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Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Repairman and a Modern-Day Viking Battle a Genetically Engineered Dragon: My Review of James Byron Huggins' Leviathan

About 25 or so years ago, while browsing through the fiction section of Reston Regional Library in Fairfax County, Virginia, I discovered James Byron Huggins. The book I picked up that day was Leviathan. I've been a Huggins fanboy ever since.

Leviathan was Huggins' third published work. His first, Wolf Story, was an allegorical novel featuring wolves in a titanic battle between good and evil. His second, The Reckoning, is an action-packed thriller that will resonate with fans of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The difference is that Huggins is friendly to Christianity. Indeed, Huggins spent years in Cold War Europe, operating often behind the Iron Curtain, to help people facing religious and political persecution. Indeed, it was Huggins' commitment to religious freedom that moved him to write Rora, one of the best works of historical fiction ever written.

Leviathan is Huggins' first "man versus monster" book, and it's one of his recurring themes. In my opinion, it's where he truly shines. Huggins' other work in that genre includes Cain (1997) and Hunter (1999), both of which were optioned for film rights. Nightbringer (2004) is also quite enjoyable.

His most recent work includes Maggie Magdalene (2013) and Dark Visions (2018). These are more in the thriller-mystery category.

Huggins's Leviathan isn't perfect. Critics will find several things to nit-pick. Huggins takes a while to roll out his main protagonist. With the exception of Thor (and, yes, the character pretty much resembles that Thor), most of his characters are thinly developed. There are long passages of dialogue and exposition. Some of the technical talk gets a little tedious. Of course, fans of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy will probably like the techno-talk. Huggins' virulent distrust of the US government is obvious and comes off as a little too heavy-handed.

Still...in spite of those flaws, Leviathan is an extremely entertaining ride. Here's a passage from Huggins' book:

"Leviathan began to awaken, rising. A thick tail uncoiled, whipping out suddenly to the rear, revealing the four long, thick-tendoned legs that ended in wicked feet, reptilian claws gleaming darkly to grapple stones softened by the unimaginable heat of its sleep. Then, from a protective position beside its chest, the long neck straightened as it stood, head rising, rising, lifting sixteen feet above the cavern floor on the armored neck, stretching. And then it lowered its head again as the malevolent green eyes opened, glowing eerily."

Yeah, one of the sentences is kind of a run-on. But if you love monster thrillers, you have to appreciate the image spun up in your mind by Huggins' prose. And it only gets better.

It is worth noting that the above scene takes place about 38% into the Kindle version of the book. Aside from a brief teaser at the beginning, the story takes a while to build up. But once it gets going...once Leviathan awakens in the scene described above...the book becomes a roller coaster thrill ride. The action at times is breathtaking. And just when you think it can't get more intense, it does.

Huggins is quite simply one of the best action writers out there. And, in my opinion, he's the best monster thriller writer ever. And Leviathan is what got him started.

If you enjoy science fiction or monster thrillers, you need to pick up a copy of Leviathan. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

****

For additional reading, be sure to check out these articles...




Friday, April 12, 2019

A Young Man Battles Monsters and Saves Women in a World Ripped From the Series Lost: My Review of Island Jumper

Island Jumper is M.H. Ryan's first installment of a survival-themed adventure series that's part Lost, part Robinson Crusoe, part MacGyver, part Gilligan's Island, part Survivor, and a whole lot of male fantasy. It's an action-packed thrill ride that harks back to the pulp fiction era.

Ryan's novel features a young male protagonist rescuing and fighting alongside an ever-growing number of bikini-clad sorority coeds. It's exactly the kind of adventure any young man (and even some older men) would fantasize about starring in. This is male fantasy through-and-through.

Here's what the book description on Amazon promises...

Islands to find 
Sharks to fight
Women to rescue

Jack Sawyer takes a sorority on a party boat tour when a mysterious storm slams into them. Now, they are stranded on a chain of strange islands with bizarre creatures that have an unsettlingly desire to kill them. 

