Fiction

Fun, Fantasy, and Other Deep Truths

NICK HARKAWAY’S second novel, Angelmaker, is out now through Knopf. His first, The Gone-Away World, found favor with fans of boisterously literate science fiction. Angelmaker is, in many ways, tipped from the same mold as its predecessor. It is unapologetically fun (with a particularly English sense of humor familiar to fans of Stephen Fry and Douglas Adams), stuffed full of blisteringly creative ideas and digressive subplots, and shot through with darker undernotes. In it Harkaway asks some large questions about (among other things) the nature of identity, who owns the truth, the dark side of the will to power, and the true cost of the preservation of stability. The novel also makes a strong case for the power of compassion, courage, and the glory of imagination used well.

Angelmaker follows two alternating threads. In one an irreverent and intelligent orphaned girl, Edie Banister, is recruited into wartime secret service with the Ruskinites, an order of men and women devoted to beautiful craftsmanship who have been roped into weapons development. She rescues and falls in love with a genius who is using microscopic clockwork to build a supercomputer that will reveal the truth and end war. This “Apprehension Engine” (the titular Angelmaker), is baroque and bizarre; the force field of truth is to be disseminated by mechanical bees swarming from clockwork hives around the world. Naturally, an unreconstructed dictator wants to use it as a weapon of mass destruction.

The second thread is the present-day tale of Joe Spork, as he attempts to lead a humble, honest life until he is manipulated into adventure by the elderly Banister and pursued by the now-corrupt and terrifying Ruskinites.

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Fictional Truths

Four novels with nothing in common except storytelling done well.

Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Despite unreliable—or worse—adults and generational scars, Rory Dawn finds small graces growing up in a Reno trailer park: an old Girl Scout handbook; flowers her mother coaxes from the desert soil; a school librarian’s kindness. She threads her way to her grandmother’s hope for her: “Someone’s got to make it and it has to be you.”

Nanjing Requiem: A Novel, by Ha Jin. Pantheon.

This fictional portrayal of the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanjing, China, incorporates real history, including the story of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary and the dean of Jinling Women’s College. Vautrin helps shelter 10,000 people, who struggle for food and water and suffer assaults by Japanese forces. A harrowing story of brutality and sacrifice.

The Land of Decoration, by Grace McCleen. Henry Holt.

Judith McPherson, a lonely 10-year-old girl, lives with her widowed father and awaits the end of this world predicted by their fundamentalist sect. With candy wrappers and other discards, Judith creates another world in her room, the Land of Decoration. Then she discovers her seemingly God-given powers to make miracles happen, and chaos threatens.

Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones. Algonquin Books.

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What Kind of God Do You Have?

It is 1649. King Charles has been beheaded for treason. Amid civil war, Cromwell’s army is running the country. The Levellers, a small faction of political agitators, are calling for rights for the people. And a new law targeting unwed mothers and “lewd women” presumes anyone who conceals the death of her illegitimate child is guilty of murder.

Two guards took Rachel into the hold for condemned prisoners, a small structure of limestone adjacent to the main prison. Inside, she slipped on a carpet of excrement. One of the guards lit a torch and hooked it into the wall. The other attached her leg irons to one of six rings bolted into the stone. The first guard, a young fellow whose helmet seemed too large for his head, advised Rachel to bribe the warden to move up her execution date. “To escape the stench,” he explained, gesturing apologetically at the floor as he left.

Rachel tried curling up on the end of a low wooden bench. She could hear rain against the roof. For a while she pretended to talk to her brother, but she could not hear him, could not imagine what he would say.

She did not pretend to talk to the child.

She would not even think the word child. She would push around it, leaving a wide berth; she would sweep all such thoughts in the corner. She would step over anything, avoid any obstacle, before she would think that word. Yet there it was. Every time she tried to dodge it, misery would whisper the word for her, and a clean whistling breath rushed through her. The emptiness hiccupped and gabbled at her, slid her crosswise. She wondered what her mother would say to her now. Probably Martha Lockyer would tell her daughter to confess, which made sense if one had a list of things to repent. But what if a person did not know for certain? She shifted around on the bench. She would force her brother to talk to her. She would conjure him up to calm herself.

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Joyless Christians and The Lord of the Rings

My favorite characters in The Lord of the Rings are the Ents -- an ancient race of giant living, talking, breathing trees in J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional land, Middle Earth. I have a little confession to make: Whenever I hear a reading from Isaiah 55 where it says, "The mountains and hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands," I always picture the Giant Ents from The Lord of the Rings. And then I picture these clapping trees from Isaiah holding little Hobbits in their branch arms in what ends up a willful conflation of Middle Earth and Major Prophet.

7 Essential Tips for Fitting in With the Christian Literary Underground Scene Near You!

While perusing everything from Amish fiction to Zondervan's latest publications at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing this past April, I discovered what we here at Sojourners affectionately call the "Christian Literary Underground" -- a small group of literary magazines and independent book publishers that have "staked a cl

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