Fantasy fiction must be hard to write. Tolkien and Lewis were such dominant figures in the genre, shaping its landscape in such a powerful way that it is hard for everything that follows to not feel derivative, especially in books taking place in whole new worlds. I’ve tried different series throughout my life, finding some that I liked (Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn) and some that should be avoided at all costs (The Wheel of Time series). But seeing the influence of Tolkein, even in books that espouse radically different worldviews, like the sadly popular Game of Thrones series, is hard to avoid. Originality is tough.
Then there’s the fact that there exists a genre called “Christian fiction.” It’s sad to me that there is such a genre. Lewis never would been labeled this way, but now there is a whole market for books of fiction matching the popular genres of the day but with Christian messages. I theologically disagree with the distinction…Christian should not be an adjective but a noun. Fiction should be judged based on how well it is written and what kind of truth or falsehood it espouses, not based on how conveniently it shoehorns a religious message into it.
I’m all for storytelling that speaks eternal truths. And while starting with a message and building a story around it seems like a good idea and an easy way to communicate, it ultimately has proven to produce bad art. Bad writing. Lazy production. (It didn’t used to be this way, by the way. The church used to be able to be cutting edge in the arts, but that’s a whole different topic.) And so I almost never read anything that could remotely be labeled “Christian fiction.” I’ve tried. Most of the time, I get frustrated with the thin characterizations, the obvious preaching/morality, and the blatant stealing of styles and ideas from the giants of Lewis and Tolkien.
I say all that to introduce to you The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. Yes, Peterson is also a musician primarily labeled as a CCM artist, though I think much of his stuff transcends that. And yes, you might see it labeled and characterized as Christian or “religious” fiction. And this would be an egregious error. This four book series is excellent, original and I wish there was a way to fight this labeling because it conjures none of the cringes that probably come to mind whenever you hear the term “religious fiction.” I think any fantasy fan, whatever their beliefs, could love these books.
Taking place in a fantastical world known as Aerwiar, the story begins with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, a title which introduces us to the quirky and sometimes humorous style Peterson employs. The main characters are the three Igiby children–Leeli, Janner and Kalmar, who live in a land occupied by the evil Fangs of Dang, the minions of the mysterious Gnag the Nameless. (His name is Gnag, though he has no name.)
The discovery of a map that may have connection to the father they never knew and its connection to some jewels the Fangs are looking for sets them off on their adventure. The series is filled with memorable characters like their retired pirate grandfather Podo or the earnest troll poet Oood, and is filled with original creatures (not usually the standard elves, goblins, etc.) such as the fierce Toothy Cows, which are exactly what they sound like, or the untrustworthy ridgerunners, a race of little people obsessed with fruit.
Okay, that was all pretty vague I realize, but spoiling anything more than the basic set-up would ruin some of the many surprises the series offers. But let me tell you why I loved this series. As I said, it is not derivative–very original. Secondly, the author’s voice is unique. He manages to fluctuate from quirky humor to genuinely scary scenes and intense situations really quickly. The back cover of Book Two, North! Or Be Eaten, gives warning of several obstacles the Igibys will face, including “the dreaded Fork Factory.” Which intentionally sounds absurd, but turns out to be truly scary.
Third, and I mean this as a high compliment, the author’s Christian worldview is not obvious or shoehorned in to the story. It is only until about midway through the third book, The Monster in the Hollows, that I began to pick up on what he was trying to say at all, and even when it becomes really clear in the rousing finale, The Warden and the Wolf King, it still does not seemed forced. It feels earned, a natural overflow of the author’s beliefs about life and love, instead of a story built around a message. But when those truths arrive, and when that message comes through, it is one about loyalty, selflessness, sacrifice and the bonds of family, forgiveness, and unconditional love, and it is profoundly moving. It is True. Peterson talks about how we can easily lose ourselves and our true identities, how we can easily embrace lies, and how ultimately the way out is to remember who we really are, that we are deeply loved, and that we find joy when we give ourselves away. Beautiful stuff.
Some things to note: in some ways, these books are written for maybe pre-teen aged kids–the main characters are all kids and the language is easy enough for that age. Some parts, however, were intensely scary and I know my own kids aren’t ready to hear these stories yet. I can definitely see myself reading them to them someday. They are easily enjoyable by adults.
Secondly, the first book is good, but a bit slow. Upon completing the series, I see how much of the groundwork, both plot-wise and thematically, were established in that first book, but it is still the slowest of the series. I liked it enough to eventually (but not quickly) seek out Book 2, and I am so glad I did. From almost the very beginning, Book 2 and 3 grabbed me and never let up. Book 4 has the series most powerful sequences, and also a couple that might have been trimmed or rearranged. It also has a finale that genuinely surprised me. I did not see it coming.
Lastly, if you decide to go for it, do yourself a favor and avoid reading the plot blurbs on amazon or anywhere else for any of the latter books; if you can get through Book 1 without any spoilers, it will be a more rewarding read. Andrew Peterson has given us something rare: an original fantasy series full of intense situations, memorable characters, and imaginative scenarios that are set in a far away world yet which remind us of who we are and where we’ve journeyed and which speak truths into that journey. These are modern classics, and if you like Narnia and Middle Earth and want something original yet equally stirring, seek them out immediately.