He must learn how to survive the elements by building rafts, shelters, and weapons from what they find on the islands, all while fighting for their lives. They can't stop, though--there are more women to rescue and more islands yet to be explored, plus that whole let's-get-rescued plan.  

As someone who loves stories with action, adventure, crafting, and strategy, I'm finding the Archipelago series quite fun -- albeit with serious objections to some of the content. And it's that latter part that gets me. As a Christian, I understand that finding a non-Christian novel free of any objectionable content is challenging, but this story bends over backwards to sprinkle wholly contrived and completely unnecessary scenes designed to tease and titillate the mind. There were at least three scenes I had to skip over.

Not only might this book offend some Christian readers, elements of the story will for sure offend feminists driven by "social justice" concerns. Here's such an example...

"You're so smart, Benji said. "We're so lucky to have you here."

"Oh my God, Benji," Aubrey said rolling her eyes. "I think you've got his attention already."

"What?" Benji said.

"Uh, hello, don't you see the way he looks at you?"

"I see the way he looks at you," Benji said.

"Well, he looks at you the same way. He's plenty interested in us; you don't have to go buttering him up like that," Aubrey said.

"I'm not..." Hints of color reached Benji's cheeks as she looked away from Aubrey. "It's just I'm not  used to a manly figure in my life, and he's saving us."

And feminist heads everywhere explode!

Even though I'm not into the whole SJW political correctness thing, I must admit that this was a wee-bit cringe-worthy.

Still...

In spite of some of its cringe-worthiness, the objectification of the female characters, the sex scenes I had to skip over.... I kept reading the story itself. Why? Because I love the action and the adventure. And, as I said, the crafting and the strategy. And I find the unfolding mystery compelling as well.

It's frankly difficult not to enjoy this story -- at least if you like survival-themed stories with action and adventure as elements of strategy and crafting.

That's why it can best be called "a guilty pleasure." And if you feel so inclined to indulge yourself, you might want to consider giving Island Jumper a try.  If, for moral reasons, you choose to stay away, that's certainly fine too. In fact, that's probably the better choice. Personally, I would prefer a G or even PG rated version of Island Jumper. There is indeed much potential.

There are now three installments of the Island Jumper: Archipelago series available on Amazon Kindle. This review only covers the first.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Journey into a Living Breathing Dungeon - If You Dare! My Review of Dakota Krout's Dungeon Born

For eons, conquering dungeons has been the most efficient way to become a strong adventurer ... Several questions have always plagued the mind of those that enter these mythical places of power: Why are there so many monsters? Where does the amazing weaponry and heavy gold coins come from? Why does the very air fill with life-giving energies?

Cal has all of the answers to these age old questions, for a very simple reason. He is a Dungeon Heart, a soul forced against his will into a magical stone. After several lonely years, Cal was able to regain sentience, allowing him to form new memories while slowly growing a dungeon around himself. With help from a friend, Cal learned how to create monsters and traps, increasing his power and size quickly. 

So goes the Amazon book description for Dungeon Born by Dakota Krout, the first installment of his incredibly popular Divine Dungeon LitRPG / GameLit series. A developer and programmer turned full-time author and indie publisher, Krout is the author of The Divine Dungeon series as well as The Completionist Chronicles.

The book starts with a murder -- specifically the murder of Krout's main protagonist: Cal. Not content to simply kill Cal, one of his assailants decides to steal his soul. And thus on the very first page, as the Cal's bleeding, tortured body drifts toward lifelessness, the necromancer madman makes an "arcane gesture" and issues a declaration. And then we read:

...pain shattered my confused senses - pain more traumatizing than my recent death by repeated stabbings. I found myself being forcefully drawn toward a tiny gem in his hand. I screamed as only a tortured soul is able, albeit silently to the human ear. I imploded into the small gem, which gleamed brighter by the second. The agony became more intense, interrupting all rational thought until all I knew was torment. With a final gasp of pain, I became firmly embedded in the glowing gemstone.

I don't know about you, but this lover of fantasy fiction was hooked!

