Monsters: New Fiction from Gail Caress
Reviewing fiction is difficult, because significant aspects of the review depend on personal taste. For example, some people simply do not like fantasy. So let me express a certain conflict of interest right up front: I enjoy many kinds of fantasy, but I generally do not enjoy fantasy that is set in what purports to be the real world. A Parliament of Monsters, a new and even significant novel by Gail Caress, purports to be set in the real world.
Part of the genius of Tolkien and of Lewis, at least in The Chronicles of Narnia and two-thirds of his space trilogy, was that they created entirely new worlds in which a rich context supported the reader in suspending his disbelief. In the third volume of the space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis brings things back to earth. In doing so, he inevitably reminds the reader constantly that what he is describing is not really believable. So I liked that book least. But I know other readers who liked it best, because they could relate to the moral issues more directly, and they appreciated Lewis’ satirical commentary on the bad guys, who worked for an organization called NICE (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments).
A recent book that I thought very bad indeed, The Shroud Codex by Jerome Corsi (see my review), attempted to combine advanced modern physics with the supernatural in a blend which blurred the distinctions between matter and spirit (not only was it a bad story, but on this account it failed the test of Catholicity as well). Caress seeks to blend the Faith, the myths and legends of Ireland, high order mathematics, the development of artificial intelligence and the mysteries of cyberspace into a tale of spiritual combat which could determine the fate of the world. In doing so, she runs the same risks.
But unlike some we could name, Gail Caress is a fine writer, deeply enough read in the classics to be able to inject snippets of some of these works into the story in ways that, remarkably, do not detract but add. She is also, most of the time, smart enough to let the good guys battle obvious evils without suggesting that they accept the faulty premises from which these evils are spun. The oddball theories of the bad guys may simply be used by the Devil, and probably are. Perhaps that makes their threat more real, not less. We can wonder.
The heroine of the tale, a widow named Claire with a five-year-old son named Patrick, is thrust against her will into a network of intrigue after her husband Michael, a brilliant linguist, is murdered because he knows the language of the ancient Druids and, supposedly, possesses their mind. The antagonists, who of course seem nice enough in their normal worldly roles, want to possess Michael’s mind by “uploading” it in a triumph of artificial intelligence which will essentially unlock the secrets of the universe, and enable the wrong people to control them. The antagonists believe Michael’s small son will be even more important than Michael was, and so they begin to go after Claire and Patrick.
But mother and son are protected by a network of unlikely agents led by a mysterious Catholic priest who apparently serves the Vatican directly, and relying extensively on gypsies in various parts of the world. These gypsies, of course, are still in touch with the old ways, and some of them even know something of the old language themselves. And so the plot swirls, first in America and ultimately in Ireland. In my opinion, the five-year-old plays way too large a role at the end, and while plausible in the world of second sight and other legends, I believe this weakened the story significantly, and crossed at least one line that the author would have been wiser, as a clearly Catholic writer, not to have crossed. The result also comes painfully close to being a Deus ex machina, even though the appropriate groundwork has in fact been laid.
It is hard to summarize a fantasy novel, much as it is hard to summarize a stirring movie, without making it sound stupid. Nonetheless, the book is a good read. The combination of the mystical and the modern is plausible, I think, for many of our confused contemporaries, and certainly not far from what some of today’s Wiccans would like to achieve. The subplot of Michael’s return to the Church, which saved him from falling in with the wrong people, and Claire’s own struggles against the Faith, of which Michael himself had helped to rob her during their courtship, rings true. This same drama is lived in various forms by countless men and women throughout the contemporary West. I can easily imagine many readers providing the necessary suspension of disbelief which all fantasy requires, even if I was not completely able to do so.
Each chapter of the book is introduced by two brief quotations, and the quotations are nearly worth the price of admission themselves. For example, there was this from Gregory of Nyssa: “Man spins out a whole net of falsities around his spirit by the repeated consecration of his whole self to values that do not exist.” Moreover, as I hinted above, lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy are actually used as part of a critical dialogue between the priest and an unbalanced but brilliantly perceptive mathematician, very near the climax of the book, and effectively drawing the reader in still further. Nor are we surprised when we find that Michael has left Claire some clues in a favorite poem by Wordsworth.
A Parliament of Monsters is, on the whole, a little better than even the best of the four deliberately Catholic novels I reviewed in a series in 2010 (starting with Catholic Novels: The Big Question), though David C. Downing’s Looking for the King works well as a lighter, less serious (and therefore less risky) offering. But this evaluation is not based solely on reasoned judgment; it is, as I said, partly a matter of taste. Still, the characters are believable, clearly differentiated, and well-drawn. The dialogue is deft. The settings are nicely sketched, and the plot flows. There are no vacuums. Nothing seems forced. These are significant achievements, especially in a first novel.
The book is published, and probably essentially self-published, by a new imprint, Beachhead Books. This may mean it did not have to impress a seasoned editor to see the light of day, but the back cover does boast admiring blurbs from people whose opinions you should value: Ronda Chervin, Thomas Howard, and Ralph McInerny. This small Pantheon suggests that the book might work best for cerebral types. That’s probably fair. I’m neither a philosopher like McInerny and Chervin, nor an English professor like Howard, but I have been blamed for being somewhat head-oriented. And indeed, despite my caveats, I would also try a second novel by Gail Caress.
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