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Miserere, an Autumn Tale by Teresa Frohock

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Exiled exorcist Lucian Negru deserted his lover in Hell in exchange for saving his sister Catarina’s soul, but Catarina doesn’t want salvation. She wants Lucian to help her fulfill her dark covenant with the Fallen Angels by using his power to open the Hell Gates. Catarina intends to lead the Fallen’s hordes out of Hell and into the parallel dimension of Woerld, Heaven’s front-line of defence between Earth and Hell.

When Lucian refuses to help his sister, she imprisons and cripples him, but Lucian learns that Rachael, the lover he betrayed and abandoned in Hell, is dying from a demonic possession. Determined to rescue Rachael from the demon he unleashed on her soul, Lucian flees his sister, but Catarina’s wrath isn’t so easy to escape.

In the end, she will force him once more to choose between losing Rachael or opening the Hell Gates so the Fallen’s hordes may overrun Earth, their last obstacle before reaching Heaven’s Gates.
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People have for some time said that Miserere is one of those books awfully overlooked, in part thanks to the collapse of Night Shade Books, its publisher. So in an effort to introduce more people to Frohock’s work, I read the book…

The cover art for Miserere is beautifully and thematically perfect. Part epic religious fantasy, part portal fantasy, the book is centred consistently on Lucian, whether it is his, Catarina’s, Rachael’s or Lindsay’s viewpoints we are following; each character is fully invested in Lucian, and his choice of whether to serve Heaven or Hell. While this makes for excellent dramatic character moments for Lucian, and some fascinating psychology, it also turns the rest of the cast, which is female heavy, into malecentric cyphers; whether Catarina his sister, or Rachael his ex lover whom he betrayed and scarred, each is acting out of a love for him that has been twisted. It’s rather disappointing, in fact, to see some of Rachael’s decisions; they seem a bit too pat, a bit too much part of demonstrating Lucian’s redemption rather than being about her own character development, which doesn’t really exist. It’s a consistent problem in the book, wherein Frohock’s interest in Lucian becomes so overwhelming she seems uninterested in her other characters.

Lucian is, mind you, a fascinating character; Miserere can’t be blamed too much for its interest in him, given that his interior life is conflicted, developing, beautifully done, and complex. The action of the novel all serves to highlight his development and coming into himself, and Frohock handles it really well. Lucian’s actions and stage of development aren’t always in total accord, but that’s a very human state that Miserere seems quite interested in; it leads to some brilliant moments where Lucian’s analysis of his actions is seemingly at odds with the actions themselves. The sad thing is that this doesn’t carry over into the other characters; this is most strongly evident in Lindsay, who is defined solely by her loyalty to Lucian. Lindsay is the character who makes this a true portal fantasy, transported into Woerld from Earth; she serves to allow Lucian to explain the world to the reader and to give him someone to protect and care for.

The plot is equally Lucian-centric, but bigger. Miserere revolves around conspiracy within the Katharoi, a sort of magical Knights Templar; the rooting out of the various members of the plot, and Rachael’s search for Lucian after he gets the Katharoi searching for him again, come together and comingle into a single plot that moves events in the novel forward in a big way. Frohock certainly knows how to keep the tension strong and consistent, but the pacing of the novel needed more variety than it had; consistently feeling really tense and as if the worst is about to happen imminently for a whole novel is rather less than satisfying, and tends towards a certain boredom with that very tension. Action scenes leaven this a little, but not enough, especially given that Miserere keeps the tension on a high ratchet during those scenes.

That isn’t to say the writing isn’t strong in other ways; on a stylistic level, Miserere matches gothic prose to a somewhat gothic story. Effect aside, Frohock’s style is actually beautiful; it evokes the world wonderfully, avoid excessive description whilst remaining precise, and gives a strong sense of place to the novel with a dark, almost claustrophobic atmosphere and an almost noirish sense of rainy gloom without ever really making that explicit. It’s the kind of prose that makes you keep reading just to see more of it, even when so much else is missing from a novel.

The world of Woerld is well constructed; Frohock has gone for a setting that isn’t grimdark, but certainly has elements of that style. The various religions are unified in their defence of the Earth and Heaven against Hell, which leads one to wonder how they can still be doctrinally different whilst Christianity is empirically true (does this mean all the other religions have effectively converted, including Judaism?), but still separated, which leads to some interesting conclusions about the world and religion, most notably that it’s a matter solely of geography. Miserere doesn’t travel across the world as one might expect, but instead concentrates on a specific area of it; and we’re made very aware of the power of both Heavenley and Hellish forces in the world.

Miserere is certainly beautifully written prose, but as a story, Frohock rather misses the mark unfortunately; more individuality, especially for the women, and more variations in pacing would have been appreciated.


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