A review of Stephen Donaldson’s The Augur’s Gambit

This is a companion novella to Stephen Donaldson’s “The King’s Justice” reviewed on this blog here.
It’s a very different beast to that book.  Whereas that book had the pace and tone of a horror thriller, this has a more deliberate pace and is a tale of courtly intrigue in a fantasy realm, with the chief supernatural element being the predominance of alchemy and augury (the practice of ‘scrying’ through examining the entrails of freshly killed animals) in the land.
In an fortress island, Indemnie,  comprised of ruling Baronies and ruled over by a Monarchy (currently Queen Inimical Phlegathon deVry IV), her Chief Hieronymer (practitioner of Augury),Mayhew Gordian, is at his wit’s end.   A trusted confidant and often summoned to secretly observe his Queen’s audiences with her Barons, he is observing an apparently destructive and catastrophic course of action by his Queen.  As she promises to wed each Baron in turn, turning them against each other and against her, surely the only outcome can be war?  And Mayhew’s scrying has revealed a series of dooms for Indemnie with no scenarios of hope.  His Queen says he must look deeper, and this means sacrificing a child, something Mayhew refuses to do, risking his Monarch’s wrath.  In the meantime his deepening regard for Princess Excrucia, his confidant and friend, makes him more than ever determined that the key to his Monarch’s behaviour, and possible salvations for Indemnie, must be found.
This is a book that demands a bit of patience, even with its short length.  It’s a compact piece of world building, and for the most part this is what the narrative focuses on, that and the intrigue between barons and barons and Monarch.  However it builds in it’s last act to a gripping and dramatic siege by cannon armed pirate vessel.  Mayhew acts as Parley for each but he has a last desperate gamble to play, one that involves the hazard of all, and the deepest secrets of augury and alchemy.  This novella amply rewards your patience.
The characters are skilfully drawn, their dielemmas believable and compelling.  Those who knows Dnonaldson’s writing will be aware of his wordsmith talents, his Scrabble defeating vocabulary that sings from the page.

A review of the podcast “The Robcast”

“The Rob Cast” is a weekly podcast presented by Rob Bell.  Rob is many things.  He’s an ex Pastor at Mars Hill Church, a ‘Mega-Church’in the US.  Rob became controversial when his book “Love Wins” firmly positioned him as a proponent of the ‘Universalist’ branch of Christian thought; that is, that all, without exception, will be saved.  This was too much for those who like their Hell, be it good old fashioned ‘eternal torment,’ or those who take to the ‘annihilationist’ position.  That is, you don’t get tortured for ever if you reject the Gospel.  That would be barbaric!  You instead get ‘executed’ or snuffed out to nothing if you reject the Christian God.  Liberals today, huh?

But all that is in the past.  Now Rob continues to tour, speak, host conferences, help businesses, broadcast, and write.  His latest, “How to be Here,” is being promoted by Rob through a tour.

His podcast is notable because it is a treasure trove of fresh, clear thinking, and is the kind of resource that will open up new horizons to you if you let it.  Rob has studied the Talmud and the Jewish faith and its lore and has connected it with his Christian faith.  He communicates some of what he has learnt, and it is truly illuminating, and led me to buy a copy of “Everyman’s Talmud.”

The podcast also has guest speakers and guests, and is informed by other passions of Rob’s including diving, and his experiences of being a husband and parent.

Everyone will find something here to inspire them or get them thinking, if but they keep an open mind.

Rob has his catchphrases and mannerisms, that someone recently observed you could base a drinking game on, including the repetition of “so good.”

The podcast is stripped down, just Rob or Rob and his guests speaking, and it’s all the better for that. So good.



Bending the Brain around the Big Questions: A review of the radio show and podcast “Unbelievable.”

“Hello and welcome to Unbelievable, the show that keeps you thinking”  I’m Justin Brierley, and today I’ll be talking to….”

So opens the long running (from 2007) radio show and podcast, Unbelievable, to be found on the radio station Premiere.  This is a show where Christians debate with Atheists and secular humanists from all of their various branches, sects, denominations, meetings, groups, and organisations.  And not only that, Mr Brierley puts representatives from different faiths round the table, and if that wasn’t fraught with potential for grief enough, representatives from different denominations of the same faith.

The show is amazingly successful with all of the above.  Truly, it has devoted atheists, secular humanists, and God botherers of all stripes.  It’s success can be in large part attributed to Mr Brierley’s relaxed, courteous and measured approach to facilitating the debates.  He is genuinely interested in hearing what everyone has to say,  appears to very much want to understand them and get his guests to understand each other, the better to engage with each others views.

The range of shows and guests is immense.  For example we recently have had a Christian group purporting to love Muslims but wanting to destroy Islam (love the person but hate their faith), then we had highlights from a range of speakers at the Unbelievable yearly conference on boosting your skills in evangelism, then a show debating the multi-verse (big enough topic for ya?), and last week it was look at the life of Christian thinker Soren Kierkegarrd.  This a small selection of a vast back catalogue that can be found here.

