A Review of Vincent Todarello’s The Return of the Fifth Stone. Pp. 408. $15 paperback, $3 Kindle.
Ursula K. LeGuin once said that fantasy is the grandmother of all fiction, that all literature has its roots in the myth of ancient cultures, and through fantasy we can reconnect with timeless truths and insights, feelings and reactions that have motivated individuals and drawn societies together. She is right. Our so-called progressive age enjoys the blessings of many technological advances and even moral progress; however, we have also lost sight of many eternal truths and noble thoughts, such that too many of us are stunted intellectually and even crippled morally.
Mythopoeic fantasy in the tradition of George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis creates its own mythic structures to offer readers glimpses into metaphysical realities and to reconnect us to these noble truths. The point of such imaginative reconnection is to recover what has been lost in the hopes that with these rediscovered truths, we can transform our lost and confused world. According to Tolkien this was the primary purpose of fantasy: to offer an escape that provides recovery that leads ultimately to consolation. I am both encouraged and impressed that Vincent Todarello in his first fantasy novel, The Return of the Fifth Stone, whether knowingly or not, has positioned himself as one such subcreator who gives his readers a meaningful escape into a fantasy realm that encourages readers to grapple with some important philosophical issues while also enjoying the entertainment of a well-told story.
This is Todarello’s first sustained, epic novel, and some scenes are a little rushed, a few dialog exchanges are a tad rough, and some characters seem a bit awkward on rare occasions. However, this is to be expected in a first novel, and these minor defects in no way detract from the overall excellence of the novel. I am impressed by the complex conceptualization and professional execution of this fantasy project. The mythology is compelling and detailed. The fantasy realm is lush, imaginative, and convincing such that each time I picked up the book, I was transported into the subcreated universe of Haaret. The scope of this project is daunting, and it is my sincere hope that Todarello continues working on this series.
Presenting, developing, and sustaining convincing characters is key to the success of any fictional work, but especially for fantasy. If readers are to willingly suspend disbelief and spend time with these characters, then they have to be believable, and the readers have to want to go back to visit them, to see them carry out their adventures. Todarello has peopled his realm of Haaret with various races of Haareti, from mortals, to immortals, to divine beings, and to demons. Each of these races and types of beings has its own culture, custom, geographic domain, and unique worldview, and Todarello is adept at distinguishing characters via speech patterns and vocabulary. There are many great characters, both minor and major, that readers can enjoy.
However, there was one figure I found a bit distracting: Agimus the Aquidian captain. Todarello chose to represent him as a stereotypical pirate character (though he is on the side of the good), complete with the pirate lingo. I found his dialog did not fit this fantasy world, and encountering it snapped me back to my own world, distancing me from the imaginative experience. When he talked, I immediately thought of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and that diminished the experience of escape for me. I understand this creative choice, but it didn’t work for me. Also, his pirate-speak was sometimes inconsistent, and that caused me to focus more on the craft of the book instead of experiencing its imaginative magic. But Agimus aside, the various characters are well drawn, unique, and engaging in their own ways.
One of the major strengths of the book are its many mythopoeic elements. As Dunsany, Tolkien, and Lewis did so brilliantly in the early-to-mid twentieth century, Todarello seeks to do more than entertain readers with an exciting narrative; he also strives to inspire our imaginations to greater heights by creating mythic structures through which to explore truth. Haaret is created by a good, loving, and omnipotent theistic Creator (who happens to be a Quadratarian Godhead instead of Trinitarian), and there is a celestial rebellion that leads to the emergence of evil (understood as the privation of good, that which rebels against the good, and that which violates the purposes, designs, or oughtness of the created order). Moreover, there is a plan for redemption of an elect, and this plan of salvation is worked out within the history of the Haareti and revealed to them through both natural and special revelation.
Indeed, much of this relies upon and even mirrors biblical Christianity, but there are plenty of differences that make it uniquely a Haareti religion. Scriptures are read and studied, and interpretations are hashed out between discerning believers. Prophecies are debated, and even the very nature of what a prophecy is and how it is worked out in the “real world” of Haaret is constantly a topic for meaningful conversation between earnest characters. Dreams function as temporal glimpses into the eternal perspective of the Creator. The presence of the prophecies and dreams are more prevalent at the beginning of the novel and all but disappear as the action and battle scenes pick up their pace. However, the narrative returns to various prophecies toward the end of the book such that we see how the Scriptures, prophecies, and dreams are all resolved in the experiences of these characters. This is mythopoeic fantasy.
