Miserere is the debut novel of Teresa Frohock, released mid-2011 by Night Shade Books. A mesmerizing dark fantasy that showcases Frohock’s admirable talent as a writer, Miserere is an utterly compelling tale and pleasure to read.
The story takes place primarily in Woerld, one of a hierarchy of parallel dimensions that also include Hell, Earth and Heaven. Woerld is located between Hell and Earth and acts as a frontline of defense against the Fallen Angels of Hell, who seek to invade the higher planes to wage war on Heaven itself. Sixteen years ago, Lucian Negru, an exorcist and holy warrior of the Christian bastion of Woerld, deserted his lover Rachael in Hell to save his twin sister Catarina’s soul. However, Catarina did not want salvation. Having allied herself with the Fallen, she seeks her brother’s assistance to open the Hell Gates and allow the demons passage. However, Lucian denies her, and as a result, she has him crippled and imprisoned, hoping to wear him down until he finally complies. He is further tormented by the guilt of betraying the one he loved, and when he hears that Rachael is dying due to a demonic wyrm that possesed her in Hell, Lucian escapes, fleeing his sister’s fortress in a last desperate hope of repairing the damage he wrought. However, Catarina has grown strong in dark magic and her wrath—and that of the Fallen—is not easily escaped.
This is a debut?
First, I have to say that if I didn’t know better, I would never have guessed that Miserere was a debut novel. The writing is extremely polished, with effortlessly flowing prose and just the right complexity of language. There were countless times during reading where I paused momentarily to admire Frohock’s way with words. In fact, I’ve read many books by much more experienced writers that don’t even come close to achieving such beautiful prose. I realize that this is a subjective evaluation and different writing styles suit different readers, however, Frohock’s writing worked exceptionally well for me and I believe I would have a lot of trouble trying to find a single phrase I would change. The story itself has substantial depth and the characters ring true, while the narrative remains compelling and is never bogged down with pointless exposition or info-dumping.
The greatest battles are those we wage within
While the concept of demonic forces threatening to break free of Hell and overun worlds may seem somewhat familiar, Miserere goes far beyond that. Although we are made aware of these larger conflicts and their far-reaching consequences, the real story Frohock tells is far more human and much closer to home. Miserere is in essence a character driven work, and the most substantial conflicts we see are not between the legions of hell and defenders of heaven but within the mind of the individual. Lucian’s is a story of betrayal, regret, and redemption as he tries to make amends for past mistakes. Likewise, Rachael battles with not only the demon within her but with fading hope, loss of faith in both her god and herself, and an inability to trust born of betrayal. Lucian’s foundling, Lindsay, must also find strength in the face of loss, fear, and the unknown.
The characters themselves are extremely well realized. They are believably imperfect individuals that are easy to relate to and the mistakes they make are those we can all understand. Likewise, the stuggles they face are those that will be familiar to almost all of us to some extent. Even the most morally reprehensible character is not wholly evil and does not act without reason. Furthermore, most are a fair bit older than many fantasy protagonists—Lucian, Rachael, and Catarina are around forty—and thus their characters already have decades of history and experience to draw on.
Are you afraid of the dark?
Miserere is undeniably a work of dark fantasy and, as such, often deals with the less pleasant aspects of the human experience. It also contains numerous horror elements, some of which are quite grotesque and moderately graphic, and Frohock does not pass over subjects such as death, injury, rape, manipulation, and abuse. While the descriptions are never gratuitous, it makes for a thought-provoking yet somewhat unsettling read that is perhaps not suited for the faint of heart. Those who prefer their fantasy with a darker edge, however, will not be disappointed.
It is a difficult and complex task to write fiction that draws on religious themes without running the risk of alienating a percentage of readers. Overall, Frohock does what I would consider an extremely good job of this, though those who are very strict in their interpretation of scripture may find some fault that I have overlooked. Nevertheless, I can’t see it causing much trouble for most fantasy fans, religious or not. All in all, the various real world religions on Woerld are generally portrayed in quite a favorable light, existing in a much more cooperative state than in our world, and not one is advocated as inherently superior to others. Additionally, although the novel draws heavily on Judeo-Christian mythology and features prayer as a focal point for magic, it never comes across as preachy or condescending. As someone with a rather passionate distaste for books of any type masquerading as something different to gain readers, I never once felt I was reading religious fiction disguised as a fantasy.
Parting is such sweet sorrow!
Miserere isn’t a particularly long novel compared to most fantasy works, and Frohock fits an admirable amount of story, world building, and character development in a minimal number of words. Nevertheless, I thought perhaps the last quarter could have been a little longer. While I wouldn’t consider any parts of the novel slow and the story never dragged, there was quite a big buildup before the resolution, which all happened very quickly. While it was extremely well done and still very satisfying, I couldn’t help but wish for a bit more. Nevertheless, this is just as likely due to the fact that I very much enjoyed the novel and didn’t want it to end rather than any substantial flaw.
While this novel stands quite well on its own, there is still much of Woerld left to explore, not to mention that the greater threat to Woerld, Earth, and Heaven may be considered set back or delayed rather than completely eliminated. While I don’t particularly require perfectly resolved, tidy endings, I know that many other readers differ in this preference. Those who do will be pleased to hear that this is not really the end of the tale and that Frohock intends to write more novels set in Woerld and continuing the story from different viewpoints.
Why should you read this book?
All in all, Miserere is an enthralling and memorable book that I found extremely hard to put down. If you are a fan of dark, beautifully written fantasy, set in a fascinating world and featuring well developed characters, then I would suggest you get your hands on a copy of Frohock’s debut as soon as possible. If you are looking for a light and upbeat read, are not a fan of dark fantasy, or are easily put off by moderate gore and distressing themes, you might look elsewhere. Personally, I can’t wait to read more from this talented author and can hardly wait for the next installment.