(If you’re too young to remember those old ads for Doublemint gum, disregard the title of this post.)
Today I’m reviewing two new books by my friend Susanne, who writes as C. S. Lakin. Susanne was a “closet writer” for years before she struck it big in 2009 with two publishing contracts at once. Her contemporary novel Someone to Blame won the Zondervan Novel Contest at the Mt. Hermon Writers Conference that year, and the first volume of her “Gates of Heaven” fantasy series, The Wolf of Tebron, was accepted by AMG. She was kind enough to procure me free copies of both.
Susanne is a fine writer. Her prose is polished, her vocabulary impressive, and her sentences flow along with a captivating rhythm. The years in the closet have definitely paid off. She also has an excellent instinct for all the elements of storytelling: her characters are compelling, her plots move briskly and coherently, her settings are engrossing without being over-described. In Someone to Blame, she handles multiple viewpoints masterfully. Both books display a delicate balance between concealment and revelation as the background of the story unfolds.
Someone to Blame is the story of a family that has been nearly broken by tragedy. They have lost their two sons in particularly horrible ways that are gradually revealed as the story progresses, and have now moved with their remaining child, a teenage daughter, to a small Northern California coastal town where they hope to be able to rebuild their lives. Their attempts to do this at first seem to be frustrated by their interactions with a surly young man named Billy who is also a newcomer to the town, and whom the townspeople blame for a series of crimes and misdemeanors that seem to follow in his wake. But in the end–and I can’t even hint at how this happens without committing a major spoiler–it is the family’s relationship with Billy that breaks through the wall of their grief and guilt over their sons and allows them to begin to heal.
There’s something about the atmosphere of Someone to Blame that reminds me of the psychological suspense novels of Ruth Rendell, particularly when she is writing as Barbara Vine. The big difference, though, is that this story has a hopeful ending. There is no glossing over of the dark side of human nature here, but a glimmer of light does shine through. If you like stories of redemption in which there’s plenty of bad stuff to be redeemed, you’ll enjoy Someone to Blame.
The light glows much more strongly by the end of The Wolf of Tebron, which is probably why I liked it the better of the two. (Of course, it might also be just because I love a good fantasy.) But here again, there’s plenty of darkness for the light to show up against. As the story opens, the hero, Joran, is caught in a hell of his own making. He has banished his beloved wife Charris, believing her to be unfaithful. And according to his dreams–which the creepy old goose-woman tells him are real–she’s been imprisoned by the Moon, it’s his fault, and it’s up to him to get her out.
Joran embarks on a journey that he doesn’t understand, with little hope of bringing it to a successful conclusion and no certainty even that success will restore his happiness. Early on he is joined by a wolf named Ruyah, with whom Joran communicates telepathically. In the true fairy-tale tradition, Joran befriends the wolf by freeing him from a trap. Ruyah becomes his faithful friend and protector throughout his journey; indeed, Joran would never make it without him.
The journey occupies most of the book. It is long, difficult, and discouraging, but the way is made lighter for the reader by the author’s highly entertaining flights of fancy, mostly centered around the way-stations Joran must visit: the abodes of the Moon, the Sun’s mother, and the Wind, all of which are personified as women. All three give Joran gifts that prove indispensable to his fulfillment of his mission. But more importantly, they help him to see that the way to Charris’s prison lies within his own heart.
The climax of the story unfolds in a way that readers of Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling will find quite original in its details but deeply satisfying in its family resemblance to its famous predecessors. I look forward to the further volumes in the series.
For those who like their fiction “God-haunted”–subtly resonant with love, redemption, and the triumph of the good–C. S. Lakin is a writer to watch.