Another element that makes this novel mythopoeic is how Todarello uses the mythic elements and the fantasy adventure to explore philosophical questions and theological themes. Some writers (Ayn Rand comes to mind) burden their narratives with long philosophical lectures that appear seemingly out of the blue, or some characters clearly become vehicles for authorial sermonizing and extended philosophizing. Yet in Todarello’s text, the philosophical and theological discussions are related to the events, and they pertain quite clearly to the issues and experiences of the characters in the fictional world, thus making the philosophizing appear reasonable and natural to the narrative, not forced or imposed from without by the author who is overtly trying to make a point.
Moreover, these discussions are succinct and meaningful, not long and drawn out in ways that detract from the narrative. In this sense the book is more in line with C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald: there is clear philosophical and theological content being communicated, but it is not jarring or irrelevant to the text. Terry Goodkind, another outstanding contemporary fantasy writer, also loves to philosophize, but he takes his ideology and example from Ayn Rand, and so will discourse for pages on end sometimes. If you agree with the perspectives, you will love it and will relish the fact that a publisher gave license to the writer, but if you don’t agree and are not open to the ideas, you will find it tedious. That is the strength of Todarrello’s writing: the discussions are brief and pointed, so if you agree you will nod and smile, if you disagree, you can move on, and if you are open-minded, you will pause and think about the ideas further.
For example, there are excellent discussions concerning definitions of morality, how one can know good from evil, and the reality of absolute truth and universal moral law. Characters also discuss, debate, and struggle with definitions and expressions of nobility, courage, and cowardice. Rising to the top of these discussions is a key issue relevant today as the world struggles to deal with world-wide Islamic terrorism: is there such a thing as a just war and under what circumstances can we justify the use of violence in the service of the good. Here, Todarello takes to task various pacifist views that rely too heavily upon reductive proclamations of moral equivalence between nations or groups. Here, Todarello agrees with Edmund Burke, concluding that all evil needs to succeed is for good people to do nothing.
In addition to such philosophical issues, the book is filled with engaging theological considerations. Again, if you enjoy theology, you won’t find this distracting; however, if you are closed-minded about faith and theology, then you may be frustrated. If you are open to the possibilities of faith in God or divine realities, then you will find the discussions meaningful. These discussions are neither belabored nor distracting. They fit in with the narrative, and they contribute to the mythopoeic qualities of the novel.
The core theological principles are rooted in biblical Christianity; however, the theology is also very much Haaretian. That is, if you are familiar with Christian theology, you will recognize key theological principles and questions, such as tensions between salvation by grace and salvation by works, depravity of man and original sin, common grace and particular grace. Characters ask and explore such questions as what is prayer and is it effectual? What is faith? Is true faith blind or rooted in reason (that is, can there be a reasonable faith)? What is revelation (natural and special revelation) and what is revealed religion? What is the natural law? What is sovereignty and is God sovereign over all things? If God is sovereign and has a plan for his people can there be free will?
What I find fascinating is that although the theology is based (sometimes loosely) upon biblical Christianity, it is still very much a fictional theology that relates to the subcreated fictional world. Tolkien integrated Catholic doctrines into the theology and mythology of Arda; similarly, Todarello creates a theology that fits into the mythology of his subcreated world, borrowing from key truths of Christianity but reshaping them to fit his fictional world. Are there theological concepts that are not biblical? Sure, but they fit the mythology of Haaret.
Finally, I end my review and analysis with a brief comment, fittingly enough, on the novel’s ending. The narrative builds and builds for some 380 pages, and then BAM! it’s over in the remaining twenty pages. Now, compared to a Tolkien ending, this is quite abrupt. Tolkien had no great love of endings, and he believed good stories, especially fantasy and fairy tales, simply never end. Thus, The Lord of the Rings goes on and on after Sauron is killed. I would say The Return of the Fifth Stone ends quickly like a Terry Goodkind novel. Goodkind builds a narrative for some 700 or more pages and then resolves the various tensions, plots, and subplots in about fifty pages, no more than one hundred. However, let me say this without offering any spoilers: Todarello wraps up the adventure, albeit rapidly, in a way that is consistent with the larger mythopoeic messages that pervade the book. I’ll leave it at that and let interested readers sort this comment out on their own. I thoroughly enjoyed this first fantasy novel from a promising new writer, and I look forward to joining Todarello on future adventures, be they in Haaret or some future earth plagued by a zombie apocalypse.