Shadohawk reviews the first novel in the Katharoi series, Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by debut author Teresa Frohock, published by Nightshade Books.
“Miserere has what I can only call a dark vitality to it. It is going to hook you in with the very first pages and draw you into a world of religious mysticism and the occult that is extremely original and endearing.” ~The Founding Fields
Twitter is great. It really is. I’ve met loads of authors through it this year and I have read some of their books, with more yet to come, and its been fantastic. Just like with Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations, Teresa Frohock’s Miserere is one of the defining fantasy novels that I’ve read so far in 2012. The charm of the novel isn’t that its just fantasy with a dark twist to it. The real charm is that it blends the fantasy world, and our own world, and then the concepts of Heaven and Hell together so seamlessly. I’d like to say that I’m not easily impressed so I can convey how awesome this novel was, but the fact is that I am easily impressed in the main. And yet, Miserere is a singular novel, one that serves as a fantastic start to a brand new fantasy trilogy by a highly talented debut author (not debut anymore of course since the novel was published a little shy of 11 months ago).
The characterisation in the novel is inspiring. Each character, whether major or minor, gets ample time to live his/her mark on the narrative. They are characters who really make you feel a range of emotions: love, sympathy, hate, disgust. Each of them is also deeply flawed, because the Woerld (as Teresa’s world is known) is not a place where there is a divide between good and evil. Not quite. The entire atmosphere of the narrative lends itself strongly to the feel of the Warhammer Fantasy novels. The good guys are often as bad as the villains in what they do. And I really liked that aspect of Miserere.
Lucian, the male protagonist, is someone that I came to sympathise with very early on. Unwittingly coerced by his sister into betraying everything and everyone he once held dear, he is now her prisoner in a distant city. While Catarina makes pacts with dark powers and allies herself with traitors and rebels, Lucian struggles to find meaning in his life. Miserere is very much his journey of redemption. Often conflicted between his love for his sister and the oaths he broke, he is a tragic character who would not be out of place in a Shakespearean play. Teresa has conveyed his dark moods, his convictions, his passions and his thirst for redemption very well. You really connect with the character and just have to be rooting for him whenever things look like they are about to flip out on him.
Catarian, the antagonist, I hated from the get go, as we see her mostly from Lucian’s perspective. She is a stark example of someone who is head over heels in worship to demons and lives a life of treachery, debauchery and vindictiveness against her brother. However, as much as I hated her, I did feel a spark of sympathy for her as well. She is corrupted through and through but she was still a well-realised villain and that I can appreciate. She is driven by her need to remain close to her brother and that was a very moving aspect of her character. Her motivations are always clear as well and she is not someone who is propped up by her henchmen. She can give as well as she gets. So props to the author for creating such an intriguing antagonist.
Rachael, as Lucian’s former love interest and the woman he betrayed for his sister, ramps up the tragic factor to 11. In the years since Lucian’s betrayal she has suffered from possession that the best exorcists of the Citadel (the rough Christian analog of Woerld) have not been able to adjure. Facially disfigured and suffering the terminal side-effects of possession by a powerful demon, the way she is written really makes you feel for her. On top of that, she is finally sent to bring back Lucian to the Citadel to answer for his crimes. Misery permeates the novel through and through and you really wish that all these characters do find some mercy in the end.
There are some other characters of the note in the novel as well. Lindsay, who lives on our Earth, and unwittingly passes through the boundaries between the world and Woerld alongside her ill-fated brother, was another character I enjoyed reading about. Her story arc reminded me very much of Lyra from Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels, although she is more cast in the same rough role as Will from the same series. She is quickly attached to Lucian as his apprentice and to see her grow from being a frightened child to a promising initiate of the Katharoi warriors (of the Citadel) was great. She is not spared the misery and grim atmosphere of the novel though and she has as much a tough time as the other characters. Then there is Reynard Bartell, the Citadel’s Inquisitor, and one of the most disconcerting characters in Miserere. Oddly, whenever I read about him I was immediately put in mind of actor Kevin Durand (Joshua/Dark Angel, Ricky/Real Steel, Fred Dukes/X-men Origins: Wolverine). If there is ever a movie on Miserere, then he is the one who should be picked to play Reynard. It is a perfect fit! Rounding off the cast of the novel is Caleb, one of the Constables of the Citadel and a man who appears to be Rachael’s friend of sorts and sort of in love with her as well. I won’t say much about him because that’d be too telling, but suffice to say that he highlights that Warhammer Fantasy aspect of the novel. You are definitely not going to like him by the end.
All in all, Teresa Frohock has populated her novel with a varied cast of characters that are all distinct from each other and who make you feel strongly about them. Even minor characters such as Seraph John or Lindsay’s brother Peter. It was a blast reading about them.
Miserere is also not for the faint-hearted. While the pacing isn’t fast-paced, the action is quite relentless and the various developments and intrigues progress quite swiftly. There is a good balance in keeping the reader hooked. Aside from the excellent characterisation is the fact that the setting of Woerld unfolds in a very striking manner. It is a world that runs in parallel to ours, and is directly connected to it. The religions in our world have a direct counterpart in Woerld and they all work together for the most part as Woerld is the last defence against the powers of Hell. So much so in fact that a rather large historical conflict in Woerld was reflected back on Earth as World War II. Now that’s something.
What’s nice about the novel, as so many reviewers have said, is that the novel doesn’t exemplify Christianity, although the religion of the Citadel borrows quite heavily from it. There is a very strong theme of religious balance in the novel and the characters talk about it quite often. There is no one right way of thinking and every religion is equal. Quite an endearing fantasy isn’t it? This is definitely one of the strengths of the novel.
Of course, being a novel with pseudo-Christian characters, one of which is demonically possessed, there is that inevitable exorcism. If anything, it is a far more powerful sequence than the one from The Exorcist, starring Max von Sydow. It really is a powerful scene that is quite visceral. That sequence itself is worth picking up this novel. Very memorable, very evocative.
By the end, Miserere resolves itself quite ably. Most of the characters get a fitting climax and for the ones that don’t quite get that, there is ample promise in the ending that the sequel will pick up on their arcs and fire off. Overall, I have to say that Miserere is a fantastic novel that everybody should read. It is not traditional fantasy and it has a very grim bent to it, one that I think should be embraced more by writers of the genre. I certainly look forward to the sequel, Dolorosa: A Winter’s Dream.
In short, I really recommend Miserere, as well as Teresa Frohock as an author, as she has a second novel coming out soon, a historical fantasy or sorts called The Garden. The blurb for it sounds very intriguing.