A slow reader, I do not read fiction often. A few months ago, however, a good friend recommended something outside my usual fare: L.B. Graham’s Beyond the Summerland. The novel is the first in the author’s five part, Christian fantasy series “The Binding the Blade.” Given the personal recommendation and the decades that have past since I last read anything billed as “fantasy,” I decided to give it a try. My expectations were low and the atrociously trite cover art did not help. And then, I barely made it through the melodrama of the dead son in the 26 page prologue. (Unfortunately, the prologue includes some key facts for understanding the conflict that unfolds in the rest of the book; it can’t be skipped.) Later on there are a few unexpected (but useful) shifts in point-of-view. Finally, the characters are fairly simple–the “good guys” are typically likeable; the “bad guys” (including the petulant Judas character) are mostly unlikeable. Halfway through, therefore, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the story.
The novel has a solid narrative structure and a daring conclusion. A journey, a stay in paradise, a stay in hell, a chase, a couple of battles and a betrayal. The surprise at the end is particularly admirable because it is so well foreshadowed. The reader knows it is coming, but suspends judgment and refuses to believe that author has the guts to follow through. Well, in fact, he does have the guts. (I wish I could be more direct about this, but this is the kind of book for which one should not “spoil” the plot.)
Although Beyond the Summerland is admirably constructed, I am having trouble imagining it’s target audience. The novel’s Christian typography is very tidy and the author is burdened by a large debt to Lewis and Tolkien. But the story lacks the youthfulness of Lewis’s Narnia books. At the same time, it lacks Tolkien’s elaborate adventures. More than Lewis and Tolkien, the book focuses on the relationships of its human character–mostly on late adolescent, male efforts to court (in a very idealized manner) virtuous, young women.
I do not object; as I’ve already indicated: I enjoyed the reading. (Is this a book for middle-aged men with fading memories of Tolkien and Lewis?) But something about it reminds me of “chick-lit.” Like many first novels, and like much young adult literature, this is a coming of age story … but sex with the lights off. Like many young adult books for boys, there are some journeys, adventures, and a few battles, but, in addition to the Christian themes, it’s the love interests that really matter:
“Reflecting on those wet, rainy nights between Dal Harat and Peris Mil, when the grey sogginess eerily reflected his own feelings, he knew he was lucky to have found Wylla. He hadn’t thought he would ever find a reprieve from the sorrow of losing Alina. He hadn’t ever expected to feel his heart soar and sing in the presence of another, and yet he knew with Wylla that he had found the object of his soul’s delight. Her presence wrung from him a deeper passion than he had ever felt. It would be foolishness to turn away. Inexperience in matters of love had cost him his chance for happiness with Alina, but now he knew enough to understand the nature of his own feelings. If he lost Wylla, too, he would have only himself to blame.” (p. 307)
This only the first book in a five part series, so there’s plenty of space for the narrative of The Binding of the Blade to outgrow boy-needs-girl. I’d have to keep reading to find out. Life is short.