Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Future King

The Future King
by James Riley
Recommended Ages: 12+

Fort Fitzgerald isn't a government institution – ain't that for sure. In fact, he's been voted Most Likely to Be Expelled by the military coheadmaster of the Oppenheimer School, where kids are taught magic to defend the country against supernatural threats – like Old Ones from another dimension and whatnot. He drove the Old Ones away the last time they attacked and saved the world (although the school's former campus was a total loss). And in his first week on the new, even more bunkerlike campus, he faced the Old Ones in their own realm and came back to tell the tale – not that anyone wants to hear it. Even bigger deal: He brought back his father, who was taken in the monster attack that put the magic school on a national defense footing. Nevertheless, Col. Charles blames him for stirring up all kinds of trouble – and especially for the fate of his two sons, one of whom remained behind in the monster dimension (don't even ask) while the other betrayed the whole world. So, it's pretty much over for Fort – and let's face it, he's pretty good at blaming himself for everything bad that happens, as it is.

But before he goes home with his memory wiped, Fort is expected to help the Army deal with a new threat. A group of students at the U.K. school of magic has set up a magical dome over England and Wales, holding millions hostage until their demands are met. The kids across the pond specialize in Time Magic – tricks like freezing people in time, projecting their minds into the future and moving at super speed. But it turns out that what they want are the specialties of Fort and two of his friends. Rachel does Destruction Magic (Elemental Magic when it's at home), meaning she can fly on a column of air, dig shovel-free through yards of earth and chuck balls of fire. Jia, on loan from Hong Kong, does Healing or Body Magic – like putting people to sleep, causing or curing diseases, and so forth. Fort, who hasn't had much time to relearn the spells he lost in his first encounter with the Old Ones, only knows two spells: Heal Minor Wounds and Teleport. Oh, and he has one more instance of a dimensional portal spell to burn before it's gone forever. But that still makes him dead useful when it comes to getting the thing those British kids are after: the Forbidden Book of Spirit Magic, which has the power to enslave other people's wills.

Why do they want this awful thing? Supposedly (not hinting at anything, here) to stop a friend of a friend from hulking out and destroying London. Supposedly to avert a war that will destroy human civilization. And naturally, Fort picks up the idea that it's all his fault. If it hadn't been for his caper in Monster Country, the Old Ones wouldn't know that Damian is a dragon in the form of a boy, and so Damian wouldn't be racing against the other kids to find that book of Spirit Magic so he can challenge the elder gods, and so he wouldn't be destined (according to the Time Magic kids) to go on a rampage that leads to World War III. And if that's not Fort's fault, just wait. The coming world war, the Time kids tell us, is going to be fought by grown-up soldiers using magic, which represents a major step forward from the current situation where only kids 13 and younger can learn spells from the books of magic. And that, apparently, is all because Fort's dad, returned from Monster Land, shows signs of being able to do magic, which inspires one of Fort's teachers to figure out how any adult can learn magic, which leads to serious international tensions between countries that claim ownership of the ancient books of magic, and what that leads to is too horrible to let happen. So, either way you cut it (Fort thinks), it's all because of his dumb choices, and now it's his responsibility to stop this bad future from happening.

But of course, what really happens is that Fort, Jia, Rachel and friends inadvertently cause the future they're trying to stop. It always works out that way, doesn't it? Thanks to a doublecross by a supposed ally and the badly timed interference of Col. Charles and his troops, everything goes sideways. Despite a terrifying adventure in which the kids encounter Merlin, the Faerie Queen and the real King Arthur (all six of them, actually), and in which Fort again faces up to the worst things inside himself, they end up separated perhaps forever from one of Fort's best friends, forced to watch as the worst case scenario unfolds, and left with only one heartbreaking choice to avert a magical war.

While Fort is good at running himself down, he shows real character and true heroism in this outing. He recognizes an insidious temptation and turns away from it; he risks physical agony and serious injury to save the world when no one else can; and he swallows back angry remarks, knowing that they'll only cause more trouble. His persistent belief that it's all his fault, while it may have a certain truth in it, clashes with the fact any reader can see for themselves: Fort is growing as a person, and he has true hero potential. Don't let being judged unworthy by an enchanted sword keep you down, Fort! Keep growing and we'll soon see, I think, who turns out to be the "chosen one," prophesied to make peace between humanity and the ancient magic that has come back for revenge.

