Wednesday, December 13, 2006

TRACKERS by Kathryn Mackel, a Review:
Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour

"But why?" Anastasia said. "Why do this to another human being?"

"Because they want to be God, that's why."

It's time for the Mir Review of TRACKERS. I pretty much avoid spoilers for Trackers, but if you haven't read OUTRIDERS and plan to, you may want to skip this until you've gotten through novel #1 of the THE BIRTHRIGHT PROJECT . And I strongly urge you to read the books in order. TRACKERS will be confusing for you without having read OUTRIDERS.

Humans playing God is a dominant theme in the Birthright Project. The mogs--transmogrified creatures--are the prime metaphors for expressing the urge to be Creator and Lord over all. Conversely, submission to true and proper authority is also a theme. When people try to do things their way, rather than the wise and obedient way, trouble follows.

So, we've come from the first novel, OUTRIDERS, in a future world damaged by the Endless Wars. Birthrighters--those who survived the wars by building an Ark that is under the arctic ice, people full of spiritual maturity and scientific know-how--send outriders topside. We met the Horesh community birthrighters--the outriders, trackers, weaver, etc. It's just one enclave assigned to collect "natural" specimens of flora and fauna, those not tainted by genetic meddling. They also protect life and uphold goodness however they can without endangering their mission in their post-apocalyptic world that's fallen back into some sort of semi-medieval status.

Brady is leader. Niki is our strong warrior-woman who came face to face with darkness and acquired a wolfen companion. Book one was principallay concerned with those two outriders.

We followed the birthrighters through trials in the fortified cities and out about the damaged, but not utterly destroyed, land. Dangers and a major battle left them battered and down one outrider. Worse, one entire outrider community has been engulfed in a terrible, dark void.

Disobedience by the weaver/teacher, Ajoba--who was seduced by a demon in guise of an angel--has left the group without a maker of shroud, the miracle substance only the chosen can create. Shroud is crucial to their defense, as it offers camouflage and armor, and to their word, as all specimens must be wrapped in shroud before being sent down to the underground second Ark. (Shroud is fabric that on one side is, well, fabric, and on the other is "out-of-time.") The weaving of it is a spiritual gift, as are the abilities to have visions and communicate with creatures and discern the transmogrified via a green glow. And the growing needs of the heart threaten the peace of more than one birthrighter who has vowed celibacy.

TRACKERS begins with Timothy, one of the birthrighters, heading into the great city of Traxx--using his gift of song to charm the "slungs" that guide him through the Sleeping Beautyish thorny hedge blossoming with bewitching flowers. Traxx is the city of Alrod, a baron of great evil and ruthless ambition and a powerful reach, whose right arm is the dark sorcerer Ghedo.

Timothy is out to rescue the girl he loves, a good-hearted non-birthrighter who has been selected by the baron and baroness as the "lolly" to bear a royal heir. The vanity of the baroness has resulted in barrenness. Alrod wants an heir and to rule all the lands. Ghedo wants to rule Alrod, and more, but he's lost some favor with his old pal the baron given the lousy outcome of the battle in book one.

But a new sorcerer with the ability to bring fresh and magically powerful troops into Alrod's service begins the spread of a new darkness across the world, one that threatens everyone, including the birthrighters, who are licking their wounds from the first novel's battles.

The fall-out from book one has lots of birthrighters on edge. The issues of honesty, loyalty, obedience, and forgiveness come to the fore. And the loss of a birthrighter enclave brings extra work to the folks of Horesh. Tensions are mounting there.

Of course, temptations and trials come and complications ensue. And everybody has longings and secrets, especially secrets. Alrod is willing to torture and kill to learn one particular secret, and his obession is bolstered mystically by Simon, the new and vicious and revolting chief sorcerer, whose power is fearful and whose appearance is chilling.

The birthrighters will, it seems, have to face a more powerfully allied & equipped Alrod.

The subplot I most enjoyed included a female rook (a new outrider) and a deformed teen boy who serves the dreadful Ghedo in his underground laboratory, a place full of mogs and potions and prisoners and horrors. The grace of God shines in this subplot--in all the plotines, really--and it's a joy to see how it plays out. Plus, hey, exciting stuff!

The stakes are higher. The opposition deadlier. And the birthrighters must make sacrifices of all sorts. And some had me teary-eyed, others sad, but all quite proud of the indomitable spirit of those full of His Spirit.

Some criticisms I've seen are correct: Like Stuart I thought the conversation at the gates of Traxx seemed totally out of character. A simple explanation that they were speaking in a silent code would have cleared that up. Did I miss that? Then Stuart and Tina and I all missed it.

I also find that the emotional turnabouts of the baroness seemed to come out of the blue, but that might well be explained by what was done to her by Ghedo.

And characters explain the whole birthrighter thing maybe one or two too many times. This may make it easier, however, for people who read only TRACKERS. I found it mildly intrusive, but it did not dilute my reading pleasure by more than by a few drops. You might think it a plus!

Overall, I think this was a rollicking good tale. Unlike some other reviewers, I take no issue with the multiple and changing points of view. I enjoyed that. Made the pace hum for me. And this is a fast-paced, action-packed, drama-filled, spiritual story. I highly recommend it. I enjoyed it more than OUTRIDERS, but then, the emotional content was stronger and the suspense was palpable. Book one had to do its introductory duty--characters, places, conflicts--which this novel can just run with.

Over at Val's blog, Kathryn Mackel had this to say about the book that would have concluded the storyline:

Unfortunately, there are no plans right now for a third book in the Birthright Series. Fantasy continues to be a tough sell in the Christian marketplace and the sales for Outriders weren't robust enough to continue through a third book. That said, a dear friend reminded me that if the Lord gave me a vision for Scouts - and He has - then it would be so. Not in my timing or in that of my dear readers, but in His. I wait expectantly but patiently for that opportunity to present itself.

