Friday, January 2

Sword and Serpent (2014)

By Taylor Marshall

I’ve been familiar with Taylor Marshall for a couple of years, since I stumbled upon his website [LINK] while researching the question of the dating of Christmas late one Christmas night [LINK].  I gradually became a regular reader of his website, and from there about the middle of last year I ended up signing into his New Saint Thomas Institute [LINK] initiative in order to follow his one-year course in Catholic Theology (one of several reasons my blogging in general has decreased and the nature of this blog in particular has shifted somewhat over the past year – there’s quite a bit of “non-bloggable” reading involved).  I also started listening to his podcast, The Taylor Marshall Show [LINK].  I was thus aware some months back that Marshall was making his first foray into writing fiction with this historical novel about St. George and the Dragon.  I eagerly awaited it and downloaded the Kindle edition as soon as it became available.

The basic plot is this:  Parallel stories are told, of a young man called “Jurian,” but more formally named Lucius Aurelius Georgius, son of a deceased Anatolian Christian Roman official in the reign of Diocletian just as the Great Persecution began; and of a young woman named Sabra, daughter of the Roman governor of the North African city of Cyrene – and priestess of a cult making monthly child sacrifice to ward off the wrath of the old Punic god Molech who has taken up residence in the neighboring hills.  Along the way, we encounter such figures of the age, ca. AD 300, as St. Christopher, St. Nicholas, and St. Blaise, as well as a young Constantine, and have Arthurian legend drawn into the tale with the introduction of a sword forged in legend and bearing an abbreviated inscription– “EX . CA . LIB . UR” – to be read as “Ex Calce Liberandus Urso,” “From the stone to be freed by the bear” ….  “Artos?” as whispered by one of the minor characters ….  If you know anything of the legend of St. George, you know how this tale eventually plays out, but the aforementioned interpolations into the story and an open ending, not exactly a cliffhanger but rather plenty of unfinished business, promise more to come.  And listeners to The Taylor Marshall Show, specifically Episode 58, know that Marshall envisions a series of novels apparently covering the climactic early-fourth-century turn of the Roman Empire from darkness to light.

My basic assessment is that Marshall has a future in this area in addition to his already accomplished leadership in the emergence of digital, multimedia catechesis.  But this remains very much a first novel.  I enjoyed it, even though I found it a bit slow getting going.  It did get better as it progressed, but I think it would have benefited from a good editor.  Not for what I find increasingly annoying as the publishing industry devolves and decentralizes from the big “professional” publishers to smaller “mom-and-pop” “desktop publishing” operations, an increasing frequency of typographical errors and misprints (which I didn't really notice here), but simply for length.  Some sections of this book could, I believe, have been condensed and tightened to the benefit of the overall story.

To be sure, some parts, particularly those having to do with Sabra, are extremely well written.  She comes across as the best-developed character in the book, which may have something to do, paradoxically (or maybe not), with the fact that her story came late to the tale and at the behest of early readers of the work-in-progress that there needed to be a strong female presence.  Marshall succeeds in that task, especially in comparison with the other major female character, Jurian’s younger sister, Mari, who was presumably part of the story from early on.  Jurian himself, the main character, unfortunately is not a terribly compelling character in the earlier parts of the book, although he gets more interesting toward the end.  Rightly or wrongly, I attribute all of that to Marshall’s development as a writer, both within the book and across successive drafts, and I expect the anticipated sequels to be better from the get-go.  The fact is, every writer has to start somewhere, and I’ve seen more than one author’s so-so first release be followed up by an immediately superior succession of novels.  Two that come to mind immediately are Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Rising and Jim Butcher’s Storm Front, both of them awkward and unformed beginnings to what subsequently became two of my all-time favorite series, The Deryni Chronicles and The Dresden Files.  I'm not even sure I'd call this book "awkward and unformed"; it just bogged down in places, particularly toward the beginning.

In the end, I would recommend this book as much for the promise it holds as for its inherent quality.  It is quite enjoyable if you press on through the slower parts, and it offers a reasonably believable historical reconstruction of one of the most important generations in history with just the right dashes of the supernatural thrown in.  I expect those strengths to be enhanced by more skillful execution in future volumes.  Appropriately enough since it developed out of knights-and-castles bedtime stories for his children, Sword and Serpent is billed as a “Young Adult” novel, and I probably will invest in a copy to pass on to my niece and nephew.

Cheers, and Thanks for reading!

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