Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: The Shadows of Grace by David Dalglish

Rating: 4.7 out of 5

Would you sacrifice your child for the world?

Questions. Life, many times, comes down to having the strength to ask oneself the correct ones, leaving the answers almost secondary. In literature, we judge characters, especially those who’ve fallen from grace, by their actions. And yet those actions are often a direct reflection of not having the intestinal fortitude to look past the shiny veneer of their unfortunate circumstances and ask, “Is what has happened to me my own fault?” A great example of this would be Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. He is a character who is obsessed with an underage girl, and throughout the novel he questions not what depravity lies within himself that causes him to fall for (and run off with) this “nymphette”, but the societal pressures and breakdowns that force him to do so. He hates his life and his actions yet takes no action to remedy – or understand – them. In the end, he dies the same way he lived – ignorant and afraid of asking the right questions.

In The Shadows of Grace, the fourth book in David Dalglish’s fantastic and captivating Half-Orc series, the questions come to the forefront. No longer are the brothers and heart of the story, Harruq and Qurrah, slogging through life letting events guide their actions. They make choices, they contemplate their place in the world. Qurrah, for his part, finally begins asking questions of himself – only he’s not asking the right ones. The line at the beginning of this review is his. However, he has it all wrong. For any parent, for any being living in any form of society, the real question should be “Would I sacrifice myself for my child?” However, the simple fact that he asks that question shows a change in his character. He’s learning, pondering his station in life and looking inward rather than reacting to the horrors that have always surrounded him, for the first time.

Harruq is on a different path. He’s asking the right questions for someone in his situation. He’s led his people, folks he’s learned to love and appreciate, to safety. And yet he fights the inner battle of regret. He had a chance to kill his brother in the past and couldn’t do it. Should he have? Is the price of his love for his brother worth the thousands who’ve died by his hand, not the least of which being his own beloved daughter? Is Qurrah worthy of forgiveness for his sins? Does that even matter?

The answer to this is complicated. It’s both a resounding NO and a heartfelt YES! The brothers are a metaphor for choice and faith in one’s abilities. They are a fable of sorts. Think of two inner-city siblings, raised in a culture of violence and fear. One overcomes his upbringing, goes off to school, and becomes a productive and admirable member of society. The other takes the easy way out. He falls prey to the corruption that surrounds him, joins gangs, lives a life of aggression and brutality. The first example we put on a pedestal, idolizing for his ability to rise above. The latter is vilified, looked at as a lost cause and written off. Should he be? If we are able to commend the successful brother for overcoming the trials and tribulations of a rough childhood, shouldn’t we also feel pity for those who aren’t able to triumph? Shouldn’t we try to place ourselves in his situation and ask, “If that were me, would I have the strength to be the better man?” Most times, we don’t. Just look at the headlines of any local newspaper if you require proof of this. Are they worthy of redemption? Some would say no. But they are. It’s hard to look at the horrors they’ve committed and see a soul worth saving. It is the great among us, those with an almost mystical amount of compassion, who have the ability to forgive. Not forget, forgive. And in this particular book, it is Harruq who encapsulates this. He has no reason to forgive his brother. Qurrah has given him nothing but pain. And yet he does. He sees through the veneer of hatred and revenge and bestows upon his brother the greatest gift he can – a clean slate. It’s a beautiful occurrence, and the scene at the end of the book where this happens is a stunning piece of writing.

The Shadows of Grace is a very, very deep book. Besides the aforementioned plotlines involving Harruq and Qurrah’s path to redemption, there is political intrigue, huge battles, and emotional threads that run throughout most every word on the page. We are reunited with old friends, watch some of these friends give up their lives for the greater good, and are given a fresh perspective on matters of faith and self-sacrifice. Harruq and the Eschaton, along with King Antonil, lead the survivors from Velderan into the city of Mordeina, where they find peace and rest after heading off to warn neighboring towns of the approaching armies of orc and undead. Ultimately, truces are made between warring factions and battles are fought. Long-held prejudices are put aside. Before too long, we end up back in Mordeina, where a siege of the great city is under way. The war demons brought through the portal held open by Qurrah and Velixar are ready to exterminate all life. This scene, in particular, is written spectacularly. It delves even further into Harruq’s growing sense of honor and grace (there’s that word again) and the violence that follows his epiphany on the state of his life and faith is almost a foregone conclusion…though there is a particularly unexpected occurrence that helps swing the almost impossible odds against our heroes back in their favor. I won’t discuss it much, because it’s a bit of a spoiler, but I will say that some might find it to be a deus ex machina. It’s not. If you sit back and think about the plot, of where Dalglish is taking this tale, it makes perfect sense.

These points are interesting, but this book really finds its legs in the aforesaid growth of Harruq and Qurrah and the overall message I think the author has presented to us. And it is this message, the parable that the storyline of all the books have combined to now reveal, that is the most wonderful aspect of all.

What we have here is an allegory – or a critique, if you will – of Christianity. It’s brilliant, and I never thought of it, never noticed the events occurring could be discerned in this way before. There are three factions at odds with each other, in the form of the gods the author has created: Karak, Ashhur and Celestia. Karak is the personification of the Old Testament; demanding of obedience and order, self-sacrifice, and complete devotion. Ashhur reflects the New Testament; he demands only love and forgiveness, and all who worship him hold the promise that they will one day be blessed by a lifetime in the golden afterlife. Celestia is the universe itself, a deity devoted to balance. She refuses to let the scales tip too far in one direction or the other – in other words, cause and effect, or every action has an equal or opposite reaction. The three of them combine to form its own holy trinity of sorts, the three-become-one. I might think that if all the particulars sat down and thought about it for a second, they might find that they’ve been fighting the wrong war all along.

Just like the gods, the major characters have biblical counterparts. Qurrah is Abraham, the man asked to forgo everything, even his beloved child, for the sake of a God that seems outwardly cruel and remorseless. His faith is constantly tested, and just as often as not, he fails those tests. Harruq is Saint Peter, the loyal ruffian who denied Jesus yet, in the end, was the one charged with bringing His church to the people. And Tessanna, Qurrah’s lover, is paganism made flesh, all blood magic, sacred runes, and without a singular frame of reference to base her sanity upon. They form their own trinity, as well, and I have no doubt that, come the fifth and final book, it will be the interplay between these six differing yet similar characters that will form the crux of both the outcome and its message.

This was a fantastic book. It was my favorite of the author’s, actually, until the last fifty or so pages. There, I had two issues. One is with a character that emerges toward that point, a great servant of Karak named Melorak. The way he came into being seemed…convoluted somehow. It was hard for me to relate to or care about him. Secondly, after the battle of Mordeina, Dalglish seemed to rush the proceedings, as if he couldn’t wait to get to the final confrontation. I can’t blame him, as that concluding scene is beautifully written, possibly the greatest of the entire series, full of both sorrow and a morose sort of joy. If I’m being honest, it didn’t really bother me – the story is too good to be thrown off by something such as this – but still feel I must mention it, and it did prevent me from placing this tome ahead of its only emotional equal, The Cost of Betrayal.

That being said, this is a special story. All of the threads Dalglish has created are coming to a head. There is a battle brewing in the future, and the soul of everyone in Neldar is at stake. Come take the journey, get lost in it. Cry with the characters, feel their joy and pain, let them into your heart.

You’ll be glad you did. Trust me on this.

Plot - 10

Characters - 8

Voice - 10

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 47/50 (4.7/5)

Purchase The Shadows of Grace

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