Now, let me quickly say... Most of you know I'm a Christian. And so you know... I don't believe in dark magic, necromancers, soul-stealing, fairies, or any of that. But I'm able to treat fantasy as fantasy. I'm able to enjoy Star Wars without letting it influence or corrupt my Christian beliefs. And thus, I was able to enjoy Dungeon Born. And enjoy it, I did.

Dungeon Born follows Cal's transformation from sentient soul gem into formidable dungeon that "eats" adventurers. The premise is not wholly original, but Krout gives it his own twist. The mix of magic and leveling and strategy is quite intriguing. The characters are well thought out. The story world is immersive.

His secondary character, Dale, allows the reader a break from the dungeon from time to time. Dale is a naive, poor, and amoral boy who seizes the opportunity to use this new dungeon for his personal enrichment. I enjoyed following his story as well, though I admittedly wished he were a little more ethical.

That leads to perhaps my main complaint with the story. While I understand that all human beings are flawed, I still like stories with clear "good guys" and villains. I'm not sure any character in Dungeon Born can qualify as a "good guy."

Still...

The book is well written and it pulls you into both the story and the series. It's well worth your time. I encourage you to check it out, if you haven't already.

****

For additional reading, be sure to check out these articles...


Monday, April 8, 2019

Magic, Monsters, and Mayhem: A Review of Arcane Kingdom Online Dark Magic by Jakob Tanner

As the ZERO virus decimates the planet, Clay Hopewell and his friends have found a new chance at life in a virtual reality world full of monsters, magic, mystery, and mayhem. In Arcane Kingdom Online: Dark Magic, the second book of Jakob Tanner's LitRPG series, Clay and his companions are pressured into a quest by an arrogant teenage king -- all while this new digital world they call home is on the verge of total war and is ravaged by a strange and dangerous computer glitch.

As with the first installment, the writing quality is solid. There were no distracting typos or other such issues. That's a refreshing contrast with many of the titles out there in this genre.

The Arcane Kingdom Online series provides a compelling, thought not entirely original, premise. And the world created by Tanner is colorful and diverse. It's kind of a late medieval world liberally sprinkled with elements of magitech and steampunk. You have sword fights as well as battles between air ships. It's the kind of stuff that any fantasy nerd will enjoy.

The characters are generally well-developed, especially Shade, Clay's pistol-packing thief companion. The plot seems well thought out. The action scenes are enjoyable, though perhaps a little too gory at times for some readers.

But...I emphasize enjoyable.

Here's an excerpt from Dark Magic that shows what I mean:


A rip came from below. The staircase broke in two. The lower deck, along with the two smaller escape ships attached to its side, tumbled and fell in the sky towards the distant ground. 

"Close call," I said. 


"You talk like we're in the clear," gasped Serena, pointing across the deck towards the sky.

Another two Sky Wyrms slithered through the clouds towards us.

"HOLD YOUR FIRE," yelled Sir Archades, standing at the front of the deck, clenching his gauntleted fist. 

The soldiers held their positions along the crenellated deck walls, mounting their mana rifles. They each closed one eye and aimed at their target.

The new Sky Wyrms charged us from one side while the original one came from the opposite end.

"KEEP HOLDING," yelled the Kingsblood captain.

The Sky Wyrms were going to smash into us at any moment. 

"THREE...TWO..."

The sky snakes were meters away. The upper deck was about to smash into a million pieces.


"FIRE!"


As you can see, the battle scenes are cool -- especially the one above which takes place in the air!

If you're looking for a novel free of any objectionable language, Arcane Kingdom Online unfortunately isn't for you. In fact, the language seems to be worse in this second book than it the first. Reading through Dark Magic, I found the foul language at times forced and completely unnecessary. This was a definite minus for me.

Thankfully, the series is free from the harem craze that is unfortunately seen in much of the RPG Lit / GameLit / LitRPG genre, but there is a 'fade to black' sexual encounter in this novel.

Some of my readers may find the dark magic in Dark Magic uncomfortable or objectionable. But this is all taking place in a virtual (i.e., computer) world, so there's no actual dark magic happening. No demonic activity. Just computer programming -- albeit very intense and believable programming.

