Author: Chris Stewart
Publisher: Deseret Book
Year Published: Last volume published in 2008 Number of Pages: various
(Note: Individual volumes in the series are available from Deseret book.com. Please check there for prices, availability, etc.)
Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle
It is no secret to those who know me that I treasure my visits to Salt Lake City. If I go for a function, I always plan to spend maybe ten more days behind the Zion Curtain, soaking up the sun and enjoying the ambiance and fellowship of fellow travelers. August 2008 was no exception. In town for the Sunstone Symposium, where I read a predictably-brilliant paper to a sellout crowd of about 20, I also attended, with much relish, the LDS Booksellers meeting. A book fanatic like myself really enjoys this event -- this is my second year to attend. Being neither LDS nor a bookseller, you would think I would feel a bit like a fish out of water. On the contrary, I was surrounded by people who haven’t been around me long enough to be tired of me.
What a wonderful day!
The following week, I dropped by Deseret Book’s offices across from Temple Square. A friend, whose name I shall not mention for fear of compromising her good reputation, and I had a delightful lunch at the Nauvoo Café, and then returned to her office where we talked about books. She asked me if I had read any of Chris Stewart’s series. When I said I hadn’t, she promised to send the first five volumes, and then the sixth and final volume, not yet published.
Chris Stewart is a veteran novelist, having penned several volumes for the secular presses. His reputation for putting together a gripping and, ultimately, believable story is well founded. Stewart has turned his talented pen in a new direction -- the creation of a gripping and very exciting series for an LDS audience.
I can’t adequately review the series without describing some of its failings. And I must begin with my own reaction to the first volume.
Having received the set as a gift, I felt something of a responsibility to read them. The first book, however, stopped me in my tracks. The
thesis: during the pre-existence, the powers of good and evil are arrayed, anxious to rally their best and their brightest in order to bring about the fall of the nation that would be most blessed, the United States. For hundreds of pages, Stewart stretches the pre-earth saga, I think, much further than necessary. He wants to establish distinct personalities who would become enfleshed at just the right time in history -- as the enemies of the U.S. pull off a devastating attack and bring the entire nation to a halt. We meet several individuals who we will re-meet in the flesh later on. I thought the premise could have been established in about 20 pages, and then get on with the story.
Instead, the fictionalized pre-existence story goes on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
I really thought I couldn’t stand it a minute longer, until I reached the final sections of the first book. We’re brought to the present time, and the real action begins. What follows is one of the most gripping and exciting pieces of LDS fiction I’ve ever read, bar none.
General Neil Brighton and his wife Sara are the proud parents of Luke and Ammon, and the adoptive parents of Sam, who came to them from an abusive household. Introducing Sam into the family was a real challenge
-- not that the other brothers didn’t welcome him, but it took Sam a long time to finally understand that he was with a warm and welcoming family, so different from his natural parents. The Brightons are Latter-day Saints, and try to bring Sam into the faith, but at his own pace and according to his own convictions. Sam Brighton enters the military, becoming a first-class warrior, an elite solider called upon to engage in the most dangerous assignments.
On the other side of the world, the king of Saudi Arabia lies dying, his eldest son poised to become the next leader of the Saudi kingdom. The son is committed to bringing democratic reforms to his country. The second son, however, is infuriated by the thought, and plots to kill, not only his dying father, but also his elder brother and his extended family. The second son has plans to aggregate power, and to do it with violence and high-level associations.
When the second son and his family are killed, it is discovered that the first son had another male child by a second wife. This child is whisked away to safety in Iran, only to be hunted relentlessly by the first son. This child must die, or the second son’s claim to leadership would be without merit.
A family in Iran is asked to protect the child. A father and a daughter, distantly related to the Saudi royal family, accept the assignment. But the second son’s forces learn of the boy’s location, and destroy the small village where he is hiding. The father dies on a burning pyre, in the presence of his daughter, Azadeh. The daughter, beautiful and smart, is devastated. American troops arrive in time to prevent her death. Among the troops -- Sam Brighton. Through his intervention, she flees to safety, and eventually comes to the U.S.
