Karen Hancock,
Legends of the Guardian King,
Book 2: The Shadow Within

(Bethany House, 2004)

This is only Karen Hancock's third published novel, but she's already my favorite writer of both Christian fiction and fantasy; a few more books as incredible as The Shadow Within, and she may just become my favorite writer, period.

I don't really want you to think of this book as Christian fiction, though; certainly, the foundation of the story is built upon Christian allegory, but you don't have to be a Christian in order to enjoy this rich, action-packed, emotionally poignant story. This is fantasy at its best, with extraordinarily compelling characters populating a vibrant, amazingly realistic environment -- and Hancock is a remarkably talented storyteller.

In The Light of Eidon, the first book in the Legends of the Guardian-King series, readers were transported to a medieval fantasy world marked by religious and political conflict. There we met Abramm Kalladorne, the fifth son of the king of Kiriath, a seemingly weak branch on a noble family tree of warrior kings. To the shame of his family, he had pursued a life of service to the god Eidon; then, just as he was set to rise from novitiate to full member of the Mataion order, his whole world came completely unraveled. He discovered that his spiritual mentor of eight years was using him as a means to secure power for himself, and then his own brother sold him into slavery among barbarians in the southern kingdom of Esurh. The weak and passive young man developed into a gladiator of great renown, saved a kingdom by defeating a great source of evil in the land, and eventually found a new purpose in life by accepting the "heretical" Terstan faith.

In this, book two of the series, Abramm returns to Kiriath to claim the throne that should, by all rights, be his. The action starts out hot and heavy, with Abramm attempting to kill the kraggin, a gigantic sea monster terrorizing the bay outside the capital. This helps him win over a number of men to his side, and he does the improbable by successfully displacing his inferior younger brother on the throne. Having become king, Abramm now faces an even bigger challenge -- holding on to the throne. His brother Gillard is determined to seize power back into his own hands; many important lords are suspicious of Abramm's motives, fearing he will allow the Mataio to begin a purge of heretics and nonbelievers in the land; hired assassins lie in wait to end his reign quickly; and his old enemy among the holy Guardians of the Red Flame vows to destroy the new king by whatever means necessary.

Abramm's greatest struggle is with himself, however. He wants nothing more than to reveal the golden shield upon his chest that marks him as a Terstan, but he has to hide his religious beliefs for fear that he would be branded a heretic and stripped of everything he holds dear. As one crisis after another arises, he struggles to understand Eidon's plans for him, seeking his god's guidance in doing the right thing for his friends and subjects. His faith in Eidon is put to the ultimate test, pitting him against his own brother as well as a supernatural creature made for the sole purpose of destroying him, and this makes for a shockingly impressive ending.

Hancock's skills at characterization are virtually unsurpassed. Abramm himself is a man of profound depth and feeling. Even as he struggles to put all of his trust in Eidon, though, his sister Carissa, who spent two years trying to rescue him from slavery and then turned her back on him when he accepted the Terstan faith, finds herself compelled to come to terms with the shadow of religious doubt that has alienated her from her family, her friends and her god. Her journey toward truth offers a great counterpoint to Abramm's struggle to give himself over completely to Eidon's strength and protection. Even minor characters come completely to life in Hancock's able hands. The uncle whom Abramm must somehow win over to his cause serves to focus the power of the increasingly suspenseful action, but it is Lady Madeleine, the second daughter of a neighboring king, that increasingly steals the show. Plain of face, bold and intrusive, she drives Abramm crazy at times, even as she is completely captivating the reader. She makes for an exhilarating addition to this fantastically rich fantasy world of Hancock's creation.

I fear I have hardly done this novel justice with this review. If you care anything at all about fantasy, you really must experience Karen Hancock for yourself. Don't let the "Christian fiction" tag scare you away, as Hancock blows apart every misconception there is about the genre. The Legends of the Guardian-King series proves that sword and sorcery with no shortage of violent action can indeed work as a vehicle of Christian allegory. Some have compared Hancock to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; I'm not sure I would make such a comparison, as her writing is unique, but the Christian story is definitely in these pages and capable of inspiring and warming the hearts of those readers who want to embrace it.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 11 June 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.