The Children of Darkness, the first volume of David Litwack’s The Seekers series, is a classic quest story. Three young heroes embark upon a journey to uncover a secret that can save the world. Along the way they meet a wise guide and encounter daunting obstacles that test their courage and resolve. And they return very changed.
This YA novel follows the pattern, but it’s anything but run of the mill. The quality of its intelligence, imagination, and prose raises The Children of Darkness to the level of literature.
Orah, Nathaniel, and Thomas live in a theocracy. The Temple of Light came into existence a after a series of wars almost destroyed humankind, and for a millennium it has kept the peace. The Temple controls every aspect of peoples’ lives. The vicars of the Temple prescribe how many children a family may have, how people cook their food, what musical instruments they play, and, of course, what they’re allowed to think. The rules are enforced by bands of deacons and by “teaching” the young in a process that amounts to torture.
A vicar comes to the village of Little Pond and selects Thomas for a teaching. When he returns, he avoids Nathaniel and Orah because the vicars have forced him to betray his childhood friends. Next Orah is taken for teaching. Nathaniel follows her and the vicar to Temple City and offers to take her place. While he awaits the vicars’ decision in a dungeon, the old man in the adjacent cell tells him of the Keepers, a secret group who through the centuries have passed down coded directions to the Keep, a hidden place where the wonders of the ancient world are preserved. Everything forbidden by the Temple is there.
The old man appoints Nathaniel a Seeker, charged with finding the Keep, and gives him the first part of the code along with clues to the location and identity of the next Keeper. After Nathaniel returns to Little Pond, he and his friends set out to find the Keep.
At first their quest appears altogether noble and right. The Temple of Light is oppressive, cruel, and anti-intellectual. As the wise man explains to them, the aim of teaching is to extinguish the fire in human beings — the spirit that drives individuals to dream and achieve and aspire to greatness. Teaching almost destroys Thomas. But a thousand years ago, humankind almost destroyed itself and the world with the magic in the Keep. For all its shortcomings, the Temple makes it possible for human beings to live in harmony among themselves and with nature. The quest might open Pandora’s Box.
Litwack avoids the usual tropes of YA fantasy. There’s no simpleminded battle between good and evil, no sexual jealousy and tension between friends, and no adolescent bickering. The friends argue about things that matter — how they can best survive, whether the quest is worth the cost.
In The Children of Darkness Litwack has created a fully realized and altogether believable world. The characters, including the functionaries of the Temple, are complex and sympathetic. The conclusion is unexpected yet feels altogether right. Everything is set for the next volume of the series, which I very much look forward to reading.
I admit it: I liked this book more than I thought I would for a good while. It’s a dystopian book, but that takes a while to come out, and it begins like a humdrum fantasy, which put me off a bit at the beginning. The story starts with a festival in the town of Little Pond, and one of a handful of annual visits by a vicar from Temple City to bestow a blessing of light, deal out medicines, and–unfortunately–take away one of the main characters, Thomas, for a “teaching.” Thomas leaves behind his friends Orah, who has prophetic dreams, and Nathaniel, who believes he is destined for greatness. In Temple City, Thomas receives his teaching, showing the horrors of the past age called “the darkness,” a time when people used weapons like suns they dropped from the sky against each other. He comes back changed, and shortly after Orah is taken for a teaching of her own–but Nathaniel, determined not to let another of his friends suffer, goes after her, and he, Orah, and Thomas end up on a quest to discover the truth about the darkness and whether the vicars of Temple City have been lying to them their entire lives.
Not-so-spoiler: they have. This is pretty much a given in a dystopian book. What makes this interesting in comparison to most modern dystopians, I feel, is that the government in control of the land is a theocracy. In most dystopians published these days, religion has been eliminated or at least pushed to the fringes. In The Children of Darkness, religion–granted, a conglomeration religion and not one of the ones that’s currently practiced on Earth–is front and center. I liked this, because it shows how government and religion can be so strongly linked that they can become the same thing, even in places where one isn’t actually portrayed as the other. It also makes it harder for the heroes to invoke change, because they’re fighting against a doubly-strong force; trying to turn people away from a political structure of life and a religious one is, in theory, twice as hard as trying to turn people from just one of them.
That said, this book can be a bit slow. The quest of looking for the truth about the darkness doesn’t progress very quickly; there’s not a lot of action. You’re not going to find any girls on fire in this book, no teenagers quite literally fighting the power. There’s a lot of walking from place to place, admiring of the scenery and creations left over from the previous age, and then a lot of sitting around and learning. This was necessary for the characters, because the main thing they’re trying to do is find out the truth; they’re not dead-set on overthrowing the system, they just want to know what’s really going on. When they do decide to act, they do it with words rather than weapons. I’m skeptical of how successful this would have realistically been, since they never actually emerge into the light and kind of end up with a leaderless movement, but eh. Whatever. However, this non-action might mean that this isn’t the book for people looking for something a little more like The Hunger Games. It’s a slower, lower dystopian, and it also kind of ends up feeling more like backstory for whatever comes next.
There are supposedly two more books in this trilogy, one of which is currently out. I think I’ll read the next one, at least–it involves crossing the ocean, which is a much more intriguing proposition to me than finding the keep was–but I’m also interested in reading another Litwack book I already happen to have, Daughter of the Sea and Sky. I think his writing and world-building skills are strong enough to give another look, even if this one wasn’t quite as fast and action-y as I would have thought, and might have liked.
3.5 stars out of 5.
I received this book free from Awesome Indies Books in return for an honest review.
Ravana O’Brien resumes her role as an intrepid teenage heroine in this sequel to Hollow Moon, which ends with… well, to avoid spoilers, let’s just say you should not count your dead villains until you see their desiccated corpses. In this story, the residents of her home inside a recently crippled hollowed-out asteroid have become refuges on Ascension, a nearby planet orbiting Barnard’s Star. They are not entirely welcome. In fact, they are not at all welcome. Ravana, now a student at Newbrum University, is not there, though. Her father believes she is on an archeological dig on the distant and inhospitable planet of Falsafah in the Tau Ceti system, but when the story opens, she finds herself in a hospital with very unlikely nurses, and she has no idea how or why she is there. Thus begins a well-told tale of mysteries, escapes, cyberclones, aliens, spies, spaceships, and giant spiders. It is a hard-to-put-down book.
I found the prose, editing, and formatting for the digital edition above average. Pacing is also good. Although some of the science is highly speculative, it is not outlandish within the context of the story. A little suspension of disbelief is required, but this is YA science fiction, so you expect that. The story is written with an omniscient point of view from the perspective of several characters, although primarily from that of Ravana. I had no trouble following it, and it was clear who was on center stage at all times. I found the characters quite believable, and I would put Ravana ahead of most teenage heroines I’ve seen in recent fiction. She is brave, intelligent, resourceful, and kind to short grey aliens and rude little boys.
YA science fiction has become something of a rarity these days, and it was delightful for me to find some that was so well done. I highly recommend Paw-Prints of the Gods for YA science fiction readers, but I suggest reading Hollow Moon first.
Full Disclosure: I received a promotional digital copy of this book through Awesome Indies.