing set pieces afforded by the premise that revived my interest as I was getting weary of the “Run, escape, hide” rhythm. Crouch writes a good thriller, make no mistake, and the revelation that awaits Jason in the final act of the book was actually a jaw-dropping “Oh man how did I not see that coming?!” moment for me. Dessen’s final decision made for a nice swerve ending. I would have liked to see Jason rely on his scientific acumen more than on pluck and in-the-moment cleverness, the way Weir’s Mark Watney does, but that’s a minor complaint. I admire the way Crouch incorporates Dessen’s need to search his inner self into his path home, but like much of the book it could do with more examination instead of just being part of the puzzle. More importantly, the book and its thriller nature feels like a missed opportunity to me. You’ve got all these wonderful, potentially fascinating and enlightening toys on the table and you only want to play a basic game of cops and robbers.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to judge a book by what it isn’t. I could quibble with what the jacket flap promised, but it said “thriller” and by goodness that’s what I got. But most reading experiences start by sparking the reader’s imagination as to what they are about to experience, and then playing with that expectation. It’s my misfortune some poor marketing copywriter sparked me the wrong way. The book could have been nearly double the length, sacrificed almost none of the action, and had something really tangible to say about life, the universe, and everything. Instead it drops its (rather underdeveloped, to be frank) protagonist into a pit of intrigue and watching him scramble his way out. I’m not saying the Family Man plot I thought I was getting is a guaranteed winner in this respect either, but at least in that one our hero gets a chance to sit down and catch his breath.
As usual, my amazing guest blogger has made my little reviews look like first grader work. Hahaha, I’m so lucky to know such intelligent people. Don’t forget to follow him at scottowilliams.com and @scottowilliams.
I am beyond thrilled to be part of this blog tour for Sheila R. Lamb’s Brigid Series. Below you will find some helpful information about the books and a great discussion on religion in the series.
About Fiery Arrow: Brigid, a gifted druid priestess, seeks to preserve Ireland’s ancient religion when Christianity broaches its shores. When she confronts Patrick, the charismatic leader of the newly-arrived Christians, she realizes they have a shared history, tied together by a bond formed lifetimes before. As Brigid persists in reminding him of their past and of his promise to help her revive the Ancient Ones, Patrick denies the deal he made as a lonely slave boy to a goddess he believed to be only in his imagination.
About Church of the Oak: When Brigid starts a rigorous druid training school called Cill Dara, she’s threatened with a lifetime of slavery. In order to survive, she must span two cultures and two faiths when the Christians and druids decide to teach their students together, an undertaking that places her in the priest Patrick’s path once again. Fifth-century Ireland is the backdrop for their turbulent lives, a place where history and myth live side by side.
When Brigid and other druids practice their religion, it seems very real, as if it goes beyond faith. A flame remains burning on its own in Cill Dara, the school for druids. Characters’ faces change from who they are in the present to who they were in the past, as described in Once a Goddess. Maithghean, a powerful druid/magician, casts spells on people.
In comparison, Christianity gives no indication that the religion actually has a “power.” Can you talk about your treatment of religion in the Fiery Arrow and Church of the Oak? Are readers meant to side with one religion based on your descriptions? How do you hope readers perceive the religions as you’ve written them? In these books, native Irish view Christianity as foolish; they make fun of Patrick for praying to one god. Today, though, Christianity is the dominant religion. Do these facts affect the way you told the story?
Philip Freeman’s book St. Patrick of Ireland was a great resource. Freeman used the priest Patrick’s letters as a basis for his research. When Patrick was kidnapped from Britain, theoretically, he was the first Christian on Irish shores.The monotheistic belief system was totally unheard of (there were possibly earlier missionaries, but few and far between). Patrick was teased, made fun of. In his letters, he says other slaves called him “holy boy.”
Here is a sample from Fiery Arrow that highlights the differences between pagans in Ireland and Patrick’s faith in God:
“We have festivals for our gods,” Liam informed him. “The druids talk to them for us.”
“Well, Christians have only one God, and we say our own prayers,” he replied, suddenly defensive of his childhood churchgoing, although he knew priests would gladly intervene with the prayer saying.
“Christians, aye?” asked Conall. “What’s that?” None of them had heard of God or church or Jesus. They were pagan all around.
“The religion in Britannia, or at least the Roman part of it. One God, whose Son, Jesus, died for our sins.”
“Things you aren’t supposed to do.”
Conall rubbed his chin and looked warily at Patrick. “One god? But he’s got his son along with him? Isn’t that two gods, then?”
Patrick’s head hurt. He didn’t intend to get into any religious discussion with Conall. He was just trying to divert attention from his conversation with the invisible Brigid. “They’re one in the same, God, his son, their holy spirit.”
“Their what?” Eamon had joined their conversation.
“Spirit. Soul. Ghost. The thing inside you.”
“So it’s three of them?” asked Eamon.
“No – we’re not pagan like you. We don’t have a hundred gods for each season. It’s just God.”
“And his son?” asked Conall.
“And the spirit?” asked Eamon.
“No!” Patrick stood up, frustrated. He couldn’t explain the trinity like his grandfather could. “They are all one.”
Both men shook their heads at him and glanced at each other with a look that sealed Patrick’s fate as a lunatic.
Think about how we treat new belief systems. There’s usually a lot of skepticism involved, and I doubt ancient Ireland was much different. They were firmly entrenched in the druidic belief system–or lifestyle, which was more than just belief. So, Patrick the priest had huge obstacles to face.
So, how is he, logistically, going to bring a new religion to Ireland? My guess is that he understood that druidism was a lifestyle – honoring seasons and solstices, and nature was a way of life. What were things that caused discontent? Tribal warfare and slavery. Those are two things he could focus on as a point of change and, of course, falls completely in line with the Jesus’s message of peace, love thy neighbor, blessed are the meek, etc. I don’t think that Patrick was saying “give up your entire culture,” but instead “add these ideas to it.” These are big reasons why Patrick gained followers in the beginning.
From Brigid’s point of view, she may not yet “get” the spiritual feeling of the new religion. Peter Ellis’s book The Druids was also a good source for me when I was writing Fiery Arrow and Church of the Oak, particularly referring to the possibility that Cill Dara was a school of dual (druid and Christian) learning. The Serpent and the Goddess by Mary Condren references the duality of Brigid as well.
I always kept in mind that Christianity won. Even as entrenched as Ireland was in the pagan way of life, whatever Patrick did worked. I wanted to explore how that happened. Irish conversion was fairly peaceful (versus, say, Rome. Roman Christians faced years of real life and death persecution before Christianity won out).
So, what was the druid reaction of the time? They must have accepted the priest Patrick or not seen him as a big threat. This is what Brigid, as a druid, is up against. She’s one of the few in my novels that understands the changes he is about to bring and does what she can to fight those changes.
Follow along with Sheila R. Lamb’s virtual book tour to learn more about Fiery Arrow and Church of the Oak, both of the Brigid Series!
Sheila Lamb received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from George Mason University. Her short stories have earned Pushcart and storySouth Million Writers Award nominations. She is a writer-in-residence at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities and is a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). Sheila is the author of the Brigid of Ireland historical fantasy series, which tells the story of Brigid as goddess, druid, and saint. Sheila has traveled throughout Ireland and participated in the Achill Archaeology Field School. She loves Irish history, family genealogy, and is easily distracted by primary source documents. She lives, teaches, and writes in the mountains of Virginia.