I hope the third novel--SCOUTS--will end up coming up out of its current shroud to the light of day. I want badly to read it. Although the story ends in a good place for some characters, it leaves us wondering about others. Perhaps, if we are diligent with word of mouth and support, the book will not be relegated to a hard drive.

Tina Kulesa expresses a similar sentiment to mine at her blog:

The book I read was pretty much the second book in the series. It left me with so many….but what about so and so feelings. Frustrating but not because Mackel did not do her job. It’s because we as readers and consumers didn’t do our jobs. We didn’t buy. We didn’t recommend. We didn’t market for Kathryn Mackel or The Birthright Project. This dear friends was a failure on our part and look how it affected someone else.

I lay the blame for not marketing it more effectively at the publisher's feet. And I wag my finger at the CBA reading audience for not trying something different. Here is a God-honoring novel that speaks to important issues facing our globe, with admirable characters and with sometimes breathtakingly imaginative depictions of a tomorrow world and an old evil--the scene where Simon takes Alrod on the "tour" of history is just magnificent--and this vivid fictional offering is...pretty much just ignored.

Shame. Shame. Shame.

People. Set aside that Americana Historical or Smalltown Romance or that Woman-in-Jeopardy novel for just a week and try these books. Don't be scared. Don't be wussy. Here there be champions...and a cracking good read.

Yes, this is one of the best series I've seen published in the CBA. Good writing. Creative world-building. Dramatic situations and confrontations. Really Good versus Serious Evil. Self-sacrifice and self-absorption. Vanity versus modesty. Abuse of Power. Loyalty. Friendship. And it even has beautiful moments of romance.

And we let it sink into the cold, cold ice.

That sucks.

So, here's to hope and patience and the will to pass the good word on THE BIRTHRIGHT PROJECT .

I recommend you visit The Bedford Review's addition to the tour's last day, where Jim talks about the Dying Earth subgenre of SF, and how Mackel's book fits in with that. Wikipedia's article on Dying Earth says:
The Dying Earth subgenre is a sub-category of science fantasy which takes place at the end of Time, when the Sun slowly fades and the laws of the Universe themselves fail, with the science becoming indistinguishable from magic. More generally, the Dying Earth sub-genre encompasses science fiction works set in the far distant future in a milieu of stasis or decline. Themes of world-weariness, innocence (wounded or otherwise), idealism, entropy and the hope of renewal tend to pre-dominate.

Tell him which are your fave Dying Earth novels. (If any.) I've read Aldiss' HOTHOUSE, which was astonishingly creative, and stories of the Instrumentality (which are are classed in this subcategory). Was The Foundation Trilogy (which went on to be more than a trilogy, but, eh..) on the list. Seems to me it should be. I read that one early in my sci-fi explorations and loved it. I should re-read it. And would A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ fit in there? "A Boy and His Dog" might fit, too. They had that underground culture trying to preserve some old notions of what order and society ought to be, while "upstairs" it was a post-apocalyptic, free-for-all, scrabble to survive. And the whole "communication with animals thing" as in Mackel's tale. Yeah, some correlations.

Jim Black
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Frank Creed
Gene Curtis
Chris Deanne
Janey DeMeo
Beth Goddard
Mark Goodyear
Todd Michael Greene
Karen Hancock
Elliot Hanowski
Katie Hart
Sherrie Hibbs
Sharon Hinck
Joleen Howell
Jason Joyner
Tina Kulesa
Kevin Lucia
The Bookshelf Reviews 2.0 - The Compendium
Terri Main
Rachel Marks
Shannon McNear
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Caleb Newell
Eve Nielsen
John Otte
Cheryl Russell
Hanna Sandvig
Mirtika Schultz
James Somers
Stuart Stockton
Steve Trower
Chris Walley
Daniel I. Weaver
Lost Genre Guild
Speculative Faith


Shannon said...

Wonderful post ... beautiful review.

Elliot said...

Well, The Book of the New Sun's obviously my favorite. I think Canticle would qualify. So would "Walk Now Gently Through the Fire" though in all three it hints that Earth may or will be renewed.

Mirtika said...

Thanks, Shannon.:)

I keep thinking how unfair to readers to not let this conclude. Here we are, wondering what's gonna happen, what's that "the seams loosening" portent and how it will play out. Westbow (or whatever name it will go under with the changes) really needs to play fair and give us the finale. It's bad faith. If one contracts an author for a 3-book-series, either be upfront and say, "Make it one book, that's all we'll spring for" or "We'll commit to two books, revise" or just put out the third book. But to leave readers essentially without an ending...badly done, Westbow. Badly done.


Jim (The Bedford Review) Black said...

It is unfair to readers to not publish the third book. Don't you think that readers are more likely to invest in a series if they know that the publisher is committed to all the books in a series?

I think that this series have better sales if the stores put it in the science fiction/fantasy section. We have to find a way to not look at it as a Christian series. How well would Frank Herbert's Dune books have sold if they were in a section called inspirational Muslim fiction?

Jim (The Bedford Review) Black said...

Thank you for the Dying Earth comments. Another set of books that I forgot to include is Sterling Lanier's Hiero Journey and the Unforsaken Hiero. Both fall into the after the fall of civilization and talking mutated animals category.

I had never thought of the Foundation books as Dying Earth books but it does make sense.

Kathy Mackel said...

Hey Mir, Thanks. I really appreciate the review and broader comments on the genre. BTW, Gabe is my favorite character in this book! (After Brady, of course.) All you writers know that sometimes characters come out of nowhere and make their presence - and purpose - known. Gabe did that for me.