This is the third of five "Revenge of Magic" books, whose titles also include The Revenge of Magic, The Last Dragon, The Timeless One and The Chosen One. Riley is also the author of three "Half Upon a Time" and five "Story Thieves" books.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Last Dragon

The Last Dragon
by James Riley
Recommended Ages: 12+

Forsythe Fitzgerald, Fort to his friends, is a little nervous about starting over at the Oppenheimer School. To start, it's a whole new school, since the one he started at only a few weeks ago was destroyed in an attack by the Old Ones which he helped to thwart. But now he has to juggle strict orders to make friends with his new roommate, trying to steal two books of magic and lying to his three best friends about his motives, all while under constant guard by Colonel Charles' soldiers. Plus, he's staying in psychic contact with a couple of former Oppenheimer students who are on the run, being hunted by government agents who suspect that Fort knows more than he's letting on. Topping it all, he's secretly planning to open a portal into a dimension crammed with terrifying monsters and saving his father, who has been missing for eight months, though he risks unleashing quite literal hell on earth. His clairvoyant friend Cyrus tells him there are several ways this can play out: Either he lets his friends come along on the rescue mission, in which case he'll lose one of them forever; or he goes on his own, and most likely doesn't come back. But he's all right with that, as long as he rescues his father. Except for the nightmares. Whoa, those nightmares!

A recurring theme in those nightmares is a flat order from one of the Old Ones to bring them the last dragon. He has no idea what they're talking about. The only dragons Fort knows about are skeletons, recovered along with the bones of ancient wizards and the books of magic that were all discovered on the same day, May 9, 13 years ago, at locations all around the world. But the nightmares are insistent. Well, to cut this synopsis short, Fort does manage to steal the book of Summoning magic that will enable him to open a portal to the monsters' dimension, though he loses most of his friends in the process. (Don't worry, they're all right. Just really mad at him.) And he does eventually master a spell from that book, which unlocks the level where he can do the dimensional portal thing. But pretty much everything after that happens despite all his plans. His friends come back and insist on helping him, despite the danger. And thanks to them, everything in existence is threatened once again.

In another adventure that strains the limits of middle school-friendly fiction, Fort and friends meet gigantic, savage creatures, and millions of brainwashed dwarves, and Lovecraftian elder gods with all the eldritch horror that surrounds them. They experience a threat to all humanity, mind-destroying psychic forces, life-size pinball games with teleportation portals instead of bumpers and themselves as the ball, and chit-chats with beings capable of squashing them like bugs – not to mention a cruel betrayal, a heartbreaking decision and (in Fort's case) what another character acerbically describes as a round-the-world joyride on a dragon, in front of every news camera in the developed world. And even if (spoiler warning) the world doesn't end in this book, Fort's group won't have long to bask in their success before another weird, magical threat arises.

Even though Fort only really masters one spell in this book – bringing his total, after the events of the previous installment, to one – he quickly develops into a power user of what seems likely to be his (almost) unique ability going into the future. It serves him well in an adventure that seems to race forward with a relentless pace of action, danger, colossal magic and teen (or pre-teen) attitude. It's loaded with emotional issues kids will understand, dry humor, picture-postcard scenery and, at the center, a passionately driven, rule-breaking brat with a heart of gold. You might want to grab Fort and shake some sense into him, but only because you care.

This is the second of five "Revenge of Magic" books, whose titles also include The Revenge of Magic, The Future King, The Timeless One and The Chosen One. Riley is also the author of three "Half Upon a Time" and five "Story Thieves" books.

Z is for Zombie

Z is for Zombie: An Illustrated Guide to the End of the World
by Adam-Troy Castro
illustrated by Johnny Atomic
Recommended Ages: 14+

It's not bedtime reading, and it's also not kiddie material, but this illustrated book is a gruesome, grim, gross and nevertheless funny illustrated guide to the emotional impact of the coming(?) zombie apocalypse, from A to Z. The art, the laughs and the prose are pitch-dark, gory and disturbing. And unexpectedly, there's kind of a plot with a surprise twist ending and all. But don't expect me to summarize it. It takes moments to read from cover to cover, and who knows how long to shake from your subconscious. Have fun! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha ...