Thus, allow me to state the obvious. Since many of my readers are Christians, the Arcane Kingdom Online series is not a Christian fantasy series. Jakob Tanner is of course under no obligation to write a Christian series, and this blog reviews both Christian and non-Christian titles, but since many of you prefer and seek out Christian books, I feel I need to say that.

And....

*Minor Spoiler Alert*

Dark Magic introduces a plot element not seen in the first installment. If the zombies in the real world get to your body and destroy it, then your life in AKO is over -- in a very dramatic and painful way. This is apparently the case even if you've been fully uploaded into the game. And THAT is what I found confusing.

If your life in the game world is still tied to your physical body in the real world, then what's the point of the whole upload process?  I mean, a big deal was made about the upload process in the first book, so I found this confusing.

Having said all the above, I find the Arcane Kingdom Online series to be entertaining. I mean there are airships!

Airships!  :-)

I look forward to Book Three.

****

For additional reading, be sure to check out these articles...

Monday, April 1, 2019

I'm Writing a Fantasy Book: Not an April Fool's Joke

In 2019, I will self-publish my first novel -- specifically, a fantasy novel. The tentative title is Dragon Hunter and the cover (designed by an artist I worked with at Fiverr.com) is pictured.

No, this is not an April Fool's joke. I'm posting this news today because it's a Monday - and I have the time to do it. Monday is my day off. So, this isn't fake news. It's real. I'm writing a fantasy book and plan to self-publish it on Amazon Kindle this year. And I'd like your help.

My Lifelong Desire to Write

The first story I remember writing was about my cat Pepper. I was in the 5th grade. It was for a homework assignment and we had to read the story in front of the class. I remember very little about the story itself, except that the kids in my class were howling with laughter (in a good way). I was hooked.

My love for stories had been kindled by movies, TV shows, comic books -- and my Dad who wrote fiction (as well as non-fiction) and my paternal grandfather who was one of the best storytellers I've ever known. I would love to listen to him tell all kinds of stories - about history, his life, and stories he would make up. We soon started making up stories together. We'd go back and forth -- each coming up with characters, plots, and story twists. It was a blast. Many fun childhood memories.

In my elementary and middle school (what used to be called "junior high"), I wrote lots of stories. I wrote stories about war, time travel, dinosaurs, detectives, and more -- and I put my classmates in the stories as characters! Since this was the era before personal computers, all of my stories were written by hand on lined paper.  I can still feel the hand cramps.

When high school came, things changed. I drifted away from story-writing. Instead, I focused more on writing school papers, essays, speeches and sermons (our Christian school took part in annual competitions in areas ranging from speaking to preaching to art to music and so forth). My years in high school and later at George Mason University completed my transition away from writing stories to writing articles and speeches. By the time I hit my 20s and 30s, I retained a love for writing -- but the actual writing I did was all in the realm of non-fiction.

But... a big part of me missed writing fiction. And even though I wasn't writing fiction, I still loved fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and action-adventure movies and TV programs - and would occasionally read a novel here and there as well.

My time as a teacher (2002-2006) and now as a pastor (2006 - present) impressed upon me - in a deep way - how powerful stories are, and that realization has rekindled my love for reading fiction and my desire to write it. There were many "light bulb" moments during my time as a teacher and since as a pastor that emphasized the power of a story well told. Even audience members (teenagers or adults) completely disinterested in a topic can be drawn into a good story.

There's a reason, after all, Jesus used parables as His main tool in teaching. We are, quite literally, wired for stories. One of the books on writing that I'm now reading is, in fact, titled along those lines - Lisa Cron's Wired For Story.

My Goals as a Writer for 2019

In the last few years, I've worked to carve out some time here and there to make notes on various fiction projects. And now that we're in 2019, I'm close to being ready to put something out into the marketplace.