The format is to introduce the guests, including a short history of their life/work and what either led them to take up or reject faith. Then an introduction from both on the subject being discussed.  Then battle is joined.  Then a  final summary.  Then Justin gives feedback from various shows.  Except it rarely seems like a battle as Justin is such a skilled and decent moderator that the guests are so often so decent and respectable to each other, which if they really try to understand and critique each others ideas, is how it should be.  The worst shows are where the guests agree with each other so much you wonder what the point was.  The shows where it really kicks off are a guilty pleasure, but in the minority.  Most are part way between extremes.

As a Christian sometimes I am frustrated by the lack of grounding in absolutely anything of some of the beliefs expressed.  I have no patience with those who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, or that God committed genocide and it can be theologically justified, or that people will really attend a conference on annihilating  the souls of unbelievers after death as opposed to just tormenting them eternally.  Liberals today eh?  It’s political correctness run mad!   Nevertheless the value of this show is to give all these views a platform, hopefully with a good critical voice.  Through the synthesis of the two we may arrive at reason.

Premier is a station with a mission based on the evangelistic wing of the Christian faith and Justin is part of that, but nevertheless the show remain accessible to even the most rabid reader of Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

My favourite show?  The one where Justin comes under fire from ex Mars Hill bad boy Mark Driscoll and aces him with British cool.  Find it here.

I have moved from fear and hostility of the secular humanist world to a greater understanding and appreciation.  What unites most of us is that we are seekers after truth.  Happily the show makes this utterly believable.



A review of Mitch Alboms’ “Have a Little Faith.”

This will be a heartfelt review, as this is very much a book of the heart.  It has been a long time since I have read anything as wonderful, inspiring and hopeful as this book. More than once I felt myself welling up.  The book lands some pretty hefty emotional punches, without falling into the trap of being manipulative or sugar coated.  It’s a book of spiritual wisdom whilst being rooted very firmly in the human.  The style of the prose is crisp, clear, energetic and hopeful.

Mitch Albom is a journalist and writer and brought up in the Jewish faith, whilst not practising himself at the book’s start.  And at the very start of the book he is asked by his old Rabbi, Albert Lewis, to write said Rabbi’s eulogy for the event of his death. The reason for Albert’s request (he’s nicknamed ‘the Reb’) is never made clear, other than the he heard Mitch speak, and that he mentored Mitch as a young man, seeing him through his Bar Mitzvah.  What follows are reflections on a series of interviews between Mitch and the Reb, as Mitch strives to understand his subject better.  In so doing they start a journey exploring the nature of faith and the deepest questions of what it means to be human.

Running parallel to this are a series of chapters exploring the sad history of one Henry Covington, a man raised in the hardest of circumstances, and who has lived a life of crime, violence, tragedy and loss.  Henry will become a Pastor at a Church with a special mission to the homeless of Detroit, wonderfully named “I am my Brother’s Keeper.”  The book tells us how he got there, and what keeps him there, in his struggles with a crumbling Church building, and the growing depression in the streets of Detroit.  We learn how Mitch’s journey will lead him to Pastor Henry’s door, and how the search for God knits together all the stories in this book, across their respective faiths.

The book is clearly and explicitly about hope, particularly the hope that in our days of sectarian and inter-faith strife, there is another, deeper, more excellent way for us to relate to each other.  And the book gives some beautiful examples of what humanity is like at its best, when we reach down to help up the person who has fallen.

A must read if you have any faith or none.  If you are suspicious of faith itself, or of one particular faith and feel hostile to others, then please read this book with an open heart.

The itch that can’t be scratched: a review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Pilgrim’s Regress.”

“The Pilgrim’s Regress” is an earlier work by Lewis which seeks to express an everyman’s journey of faith through an allegorical fantasy adventure, as with it’s obvious main reference point, Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

It is not as well liked or read as much of Lewis’s other work.  This is probably due, in large part, to a problem Lewis himself identifies in a foreword written ten years later.  Lewis admits he was too presumptuous in thinking that themes in his own spiritual journey and conversion would be readily understood by a contemporary readership (that was then, how so more now); in particular, his view of “romanticism,” and its different levels of meaning.  Lewis takes trouble in his foreword to draw out what he understands to be these meanings.  But the main one he uses in the story is, he admits, personal and obscure.  It relates to a kind of yearning for some golden ideal that warms the soul and is in fact a desire for God.  However, Lewis understands it to be often misunderstood by human beings as a desire to return to some comfort zone or nostalgia for the past, for natural beauty, or for the yearning that beautiful music or poetry may engender.   Lewis then warns that this yearning can never be fully satisfied in the human lifespan, as it is meant to lead to God.  Hence it gets twisted into idolatry for sex, the natural world, or some other such channel.  Lewis later gives us a German word for this, “Sehnsucht.”  It is also referred to in “Surprised by Joy” and other of his works.  It is the archetypal itch that can never be scratched in our lifetime.