And then, disaster strikes. A nuclear weapon lands squarely in Washington, D.C., killing tens of thousands, including much of the governmental structure. The nation is in chaos. To make matters worse, the terrorists find a way to explode nuclear weapons above the U.S., knocking out anything that runs on electricity or by computer. No power, no heat, no cars, no phones. The entire nation descends into a frightening state of chaos and despair.
When Neil Brighton dies in the attack on D.C., Sara and her children flee the D.C. area. Their flight takes them to the Midwest where they cross paths with the mother of a dying child. By a stroke of providence, Azadeh has assimilated into this woman’s family. The two families would join forces to find some way to escape the chaos that their nation has become.
Behind the scenes, rebels within the US government have joined forces with foreign powers to re-build the nation, but as a dictatorship rather than a democracy. In the middle of all this -- the second son of the Saudi king, the son who engineered the deaths of so many in his homeland.
Okay, enough plot. I don’t want to give away much more of the story line. Suffice it to say that Stewart creates a terrifying tableau of what might happen should our enemies actually succeed in bringing our nation to its knees.
As I read the book, I spoke to a military friend who is very much up on the kinds of issues raised in this series. To my horror, he explained that the military events mentioned are not only feasible, but are being discussed even now within the government. I literally shuddered at the thought of how delicate our security really is, how fragile our defenses are. Can a clever and resourceful enemy really bring about the downfall of our democracy? It seems so, and this should put the fear of God into each of us.
There are many delights in this book -- the many relationships formed among the survivors, the ever-present hope lived out by the many families. And, to be honest, one delight I’ll share with you. One of the characters, a soldier-friend of Sam’s named Bono, finds himself injured and struggling to remain conscious long enough to reach his wife and daughter, who play a large role as the story develops. He prays to God, using the familiar “you” instead of “thou” and “thee.” I’ve always considered the Mormon fondness for the vulgar language of the King James Version to be more than odd. Apparently Bono, who is LDS, decides to just dump the silliness and talk to God as you would to a friend.
There are occasional lapses in continuity, but none so bad that they really distract from the story. One example: after the attack that takes out all the electrical devices, Sara despairs that no one has a watch that’s working. In the next volume, we catch up with Sara in the hospital, visiting her injured son, and she has a watch that works.
Neil had given her this wind-up watch earlier. Huh? Why didn’t Sara have the working watch earlier?
And, I thought to myself, if Stewart uses the phrase “hanging by a thread” one more time, I’m just going to shoot myself and let the whole shebang end without me. Such phrases can be overused. We get it, Chris. The nation hangs by a thread. The Constitution hangs by a thread. Enough already!
Whenever I’m confronted with a series like this, I’m always concerned that there will be too many characters, too much action, too much stuff
-- it can descend into an awful mess, impossible to follow. I’ve had room to give you just a bare outline of the rich tapestry of people and events in this series. But Stewart is an artist. He paints his story carefully and, aside from the first volume, paces his action and story development to near perfection. The reader cannot help but become involved in the story, caring for the characters, involving himself in their lives and in their challenges.
I’m giving away no secrets in my opinion that very little in the area of Mormon fiction is world-class good. Some are passably readable; some are just awful. Stewart brings to the world of LDS fiction a steady and professional hand, always in control of his story, always aware that real people with real families and real concerns will be reading these books.
His tale is one of caution, but not of despair. He raises some frightening scenarios, but also sees redemption behind the dark clouds.
As often as he deflates you and sends chills through your body, he also reminds us that, if we could just part the veil, we would see the hand of God behind the events that surround us. There’s no fanaticism here, only a certainty that good will ultimately triumph over evil.
This is a great series overall. I’m just blown away by it -- honestly.
Once Stewart begins his tale in mortality, he grabs you by the throat and never lets go. I honestly believe that readers of LDS fiction will discover in this series a rare find, despite the occasional flaw. What a great read! “The Great and Terrible” is heartily recommended.
Thanks, anonymous friend at Deseret Book, for giving me this great opportunity. Oh, and next time I’m in town, lunch is on me!