The End of “Religions” (More Thoughts)

11450442_sIn my last post on this subject, I presented a passage from my novel in progress where two characters were talking about it. The subject merits a bit more — I won’t say serious, because I take my fiction very seriously — but real-world and scholarly treatment.

Is there any evidence that the change I’m predicting here, the end of discrete religions and the transformation of religious thought into a marketplace of ideas like other areas of discourse and opinion, is happening? Yes, there is.

The Pew Research Center conducted a poll of religious affiliation worldwide and in the United States and found a lot of movement. Some of the interesting findings involve how many Americans change the religion in which they were raised. People who were raised Catholic, for example, drop out of the Church enough that some ten percent of the U.S. population is “former Catholic.” The Church has maintained its numbers and shows a stable percentage of the population as members only because of the disproportionate number of immigrants who are Catholic (due of course to the fact that such a large percentage of immigrants to the U.S. come from Latin America). The Catholic Church in the United States is becoming more Hispanic as time goes by. Other churches have shown similar patterns of change.

The biggest growth category is the “unaffiliated,” those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion. What’s more, this category shows a clear generational shift. The overall unaffiliated roster is 16.1% of the U.S. population, but among those 18-29 it is one in four. Lest we think that this means people are abandoning religion and becoming atheists, though, it should be noted that only 25% of the unaffiliated say that they are atheist or agnostic, representing a total of 4% of the population. The rest are religious believers, but don’t identify with any particular religious tradition.

Also of interest is the non-dogmatic approach of most people even among those who do label themselves as belonging to a particular religion. A majority of believers in every single religion surveyed (except for Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) say that “many religions can lead to eternal life” and that “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.” The percentages are smaller for Evangelicals and Muslims than for Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and mainline Protestants, as one might expect, but a majority of Evangelicals and Muslims (57% and 56%, respectively) affirm religious pluralism. (The overall percentage among the affiliated was 70. One would, of course, expect this number to approach 100% among the unaffiliated.) This is, of course, not in accord with the official teachings of Evangelical Christianity (although it is with Islam, or may be depending on the interpretation of the word “many”), showing that a lot of people who belong to Evangelical churches have ideas not entirely in agreement with those official teachings.

What is happening here? I believe there are two factors involved. One of them is religious freedom and the fact that the United States has no established religion and the Constitution forbids both this and the infringement of religious liberty. But that factor goes back to 1789, and builds on British concepts of free religion that are even older, so it’s nothing new. What is new is the Internet. Religious believers today are confronted with a vast storm of religious ideas and discourse. If one is curious about the teachings of Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism, information is only a Google search away. It’s much more difficult, if not impossible, to think of other religions in stereotypes; one must be highly motivated to do so (the human mind can believe almost anything in the grip of powerful emotions).

What Makes a Person Religious?

Before going into this, I should clarify that I am using the word “religious” here in a slightly different way than Pew does. I’m not talking about belonging to a religious organization or attending services regularly. I’m talking about beliefs and attitudes affirming a spiritual connection to the cosmos, or to a metaphor or personalization for the cosmos such as God or gods. This encompasses non-traditional as well as traditional religious belief and practice.

With that out of the way, why does a person believe and practice religion? I believe it’s one or both of two things: spiritual experience and religious indoctrination. The first of those must be present to at least a small degree, but in some cases the second may be the more important, and when it comes to belief that one particular religion is superior to others, the second is always more important as a cause.

What happens when the indoctrination becomes less effective, when a person is easily exposed to diverse beliefs and arguments against the teachings of his “home faith”? At the extreme, if the effect of indoctrination is reduced to nothing, only religious experience will motivate the person to spiritual belief and practice. What happens then depends on how strong the impact of spiritual experience is on the person. If it is very strong, as it is for me, then the person will remain (or become, as I did — I was raised in an atheist household) deeply spiritual or religious, but eschew orthodoxy of any kind. Such a person will either belong to a religious organization for social reasons rather than those of doctrinal agreement, or else be one of the unaffiliated religious.

If the effect of religious or spiritual experience is weaker, the person may drop most religious belief and practice, either becoming atheist or agnostic, or acknowledging the possible (or even probable) existence of some vaguely-understood higher power, but without having it be important in their lives.

