Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Book of Elizabeth

The Book of Eilzabeth by Darby Harn (Fair Play Books, 2011) – The cover blurb of this new fantasy novel from debut novelist Darby Harn reads as follows: "The world as we know it has vanished in the blink of an eye. All of human history, washed away. In its place, a new story of humanity, a story without the complications and twists we all know; a story without the Cold War, or Shakespear. Without Christ." Alice, a contemporary teenager from the mid to late eighties, disappears from her current time, her current world, and wakes up here, in a very alien version of our own world. There are massive airships capable of travelling the world and even through space to other planets. Mars, for example, is colonized. The world-building throughout this novel is a display of unbridled imagination.

In this other world in this novel there is an ongoing war. The dominating power ruling the world is hunting down and killing individuals called “echoes.” These echoes are people transported to this new world from various timelines of our own reality. Alice is an echo. She is hunted by a young girl, Miranda, and her elder mentor, Joshua, in the opening scenes of the novel. As the novel progresses we learn that Joshua has begun to question authority and has lost his desire to perform his job which is killing these echoes. He sees them as people instead of as faceless threats to the status quo. This is lucky for Alice, of course.

But these people are ultimately secondary characters. There is another, far more important, echo that the authorities want destroyed. This echo is known as Elizabeth. In our world, she was Queen of England. In this other world, she is a potential spiritual savior. She transcribes the Bible in her early years in this other world to comfort herself in exile. These transcriptions were found and have started a spiritual revolution in a world that had existed without any form of faith, at least not in the religious sense. Her transcripts sow the seeds of an underground revolution.

This is ultimately what the novel is about, more than the characters, more than the settings. This is a novel exploring the concept of how Christianity might transform a world that has existed without it for most of known history. This idea is explored from several angles, it explores the good and the bad that such a powerful religious force might have within a world that is devoid of spirituality. There are no easy answers in the context of this novel.

Some proponents of the New Atheist movement often put forth the suggestion that religion is the driving force behind all wars. While there are many examples of religious disagreements leading to bloodshed, it seems naive and falsely optimistic to me to think that if we rid the world of religion that all wars and bloodshed would automatically cease. The human drive for power and domination would still exist, after all. I thought this notion was explored nicely within the context of this narrative. It's not the religions that are the problem, it's the people. Religions are just an extension of people and often stray from their most basic source truths, in my opinion, but I'm digressing. Yet this digression is intentional in the context of this review: This is exactly the kind of tough question the novel faces and is brave enough to leave behind with a measure of ambiguity in the answers. This is as it should be.

As one character states: "We can never know the truth. ... Only existence. We must accept our lives as they are, or else we will never know our suffering." So, what is the truth? "We can never know the truth." This seems to be the idea at the center of this novel. The only answer seems to be there may be no answer.

While a thought-provoking and mostly entertaining read, the novel does suffer from a few freshman foibles. The narrative thrust loses steam during transitions from one character to another in places. The epic battle scenes sometimes have a little too much going on and lose their focus. Also, another round of copy-editing may have benefited the story as I picked up numerous issues with verb tense and misused words. But these are minor quibbles, and I see these as common issues with first-time novelists. I know that Darby is working on a sequel. My friendly suggestion would be to focus more on the characters, on dialogue, on relationships, because that is where he shines. I understand Miranda will be the main focus of this sequel. I think this a wise choice. Her moral choices and evolving sense of self were the highlight of The Book of Elizabeth. I look forward to seeing what comes next. This is a world I would be happy to return to.

My six-pack review: 4 out of 6 Elizabethan Ales.

Disclaimer: The author of this review knows and has worked with the author of the novel in the past. Free electronic copy provided by the author for review.


  1. Alternate history is not something I usually go for, but when you throw in some fantastical elements to it, that helps. I'll have to keep this one in mind down the road. Nice review, man.

  2. Very nice selection. A little bit different than my usual fare. Some very interesting tidbits in your review. New follower. Come visit me over at Livre De Amour-Books of Love Blog.