Last weekend, I was back in Madison, Wisconsin, to uplift my good friend, Charles (hi, Charles!) as he stood in front of a sold-out theater (seating capacity just under 1,000) for the Madison Moth Grand Slam. I was so nervous I practically clawed my own face off.
Lucky for me, Madison is also where Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku resides. She and I and our spouses met at a coffee shop where we laughed and talked and caught up — and forgot to take our selfie (I know she was wearing a dress with flamingos and a pink sweater and her hair was in a barrette — I touched it; so nice! (her hair, not the barrette, though I’m sure that was nice, too)) and we didn’t get around to discussing the Storm Breaking by Mercedes Lackey.
So, a few days later we face-yakked on thingy app and talked about the role of religion in Storm Breaking. Though the main character of THE MAGE STORMS trilogy is a Karse Sun Priest, very little is said about deities in the first two books, so I had my highlighter ready for action when things got more godly in book three. Here is a summary of what Jackie and I discussed:
We had quite a bit to say about Tarrn, a wolf-like creature who memorizes history, who notes that because he is “Sworn” and serves the Star-Eyed Goddess, he is “sexless.” I noted that there are two ways to read this: 1) This dog is neutered for his religion, or 2) He is celibate like Catholic priests and nuns. Jackie wasn’t aware that Catholic religious figures are (supposed to be) celibate, so I felt cool that I knew something. But what is the benefit of giving up sexual relationships for a religion in a made-up universe? And especially since the role of Tarrn is to memorize long histories (which actually reminded me of griots in Alex Haley’s novel Roots)?
The Eastern Empire, which I picture to be like Russia, doesn’t have a religion. They praise the 100 Little Gods, but that’s basically a shout-out to former rulers who have died, and not a deity. But when these horrible magic waves keep hitting the land, destroying the Empire’s everyday lives, people turn to religion. Religious cults spring up and predict when the world will end. Some have one deity, others have many. Some cult religions call for sacrifice to the creature-monsters that are created when perfectly normal animals get caught in the magic waves when they hit. I’m almost picturing one of those movies in which that same “crazy” person stands on the corner with a sign reading “IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD!” for the entire film, and then he whoops gleefully when it actually is the end. Lackey seems to suggest that people need religion to explain illogical evil, especially in the Eastern Empire, where even mages use logic, not intuition, as a foundation.
On the contrary, Hardorn, a nation that did have religion, starts to lose its faith. The villain Ancar from the two previous trilogies somehow caused religious figures to be killed (though he never called for it himself?). I wanted to compare this situation to real-life dictators who “disappear” those who lead religious followers, but if the faithful were killed “indirectly” by a ruler, is that different? What does that even mean — “indirectly”? When the religious leaders in Hardorn are murdered, no one replaces them, and the nation’s faith falls away. Yet, we do get some interesting wizard-types who follow rituals of soil and blood, connected to earth Gifts instead of mage abilities. More, please!
In general, the lack of rituals in Storm Breaking makes the religions seem wonky. Gods and Goddesses appear incarnate to characters, and these spiritual beings have avatars that either appear like apparitions or meet up with characters on alternate planes, making deities and their avatars feel all too. . . human. If faith is literally believing that a god/goddess exists without proof, why does Lackey give her characters an abundance of it? And if these deities are happy to step in (though we’re told numerous times that they can’t just always be stepping in), are they doing too much to move the plot along?
If you know anything about Greek gods, you’ll remember that they are fed by the prayers/fears of mankind. In Storm Breaking, as a council of characters plan their next move, our main man Karal has to ask them to remember to pray — because no one is doing it. We don’t even really see Karal pray. Is he praying in his head in that Facebook “thoughts & prayers” way? Why is there no ritual to it? Both Jackie and I felt that Lackey’s writing of religion needed some love, and this is coming from a lapsed Catholic (me) and a practicing Jew (her).
Starting with the next Valdemar trilogy, Lackey co-writes with her husband, Larry Dixon, so Jackie and I wondered if that would improve the holes in the writing that are cropping up with more frequency. That, and we’re getting (we think) a new beginning with new characters and problems. We’ve been focusing on the same issues for six books. Wish us the best!
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