What Makes a Person Atheist?

Again, I should clarify that by “atheist” in this context, I mean someone who rejects spirituality in his or her own life and does not believe in the existence of any higher power, whether personalized or otherwise. This would exclude the Buddha and myself. He did not, and I do not, believe in the ultimate existence of a personal God, and so by a looser definition either of us could be considered an atheist, but he was deeply spiritual, as am I, so I will not use that label for myself in this context.

Here again, I believe there are two factors involved. One of those is lack of spiritual experience, or very weak and infrequent spiritual experience that is not compelling. The other is a negative reaction to the teachings of one or more religions, particularly the more authoritarian versions. Both of these factors must be present to some degree in order for a person to definitely affirm the non-existence of God or gods and the invalidity of spiritual approaches to life. The first alone is enough for a person to be irreligious in practice and to have spiritual activity be unimportant in his life, but not enough to draw a conclusion of that kind. The aggressive, belligerent so-called “New Atheists” in particular are reacting to the abuses committed by organized religion throughout history and the brow-beating and political activity, offensive to those who value liberty and pluralism, of some of them today.

What happens as the Internet increases the spread and interaction of religious ideas and the power of religious doctrine wanes? Initially, those who have always been angry about that power will probably smell the blood in the water and be encouraged to become more vocal and active, as we have seen, but eventually the waning of religious authority makes such views seem increasingly silly, and a backlash is provoked as part of the ongoing dialogue, and we already see that happening. Eventually, atheism in this sense of dismissing all spirituality will become as passé as religious authority itself.

What Makes a Person a Fanatic?

What about the increase in recent decades in religious extremism, most visibly Christian and Muslim but arising in other religious contexts as well? This is, I believe, a reaction to the new environment in which religious orthodoxy is seriously threatened. It’s instinctive, when the core of one’s identity is under siege, to circle the wagons and lash out at perceived enemies, and a certain percentage (a small one, thankfully) of believers will take physical action along those lines, while a great many more will organize politically and attempt to influence the tide of time through government action. As the power of religious organizations and orthodoxy fades, we should for a while see a great deal of this sort of thing, but like the New Atheism it will eventually fade away. The future is a free marketplace of religious ideas with most or all people being unaffiliated, and there is no way to forestall that future except by undermining civilization itself.

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Moral Clarity, Theism, and the Power of the Will

10034764_sI had an encounter a while back with someone who had an allergy to moral clarity. This person preferred to see all things in shades of gray, whereas I do not: I’m definitely a black-and-white kind of guy. That doesn’t mean I subscribe to any predigested codes of morality, just that I’m clear, in any given situation, about what should or should not be done. Needless to say, this person and I didn’t hit it off well.

But it got me thinking about morality in general, religion as it impacts morality, who makes the judgment about what is right and what is wrong, what I see as the fundamental theistic mistake about morality, and the emergent shades-of-gray mistake that can arise in reaction to it. Good fodder for a blog post, I thought!

I stuck a bit of this into a conversation between two characters in Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering, which is my current novel in progress. Here’s what they had to say:

“Morality — that was maybe one of the biggest mistakes the old religions made. And human religions still do.”

“Morality is a mistake?”

“Attributing it to God or the cosmos or whatever is a mistake. Morality is a human concern. Or an Andol concern. Or even a Droon concern, though I can’t say I like where they’ve gone with it. We do what we judge to be good. Or we fail to do it. The universe doesn’t judge. It loves all equally, giving birth to all things, and taking all things back into itself after their time is done.

“So we’re on our own.”

“When it comes to making moral judgments, yes, we are.”

Now here’s the thing. As children, we have moral judgments made for us by our parents, and this sets a certain paradigm of morality coming from an outside source of authority. Many religious doctrines maintain that paradigm, putting God in the place of the parents for adults. The particulars differ from childhood, but the basic pattern remains constant, in that right and wrong are determined by an outside source. And that is what I call the theistic moral error.

