I knew I was going to love this book when I read the first sentences:
"The Great Eagle's wings banked in a slow curve. Weskin grasped the feathered body with his knees to keep from slipping. Far below lay the Forest, spreading over the hills in waves and billows soft as the white, puffy clouds."
Flying on the back of a bird (or other creature) brought home stories from my childhood. Was it C. S. Lewis or George Macdonald or Madeleine L'Engle? I wasn't sure, but I was hooked.
The Great Eagle says to Weskin, "The going may be a bit rough, but you will find your way. The One has brought you here. He has some purpose for you. And he loves you... The One will guide you. Listen for him."
And so we begin our own listening, as we read this winning tale of God's presence and purpose and love, echoing not only J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings but the Old Testament exodus of the People of Israel as well.
Weskin Tanwarrel, son of Timkin whom we met in The Forest, travels to his ancestral village to find his place in the world. He carries with him the angst of youth (pride, idealism, energy, resentment) and as we turn the pages he turns toward adulthood. In this sense The Desert is a coming-of-age story. But the tension we see in his growth is far more than the pain of finding himself or finding his destiny or finding true love. It is the tension of Jacob's wrestling with God and being renamed Israel. It is this arc – a pulling toward God and a pushing away – that measures and matures Weskin on his journey, remaking him if not renaming him. It is this arc that gives the story depth and texture.
Weskin does find himself, his destiny, and his true love, although not where he expects to find them. We follow this sympathetic character into a much greater drama, one in which he is challenged (like Moses) to save his people. Weskin questions the One (God), demanding and complaining and bargaining, and we recognize ourselves. We soon see that the One's plans for Weskin (or ourselves) are far larger than Weskin's own vision (or ours), and his struggle mirrors our own need to know our place in history, our story in God's cosmic plan, or simply, who is he and what does he desire?
There are social observations woven into the world of The Desert. I smiled at the Village elders and their long deliberations, their fear of risk, creating greater risk, echoing communities today with good intentions, if not always effective. And I cringed when I entered the city of Enshskarra, with its totalitarian regime of slavery, killings, propaganda, and false gods.
The Desert is a story of good and evil, within and without. The evil Skarr, akin to Satan, controls the Desert and the city of slavery. A miraculous stone amulet mirrors Gollum's ring in Lord of the Rings, and Weskin is tempted as Gollum was. Does Weskin own the stone or does the stone own Weskin?
There are many endearing moments in this novel. A healing Lady appears, happily recalling the Lady in Susan Prudhomme's The Wisdom of Ambrose. There is a tender look at friendship and rivalry and bonds of trust. We see a strong female protagonist who is forceful, faithful, and wise, in the character of Laissa. There are animals who can talk and those who can't, some with developed characters of their own, recalling The Forest. We look at love and heroism and goodness.
And through it all, the author writes with her usual sensitivity to language and syntax as she creates her worlds. There are scenes of stirring beauty and moments of grave danger. She has captured the tones of Tolkien and L'Engle and Lewis and so many others in their wonder-filled classical canon, but with a more modern pace and prose.
The Desert will be on my gift list for family and friends for many years. Highly recommended for church groups, reading groups, student groups, and above all, for genuine pleasure.
Christine Sunderland, author of award-winning Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, and The Magdalene Mystery, set in Rome and Provence (all OakTara), serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union. She lives and writes in Northern California. http://www.ChristineSunderland.com