Teresa Frohock’s debut novel, Miserere: An Autumn Tale, is one of the most grossly under-read novels of the last few years. I’ve seen the sales figure. What’s incredible, is every person I’ve recommended the novel to, or who read it independently and discussed it openly, has done nothing but rave about its subtle brilliance. In fact, whenever someone asks if they should read it a slew of pro authors and bloggers assault the questioner with encouragement. At least that’s what happens on Twitter.
But, Miserere didn’t find the kind of audience it should have. And I know why. Or at least I can posit several reasons.
- The cover looks like historical fiction or an Anne Rice vampire romp.
- Night Shade, Miserere’s publisher, under marketed their entire 2011 class of debut authors because they were cash poor and over committed to debut writers.
- The narrative has suburban fantasy notes in the opening before transitioning to full blown secondary world textures.
- The back cover copy reads like the literary equivalent of a Jars of Clay song.
That last item might be construed as negativity toward Christianity, but please understand that’s not the case. Anytime you address religion in a substantive way, or come at it from a single perspective, there’s a threat of alienating an audience. Unlike readers of Dan Brown or Danielle Trousani’s work, science fiction and fantasy readers seem to be less invested in the baggage of the real world; sadly, religion is often one of our biggest sources of baggage.
So, yeah… Miserere came to the marketplace with a bogey handicap (golf reference, sorry). All that being said, it’s also possible Frohock just had bad luck. A book that should have found an audience did not and the world is less well-off for it.
Grounded in Christian myths, Miserere isn’t really about religion at all, though. It’s a story of faith, family obligation, love, forgiveness, and a healthy dose of sacrifice. Laden with tons of religious iconography, Christian and otherwise, it’s impressive how easily Frohock starts with something the reader is likely familiar with—Christian myths and the real world we know—and makes it feel like something all her own a scant fifty pages later.
She does this with a tight plot, a strangely familiar world, and the ‘what-if’ approach to religious history that many thriller authors have so successfully manipulated. Despite being a debut novel, Miserere accomplishes this deft story telling without ever being didactic. Filled with show me now and tell me later prose, it was one of the finest debuts of 2011 and remains a novel that I remember details from nearly three years later.
The story begins in a city ruled by Hells denizens. Exiled holy-warrior Lucian Negru has been crippled and imprisoned by his sister, Catarina. Sixteen years ago, he deserted his lover in Hell to save his sister’s soul and instead of thanking him for his sacrifice she demands his help fulfilling a dark covenant: open the Gates of Hell into Woerld, and doom humanity for eternity. Meanwhile a young girl from Earth is pulled into Woerld and Lucian must keep her alive, while fighting for his own survival.
Woerld, the realm between Earth and Hell, is where the battle for humanity’s soul has taken place since Lucifer fell from Heaven. It has demons, magic, armies, and a rich history all its own. War between Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, with mortals caught in between lends Miserere a sense of what the concluding volume might have looked like in the never-happened-trilogy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained.
There’s a distinctly Shakespearean texture to the characters, most of whom are tragic and full of pride. They’re also older, well into their forties, with decades of history and experience to color their interactions. These are not young people finding their way in the world, but established actors who committed their lives to a direction, rather than searching for one. Although age might seem a small distinction, the fantasy genre is so often reliant on fresh faced youth that it lends a gravitas to Frohock’s story that would not otherwise be present.
If there’s a failing in Miserere’s construction, it’s that she never takes on “religious theory” in any real way. Her characters undergo horrible trials of faith, but even the most tortured never asks: why is God putting me through this? Why should I serve a God who would steal me from my home, kill my brother, and pit me against the hordes of Hell? My one true love betrayed me and sent me to Hell, why shouldn’t I turn my back on all that’s holy? The novel is worse off for not posing these kinds of questions, but it seems a conscious choice. Frohock never allows her narrative to derail, carrying Miserere along like a log in the rapids.
Sadly, it’s been nearly three years since a Teresa Frohock novel has been released. The next installment in her series, Dolorosa: A Winter’s Dream, is a work in progress, but without a contract. Frohock is also shopping a manuscript titled, The Garden, an unrelated novel set in 1348 on the Iberian Peninsula. I’ve read The Garden and I’m aghast that it remains unsold. Here’s hoping editors everywhere are reading what I write here, because the author of a Miserere is someone we need to hear more from.