This is related to the so-called “problem of evil.” How can God be at once omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, when evil exists in the world? All answers to this problem that try to preserve this understanding of God as perfectly good either end up in self-contradiction (God can d0 anything, but somehow cannot create intelligent beings capable of free will that are not inclined to do evil, or a world rife with natural horrors) or lose any meaningful conception of good and evil (“good” is defined as “God’s will,” no matter how evil it might seem to human perception).

The real answer, unacceptable as many theists find it, is that the Cosmos is not “perfectly good.” Good and evil arise from human judgment, not from cosmic verities. God isn’t concerned with morality. God is beyond good and evil. The cosmos is not there for us to judge. (Which doesn’t say that we can’t work to amend it according to perceived need.)

In fact, the Book of Job has something to say about this. God in that poet’s vision clearly asserts that he is beyond human values, as he is beyond human understanding.

But if morality doesn’t come from God/the Cosmos, where does it come from? Does this mean that there are no clear moral principles at all, and that everything is, as some think when they have liberated themselves from the restrictive and often hypocritical moral codes of their childhood, sometimes imposed by abusive parents, all gray?

No. Or not in my opinion. Because although morality is, as my character asserts, a human concern rather than that of the Cosmos, it is a human concern. We do make moral judgments. It’s part of our nature to decide what actions are good and what are evil, to reward and punish accordingly, to laud or condemn. To refuse to do so in reaction to realizing that the Cosmos isn’t concerned with such things, is at least as big an error as the one that claimed Cosmic backing for one’s moral judgments in the first place.

The fact that God can’t be bothered sending people to Hell for sin doesn’t leave people free to sin. The fact that there are no “absolutes” of morality doesn’t mean that a bad person may do as he pleases in his selfishness and not be condemned. It just means he won’t be condemned by the Cosmos. He can still be condemned by me. And by other human beings, and by society itself, if I can persuade others to join me in condemning that behavior. This is the power of the will, requiring no divine backing, asserting itself in its own forcefulness. Core values are fundamentally non-rational, but they are widely shared, and reasoning from them to moral conclusions can allow for persuasion — and that is as effective as the nonexistent judgment of God; indeed, it is the only authority morality has ever had, and the only authority it has ever needed.

That morality is “relative” doesn’t mean that pursuit of self-interest without any moral concerns at all, is pursuit of “private morality.” It is an assertion, rather, that there is no morality, which is not the case. There is: we create it. We need no outside authority for this. We are adults. We make the judgments ourselves. We always did; the idea that God gave them to us was always a delusion. The loss of that delusion doesn’t change anything of significance. We still make the judgments. We simply stop deluding ourselves about where they come from. This does leave us free to change our moral values if circumstances seem to dictate this, as for example prevailing sexual morality has changed over the last few centuries from something oriented towards protecting men’s ownership of their female property to something oriented towards protecting right of consent/refusal and personal integrity and respect. But it does not mean “anything goes.”

Morality is an important part of maintaining civilization and getting along with each other. Making moral judgments is a part of what it means to be human. Ceasing to do so isn’t liberating. It’s dehumanizing.

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False Certainty and Dogma: The Downside of Monotheism

Let’s start with a deceptively complex question that looks simple. What exactly is monotheism? It lies at the core of all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith). All four of these insist that God is One, although with slightly different emphasis. No religion outside that lineage holds this belief, although one finds a unity underlying the surface diversity in many approaches to spirituality that are otherwise polytheistic, from the Greek philosophers to Hinduism to some versions of Neopaganism.

To complicate matters more, many people who are theoretical monotheists are polytheists in practice. This includes Christians who pray to Mary or to the Saints, Muslims who also sometimes pray to Mary, and those who invoke different aspects or Names of God for different purposes. Monotheism, therefore, isn’t the worship of only one deity. That generally doesn’t happen; our minds are too limited to do that, and can’t wrap themselves around something as cosmic as Everything. Instead, monotheism is the theoretical belief that there is only one God, and this is made compatible with polytheistic practice by demoting deities in the plural to saints, angels, prophets, or a prophet’s mother.