Messrs. Castro and, er, Atomic also collaborated on the book V is for Vampire: An Illustrated Alphabet of the Undead. Castro is the author of three Andrea Cort novels, six Gustav Gloom books and lots of short stories and novellas. Johnny Atomic, a.k.a. John Jackson, is the head of League Entertainment and specializes in entertainment concept art and cover art. Try not to confuse this book with several others that have similar titles, including Z is for Zombie by Merrily Kutner and John Manders; A Is for Asteroids, Z Is for Zombies: A Bedtime Book about the Coming Apocalypse by Paul Lewis and Kenneth Kit Lamug; Z Is For Zombie by JT Arant; Z is for Zombie: Another Alphabet Book by R.G. Westerman; and Z is for Zombie by Theodore Roscoe and V.E. Pyles, all of which preceded the present book in my Amazon search results. Verily, there is nothing new under the sun.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Lair of the Beast

Lair of the Beast
by Adam Jay Epstein
Recommended Ages: 10+

Wily Snare grew up in a dungeon called Carrion Tomb, believing he was a hobgoblet and that his place in the world was setting traps for adventurers seeking to plunder his master's treasure. He only just escaped to the world above and learned that he is, in fact, the prince of the kngdom of Panthasos, and joined a rebellion that deposed his wicked father from the throne. Now he's expected to learn how to rule, and the responsibility sits heavily on him. Anxious that he will fail his people, Wily takes every opportunity to get out of the palace and prove himself – for example, by setting off on a quest to quell a lairbeast named Palojax in order to stop his former master, the evil mage Stalag, from taking over the kingdom with an army of stone golems.

Once again, Wily travels with a warrior elf whose mood swings from sunny to gloomy with the time of day, a knight whose right arm has magically become a separate entity, his adopted hobgoblet sister, and a mud golem who speaks in sign language and has plants and fungi growing all over him. This time, his journey takes him to a tribe that lives under the sky and practices the secret art of calming wild beasts, hoping that one of them will join their cause. But their new companion, named Valor, only grudgingly joins them when she recognizes that Stalag's golems threaten all wild things, as well as the hated people who dwell within walls. Nevertheless, they have a perilous journey to undertake, sneaking past the golems to an upside-down, underground world where the sun shines up, ruled by a gigantic creature with three heads, a bat's wings and an octopus's tentacles. Not to mention an insane elf who entraps people with illusions, a whirlpool of lava, a race of wolf-sized ants and a prophecy that leaves Wily doubting himself all over again.

Wily's crisis of confidence is at the center of this book, but in the crunch he shows admirable leadership qualities and a firm, good heart. His friends are an odd lot, but lots of fun – including one who turns out to be her own kind of royalty and another whose attitude makes a 180-degree turnaround. Stalag and his minions are, of course, too foolish ever to succeed, yet the danger seems real for a moment or two. (I especially get a kick out of the mage's oglodyte minions, Agorop and Sceely, who are easy to recognize by their inability to count properly.) And the widespread assumption that Wily will grow up to be like his psychotic father is also, rightly or wrongly, something that weighs on him – to his credit. If this book is good for nothing else, it's awesome for how it depicts the choice of whether to be a hero or a villain as a real choice that even a very young person can make.

This is the second book of the "Snared" trilogy, between Escape to the Above and Voyage on the Eversteel Sea. Epstein is also the author of four "Familiars" books and two "Starbounders" books, all co-authored with Andrew Jacobson.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Princess Ben

Princess Ben
by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Recommended Ages: 13+

As her rather frank memoir opens, Benevolence is a 15-year-old princess, the niece of the king of the small country of Montagne, nestled in a single valley surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by a steep cliff. Also surrounding them is the enemy kingdom of Drachensbett ("dragon's bed"), which shares its name in their language with the biggest mountain in the range, while folks in Montagne prefer to call it Ancienne ("old lady"). By whatever name, it's the most significant barrier that keeps Drachensbett from invading Montagne, but it's also where the king, Ben's uncle, and her mother, Princess Pence, are slain by what everyone suspects to be Drachensbett assassins. Worse still, the throne would pass to Ben's father, but Prince (or rather King) Walter has gone missing – whether dead or a hostage, no one knows.