Let me quickly say.... While this article is focused on my plans for a fantasy book, I will continue to blog, write periodic commentary pieces (like I did for The Federalist), and work on non-fiction book projects (which I've been nursing for a few years). The three non-fiction book projects I'm working on most are:
  • 21 Leadership Principles From The Book of Proverbs  (I'm excited about this one! And while it's a non-fiction book.... it's full of stories. I use stories from history to illustrate the various historical lessons taught in the book of Proverbs). 
  • God and Pain: Discovering the Goodness of God in the Suffering of this World (This was previously published as a short book - a devotional booklet, really - under a different name. I pulled it off Kindle and have been reworking and expanding it). 
  • Speak With Confidence (Title is Tentative / Subtitle is TBD -- This is also a previously published work. It was short. And it was previously titled How to Vanquish Your Fear of Public Speaking and it earned a few hundred dollars when I first published it about 6 or 7 years ago, but then tapered off.  I'm reworking and expanding it.)
Those three book projects are in different categories - different genres. One is on public speaking. Another is on leadership. And the other is Christian theology. When you toss in the fact that I'm writing a fantasy book, I'm breaking a CARDINAL RULE of self-published writing and marketing. That rule is:

Brand Yourself Around One Genre (or, better yet, one Sub-Genre)

I can't dispute the soundness of that 'rule' or advice, but it's a tough one for me. And I doubt I'm alone. Most of us have varied interests. And those who know me know I have varied interests. But...

The rule exists for a reason. People buy books (and music, movies, etc) based largely on brand (name) recognition. They associate certain authors with certain genres. When you think Stephen King, you think horror. When you hear David Jeremiah, you think Bible prophecy. And so forth.

But... since I have no "brand" or name recognition outside of my friends, family, and social media contacts, things are still malleable for me. I'm going to test which genre does the best for me -- and pursue that. And...

Since I'm a pastor (I'm never not a pastor), I like having some Christian work out there (books, articles, videos) under my name. I after all unashamedly identify with Christ. 

The bottom line for me, though, is that while I'm breaking the rules of branding by writing books and articles in different genres and on different topics.... life is too short for me to keep over-analyzing which genre on which I should focus. I'm going to write when I find the time, and take this one step at a time.

Last month marked the 27th anniversary of my father's passing. I'm now the same age (49) as Dad was when he passed. As I near the half-century mark, I increasingly realize something my Dad believed - and taught me - which is that life is too short not to pursue your dreams.

Why have I waited this long? Well.... let me answer that by laying out my limitations and obstacles:
  • Little to no name recognition or "platform" (and, to my knowledge, very few - if any - 'connections' to compensate for that)
  • Limited $$$ to invest in writing, editing, or promotion
  • Limited time for writing given the demands of my job (I'm a full-time pastor)
  • Fear that some of those I serve as pastor will complain that I'm taking the time to write on the side when the work of ministry is never really done
  • Resistance from some to the idea that a Christian (a pastor, no less) should write fantasy
Let me take each one of those concerns in turn - and explain how I'm pushing through them. 

OBSTACLE #1: "Little to no Name Recognition or 'Platform'"

If I wait for an opportunity to secure an agent or get published through a third-party company, I will probably be waiting for many more years. I may never get published. But...thankfully.... I don't have to wait. 

Changes in the worlds of reading and publishing, including and especially the meteoric rise of self-publishing on the Amazon Kindle, have changed not only the rules of the game - but the game itself. 

It's now possible for anyone to write and publish a book. And with so many promotional tools available on the Internet (everything from YouTube to blogging to podcasting to Amazon itself), anyone can "break out" and get their stuff read.

That said... An independent ("indie") author like myself has to be smart. There are certain genres and sub-genres that are too competitive for indie authors to break into -- unless they have thousands of dollars at their disposal for promotion and marketing. Targeting the right sub-genre or sub-niche is crucial.

It's not easy, but as I approach the big 5-0 (coming August 2019 :-) ), I realize that I need to stop making excuses. I need to stop waiting. I need to give it my best, and see what happens. I love this Michael Jordan quote: "I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying." It's a great quote - and it's time I start living it when it comes to my writing. 

OBSTACLE #2: "Limited $$$ to invest in writing, editing, or promotion"

This is certainly a limitation, but it can be partially overcome by writing to market. And, as alluded to above, this is partly why I'm choosing to write in a sub-genre of the overall fantasy genre as opposed to other genres. 

