Miserere: an Autumn Tale, by Teresa Frohock

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Publication date – June 21, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Exiled exorcist Lucian Negru deserted his lover in Hell in exchange for saving his sister Catarina’s soul, but Catarina doesn’t want salvation. She wants Lucian to help her fulfill her dark covenant with the Fallen Angels by using his power to open the Hell Gates. Catarina intends to lead the Fallen’s hordes out of Hell and into the parallel dimension of Woerld, Heaven’s frontline of defense between Earth and Hell. When Lucian refuses to help his sister, she imprisons and cripples him, but Lucian learns that Rachael, the lover he betrayed and abandoned in Hell, is dying from a demonic possession. Determined to rescue Rachael from the demon he unleashed on her soul, Lucian flees his sister, but Catarina’s wrath isn’t so easy to escape!

Thoughts: There’s something I want to get out of the way here: I almost didn’t read this book past the first chapter. It started out seeming like a big mess, like the author didn’t know if she wanted to create a fantasy world or an alternate earth. Real-world mythology and religion (or rather, religious organizations all co-existing peacefully without any mention of actual religion) existing side-by-side with magic, fictional places mentioned alongside real places. It felt like a mess, like the author was perhaps banking on nobody having ever heard of an angel named Mastema or a place called Walachia, instead just hoping they’ll consider it all a part of the fantasy.

Then chapter 2 hits, and you realize, with a jump to the modern real world, that things aren’t actually as messed up as they seem, at least not when it comes to the world that the novel takes place in. It’s revealed that there are layers of reality, worlds in addition to our own, and that the veil between then sometimes gets thin enough to allow people to pass through from one world to the next. Not an original concept, I’ll grant you, but it did explain why mentions of real and fake places went hand in hand. There was a method to the madness, and it renewed my faith in the novel and made me want to keep reading.

Heavy with Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology but still inclusive of any other belief system you can think of, Miserere takes place in Woerld, the plane of reality that’s one step closer to Hell than we are. The real action takes place around Lucian, who escapes the clutches of his power-hungry sister Catarina, the woman who’s working with a Fallen Angel to acquire yet more power and to take over Woerld. After his escape he meets Lindsay, a young girl who passed through the veil from our world into Woerld and who has become, in an instant, his protege. But Catarina’s not the only one looking to bring Lucian back. The forces of God, believing Lucian to be a criminal in exhile, are after him too. But conspiracy runs deep, and even those who claim to follow the light may have a sinister purpose.

What started off so chaotically ended up making a lot of sense by the end, and the story had a great deal of depth to it that isn’t always easy to come by when you’re essentially saying that God, Heaven, and Hell are real. Miserere was far from bible-thumping; it had quite a good message of inclusion, acceptance, and tolerance for the fact that even when people pray to different gods they’re still essentially praying to the same powers of goodness and light. Frohock plays with mythology in a wonderful and compelling way that makes you desperate to keep turning pages. The characters are richly detailed, well defined and interesting, and even though you’ve got adversaries who are working for the forces of evil, they remain three-dimensional and don’t simply become caricatures.

Frohock’s got some real talent here, and I was very impressed to find that this was her debut novel. This is normally the kind of quality you get from people who’ve been around the block a few times, so to speak. If this is Frohock’s starting point, then I’m very excited to see what she’s going to do next.

When all is said and done, the real reason this book lost points with me is because of the beginning. First impressions are important, and I know I can’t expect everything to be revealed within the first ten pages, but it sat so wrongly with me until I forced my way through what seemed like a poor and unpolished opening that I can’t help but have that impression colour my final review. I can only caution others to not be so thrown off when they read it. But in spite of a shaky start, the book turned out so much better than I thought it was going to, and this is one I can definitely recommend to those who enjoy a little world-crossing in their fantasy novels.

(Received for review from the published via NetGalley.)