So, it's high time for Princess Ben to woman up and prepare to be the next queen of Montagne. Unfortunately, she butts heads constantly with her aunt, Queen Regent Sophia, whom she fancies to be cold, unloving and a stickler for feminine graces like embroidery, comportment and trivial conversation. Also, Ben rebels against her lessons with a fish-breathed dancing master and the bland, meager diet designed to slim Her Pudginess down. Frankly, it's hard to sympathize with her, despite her being the narrator, during the first major portion of this book – and that's also despite Sophia being no easier to like. What keeps you going is curiosity about how Ben, her throne, or her kingdom survive to be telling the tale many years later. For while the sullen, greedy, rebellious princess dabbles in magic in a tower room known only to her, a threat is growing that could sweep Montagne off the map – a threat that becomes real when Ben insults the prince of Drachensbett at her debutante ball.

Of course, later in the book she grows as a Princess through adversity, blundering into an epic tight spot through the inexperienced use of magic and clawing her way out of it by character strengths she'd either kept hidden before or grew along the way. By the date of her next royal ball, she'd better have grown a lot, though, because the fate of her kingdom hangs on whether she can turn around the bad first impression she left on the earlier occasion. That, and an entirely surprising adventure on the side of Ancienne that gives credence to the name the neighboring nation has for it.

It's a royal coming-of-age novel with a fairy-tale romance woven in, to say nothing of gestures toward the tales of Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, the Frog Prince, the Princess and the Pea, and the Water Nixie (or whatever that story is in which the fleeing girl tosses a comb over her shoulder and it grows into a forest to foil her pursuers). I'm probably leaving a lot of in-references out. Successfully charting its main character's growth as a person, it also checks all the boxes for folklore fans, has a very satisfying story shape and is full of wry irony. But perhaps most attractive for some readers will be the archaic language – not so much the words themselves as the way thoughts are put together in a sentence structure that harks back to the early 19th century. It's an almost convincing counterfeit of a real memoir from a bygone time, giving pleasure to lovers of things both old and new.

Murdock, whose sister Elizabeth Gilbert is also a published author, lives in Philadelphia and, besides this book, has written the Dairy Queen quartet, Wisdom's Kiss, The Book of Boy and Da Vinci's Cat.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Enchantment Lake

Enchantment Lake
by Margi Preus
Recommended Ages: 15+

I don't know exactly why, but since I opened this book, I've had a feeling it's set in the county I currently live in, close to the headwaters of the Mississippi in north-central Minnesota. Billed as "a northwoods mystery," it takes place partly in a town of 2,020 souls and partly on the side of the lake named on the front cover that doesn't have a road leading to it, and the people who live there (mostly) like it that way. Francie Frye, a.k.a. Frenchie, a.k.a. French Fry to at least one childhood playmate, hasn't been back there in years – maybe since the accident that took her father's life. Seventeen, studying drama in New York City and struggling to find acting jobs, she lives on an allowance from her trust fund, doled out by her strict grandfather. But she puts her career on hold, and her allowance on the line, when her eccentric great aunts summon her back to Enchantment with a cryptic voicemail suggesting that their lives may be in danger.

The aunts, Astrid and Jeannette, think someone has been murdering people who own cabins on their side of the lake – a community that, at least during the summer, doesn't mind living without electricity or a road in and out. There certainly seem to have been a suspicious number of freak accidents – a drowning, a poisoned well, death by falling tree limb, a heart attack that doesn't sound quite kosher, even a bite from a snake that isn't native to the area. Some people, for example the sheriff, don't see anything to be concerned about. Francie puts on her detective cap – after all, she played one on TV, briefly – and starts to dig. And before long, enough scariness happens around her to make her all but certain that someone is bumping lakeshore residents off. If only she could figure out why, the who would soon follow.

But asking the wrong kinds of questions also puts Francie in danger. In only a few days, a local handiman dies of a gunshot wound (the old ladies don't think it was suicide) and a shady realtor succumbs to cyanide at the funeral luncheon. Drat it, he was Francie's prime suspect. Double drat, now the sheriff believes murder is being done, but he suspects Francie's aunties. Triple drat it, her grandfather shows up in town, breathing fire at her for skipping school, traveling without permission and getting herself tangled up in her aunts' affairs. With only one day to solve the mystery, and knowing the sheriff isn't going to look any further than the suspects he already has in custody, she kayaks into danger and before long, is threatened with drowning, gunfire and even a piece of heavy equipment before the night is through.