Monotheism has one advantage over polytheism, and that is its inherent recognition of the unity of the cosmos. Monotheists avoid the fragmentation that can afflict polytheists (as discussed last week), but conflict arises of a different kind, and it emerges precisely from that limitation of the human mind that cannot grasp the All either by reason or by imagining. When one recognizes the unity of All, and at the same time can only imagine or grasp mentally a fragment or aspect of the All, it is easy to make the mistake of supposing that fragment or aspect to be the whole. The reality of God is too vast to be apprehended or conceived, and so something that the mind can apprehend and conceive is promoted to the role of Sole God.

Just as the mind cannot grasp the ultimate Reality, so (and perhaps even more so) human language cannot describe it or present rules or rituals or doctrines appropriate to it. This is a limitation that applies to scripture of any kind for that reason. And yet, because of the confusion that arises between what the mind can grasp and what is ultimately Real, it is very easy and common for monotheists to imbue their imaginings and limited visions and limited scriptures with an authority far beyond what they could ever merit. This gives rise to the biggest downside of monotheism: false certainty and dogma. It afflicts at least some of the believers in all four monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic lineage.

The ultimate expression of this false certainty is condemnation of those who believe differently, at times (especially when religion has been allied with the state) going so far as criminal persecution for heresy or religious war. Unlike the conflicts between polytheists discussed last week, this is not conflict caused by different Gods, but rather about different conceptions of what is supposed to be only one and the same God.

Historically, Christians have condemned Jews and Muslims for not recognizing the divinity of Christ, while Muslims have condemned Christians for seeing Christ as more than a prophet, and Jews for failing to see either Christ or Muhammad as even that much. Christians have condemned one another over points of doctrine that could matter only to those who take such things literally (which is a mistake in itself), and Muslims have condemned one another over who was the true successor of the Prophet and over teachings that went along with that. That’s all in addition to the ferocious conflict between monotheisms and polytheistic religion, from the slaughter of the prophets of Baal by Elijah described in the Bible, to the banning and condemnation of pagan religion by the Christian Roman Empire, to the bloody struggles between Islam and Hinduism in India.

The problem here is not so much disagreement (to disagree and argue is human, after all), but rather the idea that God supports one and only one doctrine, and that those who believe differently are not merely disagreeing with one another but each sees the other as going against the divine will. This is possible to believe only if one takes a limited idea — which is the only kind that the human mind can hold — and inflates that idea into identity with the All. That is the root of dogma and the origin of false certainty.

Is there anything monotheists can do to avoid this trap? Certainly, and many of them do. One can remind oneself often that God is beyond human knowledge and that we must all be humble before the Mystery. If you can wrap your mind around it and understand it, then it is not God. At best, it’s a particular viewpoint or perspective on God, the best that you can do with a finite brain. Someone else may come up with a different vision that is equally valid, even where it appears to disagree with yours.

Some monotheists have shown themselves capable of that degree of enlightenment and humility. Alas, many have shown to the contrary as well, and that is why separation of church and state is so important to the maintenance of peace and liberty. The error of false certainty and dogma is potentially deadly, and the only way to prevent that potential from becoming actual is to deny it any temporal power.

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God Forms and Conflict: The Downside of Polytheism

25400853_sPertaining to the question of One or Many, I’m going to write a pair of posts, this week and next, on the downsides of both, this week on polytheism.

Inevitably and by its nature, polytheism involves splitting the Cosmos into multiple fractal images, each with its own special character. A monotheistic God is a metaphor for the cosmos as a whole, but a deity in a pantheon, while reflecting the All as every deity must, emphasizes a portion or aspect of the All more than the rest of it. As a result, the potential for conflict arises (or increases) between worshipers of different deities.

This conflict, which is evident in the Neopagan community today and would be more so if Pagans didn’t see themselves as a potentially persecuted minority and so have an instinct to circle the wagons, is different from the types of conflict that can arise where monotheists are involved. Monotheists are more likely to fall into the “one way” mental trap and to condemn those of divergent views; polytheists seldom do this, or not as often as monotheists, anyway. But polytheists open themselves to conflict of another type, not about their gods, but because of their gods.

