This unusual book is set on a college campus in the near and slightly distopian future. The hero, a history professor named Carl Martell, has just discovered an unusual ability which is also a curse: he can tell whenever someone is lying, but he is physically unable to lie himself. Meanwhile, other strange things are afoot in the college town of Epsom, Minnesota: a strange Norwegian poet named Sigfod Oski has come to town, a neo-pagan cult is gaining members, and a stone with mysterious runes has been unearthed. Something Is Up.
Walker does have some significant strengths as a writer. One is his palpable love of all things Norse, which he effectively communicates it to the reader. I think that the most successful scene of the novel is one in which Martell lectures his students about Norwegian history. It’s a pure info-dump; but Walker loves the subject so much that he makes it enjoyable. Another is his villain, Sigfod Oski, who is one of the few convincingly charismatic villains I have ever encountered. And it’s not because Walker paints evil as sexy or glamorous, but because Oski is so charmingly honest about being a nihilistic pagan, and because he has all the virtues of his vices. Almost every scene with him was quite enjoyable.
Unfortunately, there are some serious flaws with the book. One is the writing style, which is never more than adequate. Another is Walker’s habit of making some of his villains give little lectures about their evil philosophy. For instance, there’s corrupt reporter who makes an impassioned speech on how truth is mutable, honor is meaningless, and the media controls everybody’s perceptions. I can easily believe that a reporter could look at the world this way, and I can even imagine that he would admit so to himself; but that he would baldly admit it to strangers just doesn’t seem credible.
Yet another problematic area is with the future Walker portrays: it’s a sort of “if those darn liberals keep going” distopia. Some parts of it worked quite well, but others came a little too close to caricature. This is especially unfortunate in a work of religious fiction, because caricaturing your enemies reduces your credibility and smacks of paranoia.
Walker does portray some of his neo-pagan characters sympathetically, which also impressed me a good deal. I was, however, greatly disappointed with one character who is a moral relativist. After she has been brutally raped by several people, Walker has her decide that because we all construct our own realities, she will just deny the rape and it will never have happened. I don’t pretend to know much about relativists, but I’m pretty sure they don’t apply their beliefs in that fashion. Most people simply aren’t that daft.
The other main problem with the book was its climax, which contained entirely too many miracles for my taste, including some which were faintly ridiculous. For instance, a character’s sister flies across town to warn them of an approaching mob. Furthermore, she reports a vision of the two Lutheran founders of the local college, who were practicing a vaudeville routine.
“They said that this was their discipline–they wanted to be very clear that it was different from Purgatory, they don’t believe in Purgatory at all, but the Lord had told them that it would be good for them to learn something frivolous. They said the hardest thing about Heaven for them was how much fun it was. They’d never learned to have fun on earth, and that left them unprepared for eternity.”
Now, there is a place for humor in religious fiction. But this incident completely shattered my suspension of disbelief. Furthermore, while I’m sure you could define a discipline that enables people to fully appreciate Heaven in such a way that it wouldn’t count as Purgatory, Walker doesn’t bother to do so. I think that speculative theology in novels is valid, but it should be (a) well defined, and (b) essential to the plot. This wasn’t.
Morally, the book is mostly okay; several characters are devout Lutherans, and their faith is presented quite positively. The pagan gods are integrated in a somewhat fuzzy manner; but since the novel is forcefully Christian and monotheistic, I don’t think it’s very problematic. There are a few remarks on the irrelevance of religious organizations, which may annoy people of some denominations, but they’re quite brief. In terms of strict content, there’s not a huge amount; there are some references to illicit sex, but within a moral context; and there are a few incidents of fairly disturbing violence.
There is, however, one significant moral problem: Walker’s attempt to explain why it was okay for the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites but it’s not permissible for modern-day Christians to attempt an equivalent crusade. One of his characters, a Lutheran pastor, says that
“Righteousness was very simple for them [the Israelites]–plain outward obedience. They didn’t agonize over sins of the heart, as we do, because God hadn’t taught them about those things. And He had not told them that it was murder to kill foreigners. That lesson came later.
“So God, who has the ultimate right to take any life, used the Hebrews in their innocence to take a great number of lives. Listen to me–this is important–He would not ask you and me to do the same thing. Between us and those Hebrews stand the towering figures of the great prophets, and Jesus Christ himself. To act now as the Hebrews did then would be to devastate our consciences.”
This explanation rings false on several levels. Firstly, it flies in the face of several Biblical passages. The Israelites did know that it was murder to kill foreigners, because Moses told them that “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). And they knew about “sins of the heart” because of the commands to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5) and to “circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut. 10:16).
Secondly, it assumes that the Israelites were somehow fundamentally different from us; that aside from lacking complete revelation, they also lacked the natural law which St. Paul declares that all people possess: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15). The law that today makes unbelievers perform acts of selfless charity; that made Socrates tell the court “I will obey the god rather than you”; that made Cain his brother’s keeper–that same law was there for the Israelites, and any attempt to explain the slaughter of the Canaanites must take it into account.