Francie is a smart, thoughtful heroine, despite her knack for missing the big clue until it's (almost?) too late. Maybe, as some of this book's other characters tell her, she really is cut out to be a detective, even though most of what she knows about detecting she learned while starring in a kids' TV show. She has a vulnerable place in her heart, a head for contemplative poetry, a headstrong and vibrant personality, and a way of coming to snap decisions that sometimes gets her into trouble. You see her knowingly going into danger – she actually compares herself, a couple times, to that character in a scary book or movie whose decisions make you yell, "Don't be stupid!" – and your guts clench in concern. You see her eyeing the attractive intern from the local law firm and the hint of romance makes you smile. So, even when she doubts whether she can solve the mystery, you don't.

This is the first of (currently) three Enchantment Lake mysteries, also including The Clue in the Trees and The Silver Box. Margi Preus is the Newbery nominated author of A Book of Grace, Sacred Words, Heart of a Samurai, Celebritrees, Shadow on the Mountain, West of the Moon, The Bamboo Sword, Village of Scoundrels, The Littlest Voyageur and a handful of picture books.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Gustav Gloom and the People Taker

Gustav Gloom and the People Taker
by Adam-Troy Castro
Recommended Ages: 10+

Fernie What and her older sister Pearlie love scary movies, books and stories, even though their father is a professional worrier, paid to spot anything with even the smallest chance of causing injury. Show the girls a haunted house, and they'll be excited. Show him one, and he'll be on the lookout for collapsing staircases and rusty nails sticking out of boards. So when they move into a new house, literally across the street from a scary old mansion, it's dead certain that one or both of the girls will end up exploring the place – especially after Fernie befriends the strange, sad little boy who lives there: a boy named Gustav Gloom.

Gustav never leaves the grounds of the Gloom mansion, a dark, turreted place surrounded by swirling mists. When Fernie chases her cat into the place in the middle of their first night in the neighborhood, she finds out that it's even stranger and spookier on the inside. It's haunted not by ghosts, but by shadows that have become separated from the people (and cats) who cast them. It has a library full of books that could have been written, but never were; a gallery of famous statues, striking awkward poses that the original sculptors missed; a Too Much Sitting Room where anyone who sits on the chairs becomes a permanent part of the upholstery; a jungle-like bedroom alive with the shadows of every dinosaur who ever lived; and yes, a bottomless pit with an evil being named Lord Obsidian at the other end.

You won't meet Lord Obsidian in this book, which is a relief, because the minion of his that you do meet is bad enough to cause nightmares. His name is the People Taker, and he's been taking people and doing things to them too horrible to put into words for far longer than he's been working for Lord Obsidian. But now, the People Taker has made an unprecedented arrangement with his lordship, taking nine people for Lord Obsidian for every one that he keeps for himself. Whatever either of them would want from those people, Fernie has in spades – putting her and her family in freakish danger. But there's also something about Fernie that brings out the power of friendship in Gustav, strange and lonely boy that he is. They've just started getting to know each other, and already they prove that they'll both risk a lot to save each other from the People Taker, his terrifying Beast and the fate that awaits anyone who falls into the pit.

This is a stange, super-dark fantasy for kids. You know it's for kids because of the cute illustrations depicting waifish children – one, a pale, thin boy with a black suit and black hair that sticks straight up; the other, a vivacious girl in werewolf pajamas and Frankenstein's monster slippers. Also, it decorously avoids stating outright what kinds of things the People Taker does to the people he takes. (It keeps putting "take" in italics, which I suppose is meant to make you shiver.) Gustav's home brims with bizarre and often threatening concepts, and exactly who or what he is becomes a puzzle that you'll still be picking at when you reach the end of the book. The book also packs in some endearing family moments, a goodly number of laughs (the first time I laughed outloud was in its second paragraph) and a unique fantasyscape that hints at many fascinating possibilities yet to be revealed.

This is the first of six "Gustav Gloom" books. Subsequent books in the series are titled (Gustav Gloom and the) Nightmare Vault, Four Terrors, Cryptic Carousel, Inn of Shadows and Castle of Fear. Castro, a Florida-based sci-fi/fantasy/horror writer who (if the dedication of this book is to be believed) counted the late, great Harlan Ellison as a personal friend, is also the author of the Andrea Cort space mysteries, the satirical chapter books Z is for Zombie: An Illustrated Guide to the End of the World and V is for Vampire: An Illustrated Alphabet of the Undead, some Spider-Man graphic novels, lots of short stories and novellas (many of them featuring the zany duo of Vossoff and Nimmitz) and several other books, with and without such co-authors as Jerry Oltion. His short stories have some intriguing titles, like "Just a Couple of Ruthless Interstellar Assassins Discussing Real Estate Investments at a Twister Game the Size of a Planet" as well as the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated stories "The Funeral March of the Marionettes" and "The Astronaut from Wyoming."