Over the years, I've experimented some with self-published writing, and I've also read a lot of books about writing. My father was a freelance writer, and I learned a lot observing him and the difficulties he had in getting published. If you want your work to be read, you can't focus on your own interests alone. You must study what the MARKET wants. 

We live in a capitalist society. The market makes the rules. You must write what the market wants. With that in mind, I've done a tremendous amount of research over the last several years, and I've chosen my fiction genre based on that research. 

CS Lewis wrote both fiction and non-fiction
Specifically, I'll be targeting the "Christian fantasy" niche and the "LitRPG" (aka "GameLit" or "RPG Lit") niche. I'll have more to say about these specific sub-genres in a future post. 

OBSTACLE #3: "Limited time for writing..."

Given the demands of my full-time job (I'm a pastor), I'm only able to grab a little bit of writing time each week. I generally take just one day off a week. That's Monday. (And sometimes, I'm not able to even take that). That means I'm able to write most Mondays -- and the occasionally here and there in the evenings the rest of the week. Since my writing time is limited, I'm NOT writing an epic novel of 100,000 words. Instead, I'm writing what is called a novella. The word length I'm aiming for is between 30,000 and 50,000 words. 

If I apply myself consistently, I'm confident I can carve out enough time each week over the next several months to write and self-publish a novella in the range of 30,000-50,000 words.

Time is also a factor in genre selection. I would love to write historical fiction, but that requires a great deal of research. I have several ideas - and have even written a few scenes - for a western. Same with a novel set in the Revolutionary War period and another in the Civil War. I've even considered writing a novel set in Bible times, thinking that - as a pastor - I'd have an edge. But the fact is that getting the setting right -- what characters wear, how they talk, what they eat, what their world looks like (interiors and exteriors), etc. -- takes a LOT of time! Readers of historical fiction expect their authors to get the settings right. And understandably so. I just don't have the time for that kind of research.

It's not easy - but it's easier - to create your own world. Hence, my choice of fantasy. 

OBSTACLE #4: "Fear that some of those I serve as pastor will complain..."

We often allow fears to take root in our mind which, when examined, have little to no merit. No one at the church I serve has ever said they expect me to dedicate 60-80 hours per week, every week, to them - and them alone - with no time left for family, health, hobbies, writing, etc. 

It's true that pastoral ministry can be demanding. Contrary to popular misconception, conscientious pastors work more than one day a week. Studies show that most full-time pastors work an average of 50 hours per week. I can vouch for this number based on my experience. Some weeks are more. Very few weeks are less. And...

The work of ministry is never done. There are always people in need. There are always calls to return, people to check in on, projects to work on, needs to address, sermons to prepare, and so forth. It never ends. And...

This is why clergy are at the top of the charts when it comes to statistics on depression, anxiety, marital problems, divorce, etc. It's why "pastor's kids" sometimes get a negative reputation. The demands can be overwhelming. 

What's helped me with this concern is three things: 

1) The Bible never asks pastors to carry the burdens of the congregations they serve. The Bible is clear that congregations are to "bear ye one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2) and that each member is to contribute his or her time, service, and gifts to the local church -- seeing themselves as parts of the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12). The bottom line -- Pastors can't meet all the needs themselves in a local church body, and it's unhealthy for them and unbiblical for them to try. 

2) A pastor can't be held hostage to the unrealistic or improper expectations of church members -- even if those members are vocal. A pastor (like anyone else) needs time for family, for rest, for hobbies, and for side projects (writing, speaking, woodworking, whatever). 

3) The people in the church I serve are wonderful and supportive. This is a biggee. No one at Olney Baptist has ever said they feel I should be in my office or available to them 50-80 hours a week, every week, with no time for anything outside of the church. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority have been very supportive of my taking time for rest, health, family, etc. I've come to realize that most of this fear is in my mind. And I frankly need to trust the congregation that God has me serving. 

There may be some folks outside of the church I serve who complain. After all, many people out there (Christians and non-Christians alike) have LOTS of opinions about pastors. But...

