The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

This short book is comprised of thirty-one letters. Each one begins with “My dear Wormwood” and is signed “Your affectionate uncle – Screwtape.” Weird names, no doubt, and weird characters to go with them. Wormwood and Screwtape are not human beings; they are demons of the spiritual world, existing only to prey upon human souls. Screwtape is an experienced tempter, while his “nephew” Wormwood is new on the scene. The latter’s task is to entrap and destroy one particular human to whom he has been assigned. Each of Screwtape’s letters consists of advice to the inexperienced tempter as to how he might best exploit the human’s circumstances to secure his soul for hell.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is not a serious book, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, it’s laced with humour; yes, it contains the most ridiculous character names (Slubgob & Toadpipe are a few incidental demons you’ll meet); but this book is actually trying to be deadly serious. “What about?” you might ask. “How to send someone to hell?” Quite the opposite. In reading The Screwtape Letters, the reader gets clued into the subtle strategies of Satan so that they are exposed for what they are, and the reader is able to withstand them. Here’s one example which stood out for me, on the subject of how to pray:

Whenever they [the humans] are attending to the Enemy Himself [God] we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds are trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.

Being a Christian, I believe in the existence of demons, and I’ve picked up a thing or two from the Bible about how they operate. The details are sketchy at best, and it makes me unsure whether everything Lewis talks about is related to demonic activity in human life. But that’s not really important, becuase the purpose of each letter is to communicate warnings about dangers which Christians can fall into unawares, and those dangers are real, whether they are related to spiritual warfare or not. It’s a stroke of genius that Lewis decided to write a book of this nature in this highly entertaining format.

There are thirty-one letters in all, one for each day of the month, if you like. I found that some topics were more relevant to me than others, but I came away with a sense that this is a book I should read again in the future, when fresh insights would be gained.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Millions will disagree with me, but – dare I say it? – I don’t think this book is much good. “Can millions of kids be wrong?” you ask. Well, all I can do is offer my personal opinion.

Harry Potter is a boy who is forced to live with a very nasty aunt and uncle because his parents died in a car-wreck when he was an infant – or so they say. The truth of the matter is that his mum and dad were a witch and wizard who were slain by a powerful dark wizard called Voldemort. Soon, Harry is whisked off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and so begins the transformation from an ordinary downtrodden schoolboy into a young, powerful and very famous wizard.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the initial premise. In fact, kids might be inlined to relate to Harry, in his personal journey out of a horrible life with bad parents and few friends. The trouble is, the story doesn’t contain much in the way of danger to keep the reader interested. Harry walks into his new life, learns this and that, gets into a bit of minor trouble here and there, and it’s very much ho-hum, la-de-dah. The only hint of danger comes from the rumour that Voldemort is still alive somewhere. Rowling waits until the last quarter of the book before she gets this part of the story moving.

The novel also features so many overly used trappings of the fantasy genre. Witches, wizards, pointed hats, magic wands, cauldrens, pet owls, goblins, ghosts, trolls. We’ve seen all these things before, and it’s all tossed into a pretty unoriginal concoction that barely holds together. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite fond of far-fetched stories, but when Rowling on one page wants us to treat death as a serious matter (i.e. Harry’s parents), and on another page shows us a comcial ghost called Nearly-headless Nick, her fantasy world starts tearing apart at the seams. Fair enough, maybe kids don’t look at things as critically or seriously as an adult, but I think it’s a writer’s responsibility not to be a lazy storyteller.

More of this laziness is aparent in the structure of the prose, and this is where I really put my writer’s hat on and get critical. Far too often she uses the most ambiguous or needless adverbs like, “he said darkly”, “she said excitedly.” Usually a person’s words say enough about the manner in which something is spoken without the need for additional words. I’ve been taught that when a writer floods their prose with adverbs, it usually because they are afraid the reader won’t understand them – the “timid writer” syndrome. One of the worst was “He stared unblinkingly upwards”. Unblinkingly is a bad enough word in itself, but doesn’t the act of staring presume your eyes are wide open in the first place? You may say I’m nit-picking; you may say kids don’t care about this kind of thing. All I will say is that it’s a writer’s responsibility to write well.

