Nov 21 2013 11:00am
Under the Radar: Teresa Frohock’s Miserere: An Autumn Tale

Miserere An Autumn Tale Teresa FrohockTeresa 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.

Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

Rich from PA
1. Rich from PA
I have this on my shelf unread myself. I will have to pull it back out.
Rich from PA
2. sterling
This is a great book- I avoided it for a while for the reasons listed above. I think it uses Christian symbols in much the same way that the Indiana Jones movies do- as magic and mystery to move the plot.
Rich from PA
3. OtterB
When I looked at the description of this, I remember reading it before (the text, not the book itself). I was watching NightShade books fairly closely at that point because they were publishing some great authors. I didn't buy it at the time because it sounded too tragic and grimdark for my taste. That's at odds with your description It’s a story of faith, family obligation, love, forgiveness, and a healthy dose of sacrifice, which appeals to me.
Rich from PA
4. Samizdat
I would check it out, but sadly it's still priced a bit high, especially for a 2 yr old novel. And for an author I haven't read before. Spending $11 on a book I might not like is a bit much. Bring it down to trade paperback level or lower the digital price and I'll happily check it out.
Justin Landon
5. jdiddyesquire
@OtterB -- It's definitely DARK in tone, but I would not call it grimdark at all. It's very hopeful about the human condition I think.
Justin Landon
6. jdiddyesquire
@samizdat -- I've noticed that Skyhorse, the company who bought Night Shade out, has kept their eBook prices a little higher than Night Shade did. Given Night Shade's financial problems, there's probably a reason for that.
Rich from PA
7. Teresa Frohock
@Samizdat: For the record, Baen has the ebook for $6.00.
Chris Hawks
8. SaltManZ
The Jars of Clay reference doesn't really make any sense; you probably could have picked any other contemporary Christian band and made it work, but ironically, Jars' thing has always been their subtle use of Christian themes—too subtle, depending on who you ask. They took a lot of heat right from the start for the success of their first single on "mainstream" radio, and struggled with the Christian radio and music industry for a long time because their lyrics weren't overt or "churchy" enough. (Check out their newest release, "Inland" to see what I mean, and also because it's fantastic!)

On topic, this is one of those books that's been on my radar just because I've heard so many good things about it. But I didn't even know anything specific about it until reading this article!
Justin Landon
9. jdiddyesquire
@SaltManZ haha. I figured JoC was the only Christian band anyone actually knows ;)
Rich from PA
10. Laraine
For an underread book there are a lot of reviews on—31 so far. If I hadn't read the article here first I'd have assumed the book to be bringing in the author reasonable royalties; reasonable considering that these days very few authors of fiction can make anything approaching a decent living. I agree $9.92 for the Kindle edition is way too high. The paperback at $11.99 doesn't seem too bad to me. Here in NZ I've seen two prices: $18.73 (about US$15.34 at today's exchange rate) and $30.95 (about US$25.35).
Rich from PA
11. Kathken
I enjoyed this book "a real, real lot!!" I highly recommend it to everyone. Thank you for a wonderful review.
Justin Landon
12. jdiddyesquire
@Laraine -- It was very well received by the blogging community, which probably inflates the reviews.
Peter Tijger
13. Peter-Tijger
Not under my it some 1 1/2 years ago while on holiday in the Czechian republic, basking in the sun reading this somewhat dark book, yet filled with hope and redemption. Too bad, it's a good read. And the cover is great, that's exactly what drew my attention first. Then I read around a little what the book was about and yep, sounded like something for me. And I'm very far from a religious person, regard it all as it's the lore and stories and stuff that writers weave around it that does interest me, it gives for great stories. So yes, this book deserves more readers!
Kat Blom
14. pro_star
From the canuck point of view...ouch! $17.50 on amazon for the paperback? And only 350 pages? That right there could be one reason it wasn't received very well...
$9.99 for the Kindle version - still seems a bit high to me, but a bit of a moot point, since I'm rather old fashioned with my like of the feel of a book in my hands.

...and as an edit...only 11.99 off a fist at you American types! But still...
Irene Gallo
15. Irene
Teresa’s comment upstream got caught in our spam filter because of the link so I just want to repeat it here:
@Samizdat: For the record, Baen has the ebook for $6.00.
Paul Weimer
16. PrinceJvstin
Costs and prices aside, the novel is, as Justin says, worthy of your time and attention. The Catarina-Lucian-Rachael dynamic is particularly strong, if anything Lindsay is a bit of a fourth wheel.
Robert H. Bedford
17. RobB
9. jdiddyesquire
What about Stryper, lest we never forget Stryper.

Seriously though, I need to read this one myself. One of many.
Dave Thompson
18. DKT
I have NO CLUE how I've never heard of this book before. It sounds right up my alley. And it's in audio! So thanks for pointing this one out - I am intrigued and will give it a listen sometime soon.
Andrew Barton
19. MadLogician
Thanks for the tip - just bought this from Baen.
Rich from PA
20. Zachary Jernigan
Is there a reason you're insulting Christian non-golfers, Justin?


In all seriousness, MISERERE is a great book, by a great person. I encourage all thinking creatures to read it. Hell, I encourage rocks and trees to read it, too.
Rich from PA
21. Willl
I'm going to grab a copy from Baen. Since Tor made the wonderful move to offering DRM-free books I think it'd be great to see more linking to the DRM-free options in these recommendation posts.
Rich from PA
22. M. L. Brennan
I read Miserere earlier this year, and in a year when I read some pretty great books, this is still one of my favorites. Loved it -- Teresa Frohock took several fantasy elements that I usually hate unreservedly and made them work in a startling way. Incredibly original, fascinating, and I loved that this was about characters who were not young -- they were battleworn and experienced. Loved it, and (since this seems to be a point of discussion) it's well worth the price.
Maria Pulver
23. maria.pulver
Thank you for the review. Read the book - loved it!

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