Worshipers take on the attributes of their deities. This process is partly magical and partly mental, but over time a devotee of a particular deity amplifies those aspects of his personality which resemble the god and becomes, to the extent he is able, the god’s avatar or channel. To some extent those attributes are almost always present beforehand, as otherwise the devotee would not be attracted to worship of that deity, but over time and repeated invocation they become amplified. When those aspects make for conflict between devotees of different deities, conflict is likely to arise.

Is a Wiccan devotee of a peaceful Mother Goddess a natural ally of a worshiper of Odin who sees himself as a warrior, merely because both can be lumped under the “Pagan” label and both are polytheists? Only if they see themselves as struggling against the monotheistic Christian majority, in which case it’s an alliance of convenience against a common enemy. Absent that external stimulus to cooperation, the fissure between them would be wide, even if both recognized the unity underlying the diversity of the gods (and of course, not all Pagans do).

The myths and legends of deities arising from polytheistic religions always present them as conflicting with each other and for good reason. That’s within single pantheons; when we mix pantheons from different cultures in a single society, which is what we are doing (as well as inventing new designer deities), we compound the problem.

A follower of Apollo is sure to have very clear delineations of right and wrong in his moral viewpoint and likely to be somewhat ascetic. A worshiper of Loki will be allergic to clear moral distinctions and regard everything as morally gray. A devotee of Dionysus becomes hedonistic and prone to excess in pursuit of spiritual ecstasy. These are not easily reconcilable qualities. The follower of Apollo won’t usually contend that the Loki or Dionysus worshiper is following a “false god” or condemn these individuals for their religious behavior as such, but he will inevitably condemn the Loki worshiper’s willingness to engage in morally questionable acts and the Dionysian’s hedonism, without reference necessarily to the gods they worship. Even when there is no religious dispute as such (and sometimes there is, even with all the emphasis in the Pagan community on tolerance and diversity), the fragmenting of the divine image exacerbates and focuses personality and lifestyle conflicts.

And that, in my opinion, is why the Pagan community features so much in the way of squabbling, back-biting, bickering, and personal vituperation, far out of proportion to its numbers.

Is there a solution to the problem? Perhaps, but it requires a degree of enlightenment that is beyond the scope of most people, particularly those new to the spiritual path. It requires recognition that the cosmos is One, even if its aspects are Many, and an ability to transcend the limits of a particular deity. It may require that a polytheist avoid being the particular devotee of any one god or goddess, but give his heart and reverence instead to all of them, recognizing each as a pathway to the All. Not all Pagans even believe in the unity underlying the diversity of the gods, let alone incorporate it into their personality, so if that’s a solution it’s one that can’t be implemented at this time.

It may well be that there is no solution, except on an individual level, allowing a person to avoid the traps.

Next week: False Certainty and Dogma: The Downside of Monotheism

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An Interview With the Order Master

The Order MasterThis interview of Michael Cambridge, Order Master of the Scourge of God, was conducted a couple of years ago, during the events described in Refuge Volume One: The Order Master. Mike was living in the Napa house after meeting Amanda Johnson, the leader of the Andol, and I interviewed him during a relatively peaceful lull in that stormy period.

BR: Mr. Cambridge, you were born in the United Kingdom, am I right?

MC: No, actually I was born in New York City. I spent my childhood in Cambridge, England, though. My family was named for the city.

BR: If you were born in the United States, then –

MC: I have dual citizenship, USA and UK. Yes.

BR: Is that how you came to be living in California?

MC: Partly. Partly I returned to the land of my birth because I was fleeing the Scourge of God.

BR: You were fleeing the Scourge.

MC: Yes.

BR: But you’re the leader of the Scourge, the Order Master. Why would you flee from your own followers?

MC: I was never given a choice about whether to become the Order Master. It’s a hereditary position, you see, handed down from father to son since Osgood of Cambridge founded the order in the fourteenth century. Honestly, I didn’t want the job, but they don’t just let you leave. If you try, they’ll hunt you down and kill you.

BR: That sounds pretty nasty.

MC: I agree.

BR: Maybe you should tell us something about the Scourge of God.