Eye Spy

Eye Spy
by Mercedes Lackey
Recommended Ages: 13+

Abidela, Abi to her friends and family, is the daughter of King's Herald Amily and King's Spy Mags. Her brother is the very Perry (short for Peregrine) who used his Gift of Animal Speech to bring down an evil, cannibalistic blood mage in a previous adventure, and is now in line to be the next King's Spy. Her best friend, a royal princess named Kat, has been Chosen by a Companion – sort of a superintelligent horse with telepathic abilities – and is on her way toward becoming a Herald. Abi might well feel a bit left out: unchosen, with no gifts to speak of other than a well-drilled knack for combat. She seems destined to be either an intelligence asset for her father and brother, or a companion (with defensive benefits) to the princess.

Then, one day as Abi and Kat are crossing an old stone bridge, Abi's general dread of that particular bridge hits her like a fist in the stomach. Kat knows, from the look on her face, that the bridge is about to collapse and with only a moment's discussion, they evacuate the bridge just in time for it to collapse into the raging river below. Then it becomes apparent that Abi has a unique Gift: she can sense the stress in a human-made structure, and can predict how and maybe when it will fail. The folks in charge of managing Gifts in the kingdom of Valdemar set her on a new course: to become an Artificer, or basically, an architect.

At first, Abi has to strain to master the mathematics, while at the same time learning to control her Gift. She also has to clear some social hurdles, such as fending off a bully on her first day at the academy and getting a few good friends on her side. But then she realizes that becoming an Artificer is going to mean so much more to her than just inspecting bridges and detecting invisible signs of structural failure. Indeed, she really falls in love with the idea of designing something herself, and eventually makes a replacement for that fallen bridge her Master's work. Meantime, her background as a bodyguard and intelligence asset come in handy on a couple of side missions – one, to help an impoverished lady find her lost family fortune; the other, a mission of architectural diplomacy to a group of independent villages and cities thinking about joining Valdemar.

It is during this last mission that Abi's story really becomes a story. Accompanied by three other Artificers, a Herald and three mercenaries, Abi travels outside the boundaries of the kingdom, outside its protections against magic (the kind done by Mages, that is). Their party soon becomes the target of a group of impostors trying to sour the reputation of Valdemar by sabogating public works along their route. While Abi's fellow Artificers concentrate on undoing the damage, she joins the Herald Stev, mercenary Jicks and a half-starved, local Mage named Korlak in pursuit of a group of enemy Mages who are willing to unleash demons – which means, eventually, there will be blood. Nasty, terrifying rivers of it.

It is easy to become absorbed in the world of Valdemar, and meanwhile, to root for good-hearted Abi, who realizes that the communities across the border depend on the help of their benign Mages, who in turn, depend on their communities. This puts her values in conflict with her mission, because she knows that as soon as Valdemar extends its borders over the region, the kindom's protection against magic will extend as well – meaning exile or madness for those Mages. Where her duty really lies becomes a bit of a dilemma for her, though its importance lags behind surviving a hairraising encounter with evil Mages and their demon familiars. Her heroism, while not without its actiony thrills, is of a different kind from many in the fantasy quest biz. It has an emotional truth that I think readers will appreciate.

This is the second novel in the Family Spies trilogy, between The Hills Have Spies and Spy, Spy Again. This trilogy is, in turn, the umpteenth set of books in Mercedes Lackey's ongoing series of Valedmar novels, the most closely related of which (I believe) are the Collegium Chronicles (Foundation, Intrigues, Changes, Redoubt and Bastion) and the Herald Spy trilogy (Closer to Home, Closer to the Heart, Closer to the Chest). Lackey has authored, co-authored or contributed to, like, hundreds of books. So, color me intimidated; I'm just dipping my toe in them, here.

