God’s in His Heaven, But All’s Not Right in Woerld – A Review of Miserere: An Autumn Tale by Teresa Frohock

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It’s supposed to be a compliment when one is capable of leaving another “wanting more”. If one is to believe the fashionistas and tastemakers of the world, to leave another wanting more is a sign of one’s capability for restraint and discretion, whether in one’s clothes or in one’s manners. Leave them wanting more, so saith the experts, and they will keep coming back for more.

This is an equally appealing trait in storytelling. A good storyteller, regardless of the medium they choose to work with, will be able to create a narrative that leaves the reader wanting to know more. This is especially true when one is telling a story of some length: whether it’s a movie or television series, or a comic book story arc, or a novel series, there has to be something to keep the reader or viewer coming back for more. And a good storyteller will be able to find that hook, and not only find it, but sustain it for as long as necessary.

However, a good storyteller knows that a story can go on for far too long. Some television shows, for instance, go on for far, far longer than they ought, as do some comic books, and occasionally to novels. There is only so much length a given story can have, and if the storyteller attempts to overreach that length, it can lead to a great deal of annoyance and frustration.

The opposite—the potential story being too big for the confines finally imposed upon it—is somewhat rarer, but it does happen. I often joke that I turn a book over and shake it out to see if some more plot will fall out; occasionally I mean this as a compliment, to signify my eagerness for a sequel that will come out, but sometimes, I mean it because I feel a particular novel could have been longer, but isn’t. It was the latter, somewhat-less-flattering sense that I got when I finished Teresa Frohock’s Miserere: An Autumn Tale.

Miserere tells the story of Lucian Negru, once a famed exorcist and warrior for the Christian bastion on Woerld, who betrayed his lover and his leaders in an attempt to save his sister, Catarina. Unfortunately, Catarina tricked him, and instead made an alliance with the denizens of Hell to bring the forces of a Fallen Angel to World and from there, to Earth and then on to Heaven, in exchange for rulership of all of Woerld. However, he manages to escape from his sister, and sets himself on a path towards redemption—a redemption he is uncertain he is even worthy of.

The world building for Miserere is at once unique and very familiar. It posits that there are four worlds: Hell, Woerld, Earth, and Heaven, each lying next to each other in that order. Travel between them is possible, but there are varying degrees of difficulty: one can travel from Earth to Woerld with minimal problems (so long as one meets certain requirements), while travel to Hell from Woerld can be achieved by certain people with the talent for opening what are called Hell Gates (Lucian is one such person). As for what the worlds are like, Hell and Heaven are precisely what we imagine them to be, more or less, and Earth is as we recognise it now.

Woerld, however, is kind of different. On the surface it reads very much like the typical Western medieval-fantasy setting, but what makes it different is that every major religion on Earth is reflected there, but unlike on Earth, where they tend to fight with each other, the major religions on Woerld get on very well—mostly because they are tasked with protecting Woerld, and Earth, from intrusion by the denizens of Hell. Interestingly enough, what happens on Woerld has a ripple effect on Earth: for example, when the Zoroastrian bastion in Woerld was eliminated by the forces of Hell, it caused World War II to happen on Earth. The novel focuses primarily on the Church (the Christian bastion), but there are mentions made of the Mosque (Islam) and the Rabbinate (Judaism), and there are references to Wicca, Buddhism, and Hinduism having powerful and influential bastions, as well. Each bastion practices its own forms of magic, and fields its own warriors, called Katharoi, who are Woerld’s front lines against the constantly-encroaching forces of Hell.

This is, of course, incredibly fascinating, particularly to anyone who’s looked at Earth and wondered why humanity can’t just get over itself and get along. The bastions of Woerld are aware of the schisms between religions and within the religions themselves, and comment that because of reasons such as greed for power and money, the religions on Earth can no longer hear the Celestial Court (Heaven), leaving it especially vulnerable to the forces of Hell, should those forces manage to defeat the forces on Woerld. Interestingly, the character who makes the comment also notes that Earth faces no common enemy the same way Woerld does, and therefore the fractious relationships between and within the world religions is to be expected.

However, for all that it’s suggested that there is a very deep, very rich world, there isn’t really much done in terms of world building besides what I’ve already described. The details regarding the Church are relatively sketchy, and rely mostly on the readers’ own knowledge of how the Church on Earth actually works (which may be all right if the reader knows how it works, but may be problematic for others who don’t). As for the rest of Woerld, it’s not really talked about unless it’s pertinent to the plot. This is rather unfortunate, because this makes the novel feel narrower than it deserves to be.

