Lucian Negru is an exorcist in Woerld, the realm that lies between Hell and Earth. He is part of an order called the Katharoi, priest-knights tasked with keeping demons from launching an attack on Heaven. Unfortunately, Lucian is also in disgrace. His sister has thrown in her lot with the Fallen, and is trying to put together a scheme that will throw open the gates between the two realms.
Catarina’s plan calls for Lucian to open a series of so-called Hellgates when the invasion is ready. To that end, she deceived him, leading him to betray his vows to the Katharoi. Now he lives in exile as Catarina’s plaything. The Katharoi have no interest in rescuing a traitor, but as Teresa Frohock‘s first novel Miserere: An Autumn Tale (out today from Night Shade Books) opens, Lucian is offered a slender chance at redemption. He escapes his sister’s clutches, half-hoping that he might be killed in the attempt. Instead, he finds a foundling, a young girl who has fallen from present-day Earth into his war-ravaged Woerld.
All the Katharoi start out as foundlings: they are drawn to a mentor who can help them develop demon-fighting prayer-based superpowers. But Lucian is mystified when Lindsay is sent to him. He is spiritually tainted, after all, and foundlings are meant to come to only the purest of his order. But with Catarina’s soldiers hot on his heels, all he can do is flee in the direction of help, fend off his pursuers, teach Lindsay what she needs to survive and hope the two of them live long enough for him to hand her over to a more suitable teacher.
Sound complicated? Yes, it is. Miserere is Frohock’s first novel and it is a complex one: the intricacies of Woerld’s factions, Catarina’s plan and the tangle of relationships surrounding Lucian—with his sister, his mentor, with Lindsay and especially with the lover he betrayed all those years ago—defy facile summation. What is simple is that finding Lindsay makes Lucian’s initial plan—suicide by vengeful palace guard—impossible. He finds himself unable to abandon an innocent child in Woerld, and as he grudgingly accepts the role of protector, he is slowly drawn away from the bitterness and grief caused by his bad choices and terrible exile.
The war between Heaven and Hell provides a familiar mythic canvas on which Frohock maps this new political landscape. Woerld, a sort of demilitarized zone or buffer between Hell and Earth makes sense in a way—one imagines it as a Purgatory or perhaps Limbo-like piece of ethereal real estate—and its landmarks are intriguing and memorable. Frohock evokes both the physical and magical terrain of her setting vividly.
Miserere is, however, what I sometimes call an “intrigue” novel: its various kingdoms, religious orders, and demonic organizations are engaged in an intense conflict with each other, one wrapped in a long history woven from the writer’s imagination and filled with cloak and dagger machinations. Such novels are often a bit impenetrable, I find—they’re chess games in progress, played on an unfamiliar board, and the reader is expected to look at the current moves and work out which pieces belong to whom, not to mention the rules governing their moves. In that sense, this novel works better than many of its ilk: some of the history and politics behind Catarina’s scheme are murky, but the fact that Lucian’s on a simple and comprehensible mission—save a little girl, apologize to his lover, and face up to his old crimes—helps immensely.
Once he has done so, though, the villainous scheme unravels rather easily. Earth never really seems in danger of being overrun; the Katharoi’s survival isn’t in doubt. Miserere has some terrific fights and scary moments, but its truest delights are Lucian and Lindsay and the bond of trust they build together. It is a good novel, an exciting one, with a setting I’d be happy to revisit… assuming, of course, that Frohock plans to return.
Alyx Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.