Renwar Vallee: A Teen Christian Fantasy (Book Review)


Welcome to Renwar’s world. Mary D. Johnson, Renwar’s creator, will show you round.

If you take a look at the cover – a misty wood bathed in an aqueous half-light – you will know, dear reader, that this is a mysterious world; one of strange possibilities and surprising discoveries. It’s a space that can turn itself inside out. Anything can (and may) happen. It is fantasy.

Here I am with my friend Neil Morgan, showing you a copy of "Renwar Vallee."
Here I am with my friend Neil Morgan, showing you a copy of “Renwar Vallee.”

Now, let me declare my hand right away: I am not a young adult (far from it). I am not a Christian (I have my own spirituality). But I do love fantasy; in my late teens, I became hooked on my brother’s paperback science fiction (Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak, Philip K. Dick and much more), and never looked back. In my college years, it was JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. So I am quite well grounded.

But…Christian, you may ask? Where does that come into it? Well, this was a little awkward for me to negotiate. Let me remind you, however, that some of the most compelling fantasy novels ever written have addressed the struggle between the dark shadows of Evil and the bright sunlight of Good. In this case, the author infuses her own sincere Christian beliefs into her narrative; at one crucial point in the story she inserts a passage from the Revelation of St. John, which seems quite appropriate in this context, if a little long. What I mean to say is, whether you are a Christian or not (and I reiterate, I am not) – I think you will find that the references to God and Christianity do not detract from the story. It never gets bogged down in religiosity. The characters do not wallow in piety. Nor is the environment painted in “black and white.” Nothing is quite what it seems, as in any good fantasy yarn. The reader can “take it or leave it.”

The Christian subtext (if you will) does not get in the way because the story moves along at a rattling good pace. The subtitle of the novel is “The Battle for the Souls of Néarbi Town,” and this is Book One. The book starts with a rather long Prologue (28 pages) written in an elegant, semi-archaic style that verges on the “flowery,” but adequately sets the scene for the drama about to play itself out. Néarbi Valley has been inhabited by humans, light and dark witches and warlocks since the eighteenth century. Its early history was fairly traumatic, with human sacrifices, murders and conflagrations, the Prologue explains; but by the twenty-first century a lot of intermarriage had taken place, and life moved on.

Néarbi Town (also known as Middle Quarters – sound familiar?) is a city with snack bars and cinemas, parking lots and mobile phones, like any other. At least on the surface, this is so. Renwar Vallée, our young hero, and his group of friends are comfortable with WhatsApp and video chats. They are also rather well-heeled, attending a school which sounds like an upper St. Andrew private establishment on steroids (with a sports obsession). They race their fancy cars and know how to party. However, this life of privilege is not what it seems. One of the young friends can turn her classmates into a toad or a chicken by rubbing her fingers together. Renwar himself is “from a light witch bloodline.” Another is a shape-shifter, and we know from “X-Men” and other tales that this can cause complications. Oh, and there are the inevitable demons (a human-sized lizard makes a brief appearance – a terrifying thought for many Jamaicans). 

Why are the demons inevitable? Well, because Satan has decided to make a move in Néarbi Town, whose residents have become complacent, lazy and materialistic. “We only want what we want, and we want it now” is their philosophy. The once-strong Sancian Church has become corrupt, and there are not many regular churchgoers among the residents, anyway. Young people such as Renwar and his crowd are much too busy with their lives – graduation parties and romantic intrigues – to worry about spirituality. Family life also seems to have deteriorated. Several of the teens’ families are fragmented, with absent fathers, divorced or separated parents. It sounds a lot like uptown Kingston, Jamaica, at times.

So here is a group of young people, left on their own, to work things out in a confusing and complex world – whether they are consciously working for good or evil, or simply indifferent. It is their actions, of course, that drive the plot. Remember this is a novel for young adults. But perhaps I am younger than I think, for I confess to having enjoyed the story. It’s a “page-turner” as they say. There is plenty of drama, and it is the action, fueled by well-written dialogue, that carries the story forward. There is no doubt that Ms. Johnson has a knack for story-telling.

But I don’t give away the plots of stories, so I am not going to tell you who won the battle for those souls – and it’s not as simple as that, anyway. Since this is the first part of a series, the book ends on a “cliffhanger.” We must wait for Book Two. I understand Ms. Johnson has much more in store.

The author first envisioned “Renwar Vallée” as a graphic novel, and it may yet become one. I actually hope that this will be possible in the future. Several aspects of Ms. Johnson’s writing style suggest this. For example, the use of dialogue is essential to the graphic novel format. One of the friends speaks in Jamaican patois only, while the others speak standard English. But they do talk like precocious teens; one girl tells her mother, who is a “good” witch: “Mom, I love you, but there is no way I am living here in this white monastery place.”

As in a graphic novel, action takes place almost simultaneously with the dialogue, with few pauses in between. While a character is speaking, he is already dashing out of the door, or flying out of a window. Short scenes, including a few “flashbacks” prefaced with dates, are often connected with phrases such as “Later…” (you know, that little box in the corner of a comic strip panel, introducing us to a different scene). There is very little description apart from occasional quick sketches: one of the early churchmen, Brother Enoch, is described as “a short bald man with a shorter fuse,” and of course we realize that Renwar is quite an attractive young man with good leadership potential. In general, descriptive passages are few and very short; normally these would be drawn in the graphic novel. The downside of this style is that emotions are also often only hinted at; for example, we have to imagine a depiction of the grief of two sisters, whose parents had just died. In a graphic novel, there would have been tears on their faces as they spoke. We would be clearly aware of their distress.

I detect strong influences of the “Twilight” series of novels and films that are so popular among teens (minus the vampire action), in particular the relationships among our band of happy (or not so happy) teens. There is some “Harry Potter” influence, too. The teenagers try out spells that don’t always work, and the naïveté of some of the younger characters is reminiscent of some students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

So, does Nearbi Town become “the devil’s foothold”? Does Lucifer prevail in the “war for the souls of men”? Does Renwar step up to the plate? I cannot say, but the journey is a highly enjoyable one.

Renwar Vallée will be launched soon in Jamaica.

It is already available in hardcover and paperback and on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Renwar-Vallée-Battle-Souls-Néarbi/dp/1514421615/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1446740252&sr=8-1&keywords=renwar+vallee  It is also available on Xlibris at http://bookstore.xlibris.com/Products/SKU-001045022/Renwar-Valle.aspx

Meanwhile, do like the book’s Facebook page and take a look at the author’s website: http://www.marydjohnson.com.

Mary D. Johnson is a 37-year-old Jamaican. She describes herself on her website thus: "She is the eldest of four children and enjoys reading, fantasy writing, watching TV, fashion, and drawing. She is a devoted Christian, not perfect, who wants to help influence others to Jesus Christ. She is fun loving, a bit crazy, free-spirited, and enjoys hanging out with family and friends. Her passion is to be all that she can be and to inspire others to become great while recognizing their own potential and calling. Favorite phrase: “Put Jesus Christ first in all you do, and he shall direct your path.”
Mary D. Johnson is a 37-year-old Jamaican. She describes herself on her website thus: “She is the eldest of four children and enjoys reading, fantasy writing, watching TV, fashion, and drawing. She is a devoted Christian, not perfect, who wants to help influence others to Jesus Christ. She is fun loving, a bit crazy, free-spirited, and enjoys hanging out with family and friends. Her passion is to be all that she can be and to inspire others to become great while recognizing their own potential and calling.
Favorite phrase: “Put Jesus Christ first in all you do, and he shall direct your path.”

 


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