The writing also sucks on a descriptive level. The book exudes about a tenth of the atmosphere of the movie. One example: remember the goblins at Gringott’s Bank in the movie? Rowling desribes only a fraction of their appearance in a mere two lines of prose, and that’s all we get to go on.

People are already hailing this book as a classic, comparable to C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s no doubt that kids took a genuine, honest interest in the Harry Potter series at the beginning, but today I think it’s a living on media hype more than anything. Time will tell whether Harry is here to stay, or whether he’s just a passing fad.

The Dark One by Bill Purcell

The Dark One has been printed in paperback by a company called iUniverse. I use the word printed rather than published deliberately. iUniverse is one of a new breed of publisher/printers who are offering budding novelists an unconventional way of getting their books in print. New technology allows these print on demand companies to print and bind books as orders come in rather than investing a lot of money and warehouse space on a large print-run. When you break it right down, it’s self-publishing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of self-publishing. I love the idea of giving two fingers to the traditional publishing industry, which barely gives new writers the time of day. I love the idea of doing all my own typesetting, artwork, marketing, and cutting out all the middle-men who would want their slice of the pie. However, if there’s one big problem with self-publishing, it’s this: it allows the unpublishable to be published. And on that rather ominous note, I must ask the question: on which side of the fence does The Dark One fall?

This is a fantasy novel in the tradition of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. It has all the trappings of the genre and, rightly or wrongly, makes no apology for this: orcs, ogres, dragons, goblins, elves, dwarves, and of course, humans. The story centres around one human in particular: Roger Jenson, a cop from our world, bored with his unexciting job in his unexciting town. Then, one day, Roger is magically transported (in a humourous fashion) to a strange new world of fantastic creatures.

As Roger makes friends, he is given the title The Dark One, partly because he appears to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, and partly because he’s a black guy. On another comic note, there’s a slight problem with being black in this world, and it has nothing to do with racism. In this world, a dark-skinned person is the offspring of a woman raped by an ogre!

As with all good fantasy novels, there is a quest. The balance between good and evil is being threatened by a war which is brewing between the orc race and human race. Initially, Roger and his band of followers intend to fight in this war on the side of the humans, but as the story develops, it becomes imperative that they must prevent the war from getting started.

One aspect of this novel that I liked in particular was the author’s descriptions of swordplay. I was able to vividly picture every strike and block, and got a real impression that Purcell knows something about the art of fencing. I was also quite surprised when certain characters died, quite suddenly and brutally. It gave the whole story a great sense of unpredictability.

One thing I feel quite ambivalent about is the book’s brevity. A very large story is crammed into a mere three-hundred pages, and whilst I liked the way this kept the action flowing hard and fast, everything is very underdescribed. One example of this was an occasion when Roger led his friends into a battle that lost the lives of many. I expected him to pause afterwards and reflect on the fact that it was his decision that brought this situation about. There was room for so much character development here, but it’s all left uncharted, with the effect that the people never quite seem three-dimensional. The war between the humans and orcs, which is essentially the cornerstone of the story, is also underdeveloped. There was plenty of scope for the reader to be infused with a sense of impending doom, where it becomes clear that Roger must succeed or it’s the end of life as we know it. As it stands, the reader is left with a sense that Roger could simply say, “Screw this. I’m off to build my ranch and raise horses,” and everyone would have lived happily ever after.

Some of my criticisms may come down to personal taste, but there is one thing which is absolutely unforgivable. Normally it’s something I wouldn’t even have to mention in a review: typing and typesetting errors. You can overlook the odd one creeping in, but they are scattered all over the place. If you want to be a self-publisher, you’d better be prepared to put in the necessary legwork at the proof-reading stage.

Overall, an enjoyable but flawed fantasy novel, for fans of D&D.