MC: Well, they’d kill me for that, too, but I’ve already crossed the line by mentioning that the order exists, so what the hell. They can only kill me once. The Scourge was founded by my ancestor to fight the Droon.

BR: And the Droon are the aliens you mentioned earlier.

MC: Yes, I know that about them now. Osgood saw them as devils in human form, though, and that’s what the Scourge believed for centuries. There’s good reason to see them that way. They’re thoroughly nasty, evil folk. Their auras look decidedly unnatural. They have magical powers.

BR: Yes, you mentioned the Droon and Andol auras earlier. I’m a little confused about that.

MC: Human beings who develop their spiritual talents often are able to see auras. One can tell things about a person’s health, whether they have spiritual talents and how strong they are, the state of mind, and so on by looking at the aura. Well, the Droon aura is completely different from a human being’s, and so is the Andol aura. That’s how Osgood knew that the Droon were something unnatural and not just really nasty human beings.

BR: What does the Droon aura look like?

MC: It’s hideous. It’s black as ink, to start, and full of little rapidly-swirling points of light that look like sunlight reflecting off shattered glass. You get the sense that if you approach a Droon too closely, you’ll be shredded by these swirling bits of broken glass. That’s not really so, of course, but what could happen to you is even worse. The Droon like to shackle people in their home torture chambers and subject them to agonies that they can prolong for years before the person dies. To be taken as a toy by a Droon is to enter Hell. You can also feel this evil about them. The aura isn’t just ugly to look at; even worse is the sense of pure, concentrated malice and wickedness that pours off it like sludge. Putting all of this together and bearing in mind that Osgood was a devout Christian living in the Middle Ages, it’s not difficult to see why he thought the Droon were devils.

BR: He was wrong, though.

MC: Yes. The Droon are the survivors, in a spiritual sense although not physically, of a world destroyed in war. So are the Andol. The two species exterminated one another, and then some of them used magical arts to reincarnate on what they call a “refuge” world, and as it happened both of them came here. They’ve become human beings, but one can still see their alien origins in their auras and in their behavior. But you asked about the Scourge of God. Osgood of Cambridge was a mystic who had visions of the future. He foresaw the decline of Christianity and the loss of faith in modern times and the vision disturbed him, naturally enough considering how devout he was. When he discovered the Droon, he saw them — the devils in human form that he thought they were — as responsible for what was coming. In a way, he was right about that, but for a different reason. Anyway, what he decided to do was to find the Droon and kill them, and he founded the Scourge for that purpose. It was and remains a very secretive Christian society, a society of assassins with very specific targets. The Scourge sees its victims as devils, not people, but of course the law doesn’t make that distinction, so the Scourge operates in strict secrecy according to binding rules.

BR: It’s a society established to commit murder, then.

MC: They would disagree that it’s murder, but yes, that’s how the law sees it. I’m a murderer myself. I’ve killed five Droon over the years.

BR: That’s a heavy burden to bear, I imagine.

MC: It would be worse if the Droon weren’t so thoroughly vile, but yes. It’s the main reason I want out, along with the adherence to a religion I don’t believe in, and the medieval world-view. When my father died, I fled to California, making use of my U.S. citizenship. My father died when I was twenty-seven and by the rules of the order I couldn’t become Order Master until I turned thirty. I hoped I could escape, but they found me and forced me to become Order Master. They would have killed me if I had refused. At any rate, when I discovered the true nature of the Droon, I also learned that when one of them dies, he reincarnates as a newborn human being with all his prior memories intact. So in a way, I haven’t killed anyone, at least not permanently.

BR: How did you encounter the Andol? I gather that Osgood didn’t know about them.

MC: No. There aren’t nearly as many Andol here as there are Droon, and the Andol are better at concealing themselves. They can disguise their auras to look human, which apparently the Droon can’t. I found out about the Andol by interrogating a Droon at knife point. There’s an old agreement between the Scourge of God and the Droon called the Pact of War. When we spare the life of a Droon, he must answer questions truthfully that are put to him — or her; I should say the Droon are of both sexes — by a Chapter Master or by the Order Master. It’s very dangerous, using the Pact, but sometimes necessary.

BR: Dangerous?