That narrowness, however, is not something I can blame on the characters, who are quite strong in their own way. Some reviewers have accused Lucian of being a “wimp”, but I rather like how he’s been written: a man who has been broken and betrayed, who realises that he’s made a great many wrong choices in his life, and wants nothing more than a second chance to make right those mistakes—and makes it very clear in his thoughts and actions that that’s all he wants. He’s not the “traditionally” masculine hero looking for redemption, but his quest for it is something I can believe, because his regret actually feels genuine (as opposed to other “tragic heroes” in fantasy whose “quest for redemption” appears to consist of killing every single person they meet along the way to forgiveness).

Rachael and Catarina, the two women who are most important to Lucian, could easily have slipped into lesser characters who exist just to give Lucian a tragic backstory, but fortunately, they stand up well on their own. I like Rachael, in particular, because although she’s clearly written as Lucian’s love interest, that romantic relationship doesn’t get in the way of the very real fact that he betrayed her, despite the trust and faith she gave him along with her heart. Throughout the course of the novel she acknowledges that yes, she does love him, but she’s also aware that she can’t find it in herself to love him again the way she used to. They have both changed so much as individuals that the dynamics they used to have might as well belong to other people, and though she gives Lucian a second chance, that’s all she gives him: a second chance. To his credit, Lucian acknowledges these changes, and is content with being given a second chance. Whether or not they fall in love again is not the point for either of them; what matters is that they are willing to give each other another chance, and whether or not their relationship goes back to what it was—well, only time can tell. It’s also interesting that she acts as the more “traditional” kind of fantasy hero, charging into danger and being the one who forgives Lucian for his betrayal, instead of the other way around.

Catarina is also interesting, albeit in a rather uncomfortable way—which, in my opinion, makes her a good character, and an interesting villain. I do wish, however, that there had been more time to grow her into a true and genuine threat, because while I understand the whys and wherefores (to some extent) of her villainy, I don’t think it was really given a big-enough stage upon which to show how far it goes. The other characters talk about her villainy, but I would have liked to have seen it in action, and by this I mean really big action, something on the scale of (referring to Lord of the Rings</>) the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, for instance, or at least the Battle of Helm’s Deep. I find it rather sad that Catarina has all the potential to be a very good villain, but she doesn’t get her stage.

There is also the question of Lindsay, the foundling who Lucian saves and bonds with early in the novel. What sad about this is that I can’t really say much about her except that she’s interesting, and has all the potential to become a fantastic character—a potential that isn’t realised because, again, the plot doesn’t give her the chance to really grow and spread her wings. For the most part, she acts primarily as proof that Lucian isn’t such a bad person after all, a walking, talking piece of evidence of his true (good) nature. This is rather a waste of what could have been a great child character, which are rather rare in fantasy novels, particularly in novels as dark as Miserere. Had there been a bit more story, and the plot been a bit larger, I think she would have been just as much as a standout as Rachael, and doing so on the strength of her own character as an independent entity from Lucian.

This all points to what I think is the real problem with this novel: the plot is too small for the setting and the characters in it. It’s a good story, to be sure, suitably dark and dangerous (which I appreciate; I like it when an author can make it feel as if all the characters are genuinely in danger), but it could have been larger, more suitably epic to correspond to the potential of the world in which it happens. I find it mildly frustrating for Frohock to have this potentially huge world, and these potentially amazing characters, and then not utilise as much of that in the plot—a realisation made even more annoying by the fact that there are writers who are capable of writing a novel with a truly epic feel while confining it to one volume: Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor and Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs being excellent examples. If I was aware that there was a sequel coming, I wouldn’t feel so frustrated, but since Miserere is a one-shot, I have no choice but to content myself with what I’ve been presented—which is, sadly, not nearly enough to be called truly satisfying.

Overall, Miserere: An Autumn Tale has all the potential to be an incredible novel: the world building is intriguing, and the characters appear to be well-written and interesting. However, the story Frohock chooses to write using these amazing characters and to set in this amazing world is far, far too small to really push the limits of both characterisation and world building. There is only so much oblique references can do, after all, to create a sense of depth for both a setting and characters, and the plot of Miserere is simply insufficient to show off the true possibilities of what Frohock’s created.

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