The story tells the story of John, a boy who dreams of a beautiful island that he has glimpsed through some woods near his house.   This island represents the yearning and “Sehnsucht” in his soul.  In the meantime, he is surrounded by realities such as death, and the possibility of a “Landlord” (God), whose “Stewards” (Priests) direct the “tenants” of the land through a religion full of symbols and rules.  It is the dissatisfaction with this religion in the face of his yearning for the island that sets John off on a voyage of exploration through the land.

On his way he picks up a companion, Vertue, an intense and pained young man determined to lead a good life through his own works and efforts.  Together, on their way, they discover allegorical ciphers for the various philosophical, scientific, sociological and religious trends that have held sway and held sway in Lewis’s time.  This includes representatives of romantic paganism, rational humanism, Freudianism, liberal theology, and so on.   Some of these are more obvious than others, such as the Freudian giant that reduces all his captives to a grim literalism so they can “see through” each other so that each appears a collection of walking blood and guts.  Others are less obvious and allude to trends of thinking more prevalent in Lewis’s day, such as that represented by “The Pale Men.”  However, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear we can still see parallels with our own age, with those theologians and Church leaders who deny God and put in its place some “pale” construct (I think of the “Sea of Faith” movement).

The land where John and Vertue journey is split into a North and South; The North is all barren and rocky highlands (the land of rational humanist thought) and the South, all hot, humid and baggy lowlands (liberal theology and “anything goes” morality and lifestyle).  And in the end John and Vertue must defeat dragons in the North and South before completing their journey.

This is a complex and dense read at times, and it lacks the simplicity and straightforward allegory and narrative that have made Bunyan’s work so enduring.  Lewis himself admits in his foreword that it has “needless obscurity, and an uncharitable temper.”  However, it is still an intelligent, nourishing read, and as is often case with reading Lewis, I felt I was breathing mountain air after having spent a long time in the City.  Not a starting point for those new to Lewis, but definitely one to come back to once you are well acquainted with some of his more accessible and well known works.


C S Lewis and me

As a child, I was aware of “The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe” mainly through a cartoon film version.  I never read the books. 

It wasn’t until 18 that I, about to embark on the adventure of my adult life and looking for deeper meanings to guide me, bought and read “Mere Christianity.”  I remember the cover, a cartoonish depiction of the nativity.  Reading it, I found Lewis’s explanation of the Christian faith compelling, imaginative and engaging, and adult.  I could engage with this, on my own terms.  This was a break and a development from the learned Church going of my childhood.  This included being a member of the choir, which I detested, all silly robes and bullying senor servers.  At its best it was the ‘cultural Christianity’ of village churches that even Richard Dawkins feels to be part of his heritage.  But I did not feel this could guide or sustain me as an adult newly launched on the world.

Lewis changed all that.  In “Mere Christianity” he wrote of an adventure inseparable from daily lived reality, but underpinned by wonder.  I can remember reading for the first time his culminating vision of the light breaking in, and being clothed in wondrous new forms.  This felt like some kind of bookmark being placed in my soul, or a score being made in my mind.

Next I read “The Great Divorce,” Lewis’s vision of the after-life.  Again I found the imagery to be logical and compelling, adult and not condescending.  The story of a land where you become more real or solid as you journey on, so the grass no longer pierces your feet, stayed with me, as did the themes of personal responsibility and choice.  People, of their own volition, refuse to leave the Purgatorial town where Lewis’s journey starts, preferring the known to the unknown.  Or they get to the new land and flee.  Rather than St Peter playing some kind of celestial bouncer, people do this for themselves by the choices they make.

“The Screwtape Letters” was probably my next read, but I can’t be sure.  The ebullient comic tone and deadly seriousness of what is at stake (the fate of a soul) and the epistolary form, give an intensely readable dynamic.  Stand out moments include the protagonist being encouraged by his demon to caricature his fellow Church goers by their appearance and by default the Christian faith, and the fate of unsuccessful junior demons to be lunch for their seniors.

In the next few years I took in “Prayers, Letters to Malcom,” “Reflections on the Psalms,” “The Four Loves,”  “The Problem of Pain” and “Surprised by Joy.”  All the while I enjoyed engaging with what Lewis had to say, and his skills as an apologist.  But nothing quite had the same impact on me as “Mere Christianity,” and “The Great Divorce.”  It was the feeling of breaking new ground, of a new adventure opening up.  The gift Lewis gave me was to engage with the Christian faith for the first time as an adult, something I continue to do, and for that I am forever in his debt.

And I still haven’t read the Narnia books.