MC: Oh, yes! When we kill the Droon, normally we do it from a distance, using high-powered rifles and the like. Back in the Middle Ages they used to use crossbows. Confronting the Droon in person is difficult because of their magical powers. Steven Cambridge, Osgood’s grandson, was killed attempting to use the Pact. At any rate, I managed it and that’s how I learned that the Droon were aliens rather than devils, and how I learned of the existence of the Andol. I found one of the Andol after a long search, and that’s why I’m here now.

BR: The Andol you found was Amanda Johnson, correct?

MC: Yes.

BR: What can you tell me about her, and about the Andol in general?

MC: Well, like the Droon, the Andol have an unnatural aura. It looks like a sky-blue solar corona and crackles with energy. It’s quite pleasant to be near, very unlike what a Droon puts off. The Andol are generally much nicer people. Their home world had an egalitarian society and they would like to recreate that here on Earth, while the Droon want a society in which they are the masters and true humans serve them as slaves and torture-toys. Obviously, I like the Andol approach a good deal better.

BR: What are your feelings towards Amanda Johnson at this point?

MC: I wish I could answer that, Brian. I like her, I’m frankly attracted to her, and I may be falling in love. I rather hope not, though. She is — well, she’s quite manipulative and very powerful magically, and I’m not altogether sure I trust myself around her. I’m not sure where my natural feelings stop and her influence begins. I sought the Andol out because I need allies both against the Droon and against the Scourge of God. I still hope that I can find those allies here, but –

BR: So you still want to be free of your position as Order Master?

MC: More than ever. More than ever.

BR: Perhaps the Andol will help you to achieve that goal.

MC: I do hope so.

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Book Review: Stormcaller by R.K. MacPherson

StormcallerGenre: Contemporary Fantasy

Book description:

Power always carries a price…
For Isaura Durand, homeless life on the streets of Seattle posed plenty of challenges. She didn’t ask to become a witch. She didn’t understand how it would change her, but when she awakens to her power, Isaura finds herself plunged into a brutal struggle with dark forces.
Thrust into the heart of Seattle’s eldritch world, Isaura uncovers a series of ritual sacrifices designed to unleash magic’s true power upon the world.
Allied with a grumpy Norwegian mage, a Native American shaman on a Harley, and a beautiful medic, Isaura must overcome her own demons and her growing list of enemies. Victory is anything but certain, and to survive, Isaura must embrace her potential and become the…
The eldritch world of Stormcaller includes several types of adept. Mages and Diabolists employ complex ritual and rely on other-planar powers, Sanguinars use blood to fuel their magic, and Witches channel the power of their environment in a spontaneous fashion. Isaura, the main protagonist and title character, is a Witch, and one of unique powers that soon have the whole eldritch world in a tizzy and earn her the name “Stormcaller.” (You can figure it out. It’s not hard.) That plus the modern Seattle setting pretty much covers the world-building in this novel. It’s simple and creates a good backdrop for the story and the characters, both of which are first-rate, as is the writing. For that reason, being superior in plot, characters, and writing, Stormcaller gets five stars.
Isaura is also a nineteen-year-old homeless college student as the tale opens. The depiction of homeless life at very nearly its worst is dead on in its full gritty, weary awfulness (I say that as one who has been there). Isaura has also been pursuing studies in magic out of curiosity and despite the attempts of her friend Marius, owner of an occult bookstore, to discourage her. The result is the  awakening of her power and Isaura’s first real trial: the attempt of a demon to destroy her and eat her soul.
Thus the story begins with heavy conflict and excitement and it continues that way through arcane intrigues, lethal plots, world-changing schemes, youthful folly, and new love. This reader cared a lot about the characters even though I often wanted to send Isaura to her room without her supper. The book had that can’t-put-it-down quality that I love in a story, and the pacing is just about perfect.
The only thing that would improve the book is a final round of editing. It wasn’t completely awful in that respect, but I found too many instances where words had been omitted, or a common mistake used in phrasing (for example, “one in the same” instead of “one and the same”), or words were doubled up.
That certainly didn’t help matters, but it didn’t stop me from wildly enjoying the story, either, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy set in our own world.
Stormcaller is available for $3.99 from Amazon Kindle Store and is also available in print for $9.99.

