Beyond the Summerland (The Binding of the Blade, Book 1)
L. B. Graham
P & R Publishing, 2004
593 pp., $16.99
Reviewed by Newlyn Allison
It is with some skepticism that I pick up contemporary fantasy novels. C. S. Lewis and Tolkien are so well known and loved that it is impossible not to wonder if a new writer will stand the comparison. L. B. Graham is not exempt from the comparison.
In fact, you will sense Tolkien immediately when you open Graham's Beyond the Summerland, the first installment in a projected multivolume series. It begins with language: the first name in the prologue, Andunin, recalls the River Anduin. Many of the mortal names in Graham's book have Elvish or Dwarfish resonance: Elyas, Wylla, Andira, Evrim, Ulmindos, Corindel. (Graham has kindly provided a glossary, and you'll need it.)
The parallels to Tolkien's world continue. In The Silmarillion, Eru, or Ilvutar, the Holy One, made the immortal Ainur first. The strongest of these, Melkor, to whom had been given the greatest measure of power and glory, lusted for more and sowed discord, from which began the wars of the ages.
Graham has given us Allfather, who made the Twelve, the immortal Titans, the greatest of whom is Malek. Malek rebels, seeking to rule the world of Kirthanin alone, and plunges that world into strife.
The mortals of Kirthanin are divided into four regions corresponding to the cardinal directions. Even those—Nolthanin, Suthanin, Enthanin and Werthanin—sound Tolkienish, as do the names of cities: Dal Harat, for one.
Graham's Black Wolves bring to mind the Wargs. Graham invents creatures called Malekim and Grendolai that correspond roughly to Orcs and Balrogs. A terrifying water beast similar to the one in The Fellowship of the Ring makes a brief appearance. A graybeard prophet of Gandalf's ilk has a major role. Great Bear bring to mind Beorn; dragons fight (although here on the side of good, unlike Smaug); and birds aid the prophets' ability to see far away, as the Eagles helped Gandalf.
A mountain, Agia Muldonai, is linked to the past and future, as is Tolkien's Mt. Doom. Swords that are forged to battle evil are given names, as Tolkien's characters named theirs; and a land called Sulare, or the Summerland, reminds the reader of Elrond's Rivendell.
This is not the nit-picking of a Tolkien scholar, because I am not one. It's difficult—impossible to all but the stupendously gifted—to invent a convincingly original new world, let alone another language. But the question cannot be avoided: has L. B. Graham (and why L.B. when there's already C.S. and J.R.R.?) merely transposed Tolkien into another key, or is there enough to mark Graham as an original talent?
Talented he is. John Gardner wrote that the fictional narrative should function as a vivid and continuous dream, and by that standard Graham succeeds: he effortlessly suspends his reader's disbelief. Graham is a gifted storyteller, and his fiction is not marred by obvious flaws, though occasionally he nods. (Beyond the Summerland is set in the age of dragons, swords, and bows, but the speech of some characters is anachronistically modern: they say "Yeah," and "I can't handle it," or "I can't take it." Younger characters exhibit this most, but Graham provides no reason why their immaturity is defined by 21st-century diction.)
Powerful storytelling is no small accomplishment, and this alone lifts Graham head and shoulders above most of his competition. The cottage industry of writers capitalizing on Tolkien's masterpiece is populated by cynical hacks and hopeful amateurs. (A recent example is Eragon, the New York Times bestseller for young readers, written by a 19-year-old.) Graham's story has depth: substantial people with real problems and emotions, a tale of more than just dragons and wars. Graham himself has lived a little—as head of a Christian school in St. Louis and as a man with a family. In an interview, Graham says that "the real issue is balancing any creative pursuit that can absorb you with family. Family has to be first. Being a husband and a father is vastly more important than work or writing." That's worth quite a few points in my book.
Graham's story concerns the coming of age of a young man, Joraiem Andira, who discovers he's a prophet and is one of a group who fights Malek's forces of evil. As in Tolkien's tales, several historical threads run through the narrative. The past is explained in a somewhat slow-moving prologue that gathers sense in light of the whole book.
I have until now sidestepped the question of the value of fantasy. Is it merely escapism? Should it have a place on the bookshelves of Christians called to nourish and rule the earth, that very tangible substance under our feet? How can a book about fantastical characters from a far-away age be relevant to our labor in Christ's kingdom?