Monday, July 5, 2021

310. Hymn for Grieving Parents

For this him, I was not inspired by any direct, personal loss, but I have known many people who grieved the loss of a child, in some cases their only child, and I've always felt – both personally and from a pastoral point of view – that a message like this is needed. It goes toward the same principle that led me to call my collections "Useful" and "Edifying" Hymns. Of course I drew on a lot of scripture for this hymn, but I'd also like to acknowledge its debt to some wonderful graveyards I've walked through, including children's gravestones that had some of the lines quoted below engraved on them in either German or English. I also got a kick in the rear, and material for one or two stanzas, from a sermon by my own pastor this past Sunday. For the tune, I'm content to re-use the same one, EX NIHILO, that I paired with this hymn.
What is this strange thing, Lord, You do?
Our grieving hearts now question why
You'd send, and then call back to You,
A child so loved, so soon to die.

But You, three-personed God, know well
What joy a child's love brings, what pain:
Creating us, with You to dwell,
You paid so much for us again.

Aye, You know what it is to give
Your Son, in agony to die
That our rebellious race might live,
The apple of a Father's eye.

You know how far a Son might go
To please His Father's sense of right;
You cause that love on us to flow,
Proceeding Breath of life and light.

Therefore our grief must not be far,
O God, from Your kind, caring heart:
Nor shall its excess quench the star
Whereby our homeward way we chart—

Our faith, that is—which will recall
The witnesses of blessed yore
Who wore with us the mourner's shawl,
Yet kept Your goodness at the fore.

Eve found in Seth another seed
That Cain and Abel's loss repaid;
So for our race's greatest need
She held out hope, still unafraid.

When all he had was swept away
By whirlwind and marauding horde,
Job said, "He gives and takes away;
Blest be the name of God the Lord."

Until he heard his child was dead,
King David mortified his flesh;
Then, "He'll not come to me," he said,
"But I to him," and rose, refreshed.

A widow who had lost her son
Thought little of the bread God gives;
But when Elijah's work was done,
She heard the words, "See, your son lives."

Another widow's son was mourned,
Till our Lord's hand the coffin stayed;
The grave's uncleanness Jesus scorned,
To her a living son conveyed.

"Your son lives," Jesus said as well
To one who, hearing it, believed;
"She merely sleeps," he dared to tell
Those who for Jairus' daughter grieved.

All these, and Lazarus besides,
Bore witness what our eyes shall see
When with our dear one who has died
We too shall reunited be.

Till then, Lord Jesus, heal our grief;
Let it correct our worldly view.
Help us, and help our unbelief
Amid the strange things that You do.

Forgive us if we ask too much,
When we would understand this loss;
Yet let us learn, at least, that such
Draws us to shelter in Your cross.

And if indeed we need such pain
To topple idols from our eyes,
Show us how by this, too, we gain
Till we and all we love arise.

Friday, July 2, 2021

309. Thanksgiving for Divine Love

Today's addition to the hymn-book Edifying Hymns – now only seven hymns away from completion, give or take – is a long-planned but deceptively simple little ditty that works the rhyming possibilities of the word "love" to death. It'll be sectioned under "Giving Thanks." I'm pairing it with an original tune, titled EX NIHILO, that I wrote weeks ago before I had any definite plans what to do with it. Perhaps appropriately, both the text and the tune were written in the wee hours during fits of sleeplessness.
When You called what was not to be
And made all things here and above,
Creating God, what did You see
But that You reckoned good in love?

And You forbore to bring an end
When sin invaded Eden’s grove;
You vowed the woman’s Seed to send
And to repay our fall with love.

And when with evil man was rife,
His drowning You devised, whereof
Eight souls You spared, all kinds of life
Delivered through an ark of love.

And when Your holy line You drove
With desert manna to be fed,
You carried them with Shepherd’s love,
Redeemed, from bitter bondage led.

And when Your Son with Satan strove,
A full account for sin to give,
The world beheld High Priestly love,
That many by His death might live.

And when the Spirit opens hearts
To grasp by faith Your treasure trove,
We owe it not our own, weak parts
But to Your sanctifying love.

Therefore we thank You, loving God,
For all Your gifts here and above,
Including Your chastising rod
That trains us with a Father’s love.

We thank You for the mighty word,
And for the men whom You behove
To spread it, till all flesh has heard
The tidings of transforming love.

We thank You that we live and move
And are in You, and can confide
That Your defending, sending love
Will all we need each day provide.

We thank You for the life we lead,
You working with us hand-in-glove,
That we may show by living deed
Our faith in Your still working love.

Wherever history may rove,
We seek with joy the end of days
When we will see unveiled the Love
To Whom we owe all thanks and praise.