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Book Review: A Noble’s Quest by Ryan Toxopeus

Nobles-Quest-cover-FONTED-smallGenre: Alternate-World Fantasy

Author’s Description:

Thomas and Sarentha flee everything they know when Thomas murders a co-worker.  In the dead of night, a cloaked noble approaches and offers them a sum of coins they cannot refuse. His sole request is for the pair to retrieve an amethyst
from a tomb.

From there, they are introduced to Eliza, a spirited and head-strong noblewoman who proves her competence with her skills in diplomacy and combat. Together with Thomas’ strength and steadfastness, and Sarentha’s drive and inquisitiveness, the trio makes an odd but capable group.

Their adventures take them across the lands of the Tamorran Empire to witness sights they never imagined. With grand plans in motion, everything hinges on Thomas, Sarentha, and Eliza’s success. Artifacts need to be crafted, alliances need to be formed, and above all, secrets need to be kept. Not even their own allies know every facet of the noble’s quest, and he plays a dangerous game by creating plots within plots.

Can the disparate trio hold together throughout their trials? What secret does the noble know that causes him to go to such
extraordinary lengths to succeed? Dark shadows blanket the Tamorran Empire, and illuminating those secrets will bring a terrifying truth.

I’m going to give this alternate-world fantasy story four stars mostly for effort and potential. Otherwise, it would rate three. I found the writing and characters so-so, but the plot was original and interesting and involved a mystery I didn’t see through until it was revealed, despite the clues. Almost from the beginning, the reader will notice that the different races are much-too-conveniently organized, with each having its own segregated town, mingling only in the national capital. That comes across at first as poor world-building (especially combined with another thing that I’ll go into in a moment), but it turns out that it’s an important plot element and there’s a very logical (and insidious) reason for it.

Now, the reason it comes across at first as poor world-building rather than the mysterious element that it actually is, is because the world-building in A Noble’s Quest, unlike the plot, is in fact rather unimaginative. The society consists of five sentient races, and the non-human ones are actually called Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Halflings. Worse, the characteristics of each race sound like a combination of Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft. Elves are slim, magical, long-lived, and reside in the woods; Dwarves have Scottish accents, drink heroically, live underground in the mountains, and make things. Gnomes are tinkerers and inventors. Halflings are greedy and often regarded as thieves, or the merchant equivalent. Although not part of the society, there are Orcs and Goblins in the story, too, and they’re just as predictable, right down to the hulking, green-skinned, and betusked appearance of the former.

Setting all that aside, and although the book held my interest, it could have been so much better. The main characters are outlined rather than developed. We learn little about their background, and aside from a few characteristics (Thomas is a mighty warrior who doesn’t like to kill people, Sarentha is a roguish fellow who wants to escape his dreary life) we know little about what motivates them. Seldom do their emotions erupt; rather, they ooze. I can see so many ways in which that could be improved: a sub-plot of unrequited desire between Sarentha or Thomas or both, and their lovely, competent half-Elf companion, Eliza; a situation in which their lives are seriously imperiled and we feel it; strong temptation on Sarentha’s part to betray the quest for gold; More situations in which Thomas must deal with his innate ferocity that conflicts with his desire for peace. None of that happens, or if it does, it’s depicted in watercolor and pencil drawing rather than vivid oil tints.

This is Ryan Toxopeus’ first novel, unless I’m mistaken, and the originality and creativity of the plot in A Noble’s Quest shows that he has plenty of potential. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal too much about that plot without spoiling it; suffice to say that the Empire is not what it appears to be, and the reality is monstrous enough to require desperate action to remedy — action taken by people who can’t even be allowed to know why they’re doing it, lest the fact that they know should get back to those in authority. The main thing the book needs is more time spent rewriting, with a view to developing the characters more deeply into people the reader will care about more. (The cookie-cutter world building trips a personal wire, and I admit that. It would be easily set aside if the characters and the writing were more compelling.)

A Noble’s Quest is available for $3.99 from the Amazon Kindle Store, and will shortly be available in print as well.

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