Book Review: “Fawkes” by Nadine Brandes

Usually I lump a month’s worth of book reviews into a single post, but every once in a while you read something exceptional enough to warrant one of its own. Such is the case with Nadine Brandes’s historical fantasy Fawkes, released in July.

Reviews have never been my forte. Until this year, they weren’t something I even attempted. It’s too hard to do a good book justice. But I’ve been trying, and shall try again now. Not because I expect to do the many merits of Fawkes justice, but because I am a writer. And a reader. Sharing good literature is my business, as well as my pleasure.

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So, apparently, Nadine Brandes is one of those authors who grabs your attention with a plot that promises intrigue, and then knocks you over the head with the power of what she sneaks between the lines. I expected a good story, and ended up with a goose egg, to boot.

Let’s consider that intriguing plot first, shall we?

As stated above, Fawkes is a historical fantasy. Not just any historical fantasy, though. Nope. This is the kind populated by characters who were real people, filled with events that really happened. Gutsy, right? Brandes takes the Gunpowder Plot that smoldered in the unrest of early 17th century London and adds a unique fantastical flavor. The magic system revolves around color (and so does the all the cultural conflict). Everyone wears masks. And the plague kills by turning people to stone.

It’s more than enough to pique one’s interest. It’s more than enough to make for a compelling, satisfactory read.

But I’ve still got this knot on the back of my head to explain.

Fawkes is more than it’s plot. Much more. It is subtle, and layered, and relevant. It is about redemption, and reconciliation, and sacrifice. It is about digging through the muck of our prejudices, assumptions, and deepest values and finding something better: truth. Look past the trimmings (fine as they are) and you will find truth to be the beating heart of Fawkes. Truth fought, then sought, then ultimately found and embraced.

In a world consumed by the subjective, a work of fiction that extols such ideals is about as expected as a cloaked figure hidden in the dark with a big club. Hence my headache (one of the most refreshing and delightful ones I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience).

If you are a Christian, Fawkes should make perfect sense to you. If you are not, you can still enjoy it, and perhaps see Christianity in a new light. I didn’t even know the book contained faith-elements before reading it. Brandes weaves them into her tale with enviable beauty and precision. This is a “Christian book” at its very, very best. Meaning it isn’t a “Christian book” at all. It is not offensive or exclusive. It is not preachy or heavy-handed. Instead, Fawkes is a good story that knows where it came from.

With so many others strengths, it would have been easy for the characters (and the relationships between them) to fade into triviality. Brandes avoided this pitfall with a cast of characters as strong as any other element in her story. She incorporates villainy, father/son drama, friendship, and romance.

Though the romantic element is hardly the driving force behind the story, I want to comment on it. Because it is there, and honest to goodness it’s the best I’ve read in recent memory. I mean, a guy and a gal who have concerns beyond their own relationship? Whose first acknowledged purpose is to serving a force outside themselves (as opposed to prioritizing their own heart’s desires)? Goodness gracious. Here is a love that is true, indeed.

Added to all that, this book had something invaluable to give me, as a writer.

Fawkes isn’t exactly a page-turner from chapter one. I mean, it’s plenty good enough to make you want to keep reading. But the plot is not the action-packed, twist-a-minute sort. It takes its time to gather momentum. By the end, of course, i was totally glued to the pages. For at least the first half of the book, though, I didn’t experience that can’t-put-it-down compulsion familiar to all of us who read.

This is not an insult. On the contrary, it thrilled me. Here’s a book that relies heavily on subtlety and patience, and people love it. The plots of my own stories are not explosive. If suspenseful, they are quietly so. To see a work similarly written succeed, well! My little writer’s heart is just fit to burst.

Not, to be clear, that I am comparing my own endeavors to Brandes’s. Dear me, no. I do not expect anything I produce to be this good, or this succesful. It’s just delightful to realize that a potential audience is out there. That you don’t have to compromise your story-telling principles in attempt to appeal to the masses (not that I would anyway, but y’know…)

So if you’re an aspiring writer who doesn’t rely on the flashy stuff, or a reader of fantasy, or a consumer of quality faith-based fiction, or simply a lover of beautiful, complex stories… Get you a copy Nadine Brandes’s Fawkes. Odds are, you’ll savor it as much as I did.

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