I serve God and the people at Olney Baptist Church. Those opinions - and that of my family - are the opinions I care about the most. And of those three (God, my family, and OBC), God's opinion must be the most important. 

One last point... the fact that pastoral ministry is demanding and stressful is one of the main reasons I'm pushing ahead with writing fiction. There's a reason why many pastors, politicians, business executives, and others in demanding professions take time for hobbies completely unrelated to their line of work -- things like gardening, woodworking, painting, drawing, writing, etc. Reading and writing fiction helps reduce my stress and helps me sleep better at night. Without trying to overstate the point... it's good for me. 

OBSTACLE #5: "Resistance from some to the idea that a Christian should write fantasy"

Let me address this right here and now...

I’m a Christian, and I love fantasy and science fiction. 

I love reading about dragons, monsters, wizards, Jedi, sword fights, epic battles, and more. I’m a Bible-believing Christian (and a pastor, no less), and I love science fiction and fantasy.

Sadly... many Christians have a knee-jerk, almost allergic, reaction to anything in the realm of fantasy or even science fiction.

I still remember when the first Star Wars movie came out. I loved it! My dad loved it! It was something that he and I bonded over. He took me to every one of the original trilogy movies. And he and Mom bought me some of the Star Wars comics when they came out. And I remember taking one of those comics to school one day (I went to a private Christian school) and being told by my teacher that Star Wars was “of the devil.”

Of the devil? Seriously!?

My dad was helping me celebrate something that was "of the devil"?!

For my third grade mind, that just did not compute. And, honestly, it doesn't compute for my now 49 year old mind either.

My dad raised me to believe in God, love Jesus, and respect the Bible as God’s word. And it frankly irritates me that some Christians would think our mutual enjoyment of Star Wars, Star Trek, fantasy games (we used to make our own!), etc was all sinful. :-(

The Bible certainly condemns “mediums,” “necromancers,” and “sorcerers” (see Leviticus and Revelation). But these passages very specifically refer to individuals consorting with actual witches and demons. These passages are not talking about Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or even the main protagonist in I Dream of Jeannie.

It’s important that Christians exercise some discernment, and it troubles me when Christians have a knee-jerk, judgmental reaction to things without taking the time to understand those things.

If you’re going to judge a fictional depiction of magic, it’s important to at least understand that fictional depiction. You don’t just look on the surface and say “Magic? Sin!”

What’s the SOURCE of the magic in the story?

Read that again, because it's CRUCIAL. The source of a character's "magic" is crucial to how we should think about the magic in that story. The Bible condemns sorcerers and witches because their source of power was demonic. And thus the Bible understandably and rightly condemns them. Accordingly, if a work of fiction glorifies or celebrates Satan or demons as a source of power....stay away. But this is not the case with Star WarsThe Lord of the RingsI Dream of Jeannie, or The Wizard of Oz.

Things get murky with Harry Potter. Contrary to what some uninformed, yet quite vocal, Christians have alleged, Harry Potter does not explicitly glorify Satanism or the worship of demons, but... it does weave in some occult practice and mythology. And it's a fact that interest in the occult, including Wicca, significantly increased as a result of the Harry Potter phenomenon.

The same is true for Merlin, a BBC series I thoroughly enjoyed. The show was extremely well done. Great acting. Action packed. Wonderful chemistry between the characters. And lots of humor. But I must admit that it wove lore and symbols from actual, historical witchcraft and pagan religious rituals into the series. Interestingly enough, there was (as far as I can recall) no presence of Christianity in the story -- an absence that defies history given its medieval setting. While I believe a Christian can (and, in this case, did) watch (and enjoy) a show like Merlin, it requires more discernment than what is often seen in the average Christian.

I'm not outright condemning anyone who reads the Potter books or watches the movies (and the same with Merlin), but much of the criticism leveled against the Potter franchise (and shows like Merlin) by Christians is legitimate. For more on this, I encourage you to check out Marcia Montenegro's ministry Christian Answers for the New Age. She has written a great deal on Harry Potter.

I would also say that Christians should stay away from Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin is an amazing writer and the HBO series based on his books is breathtaking in its scope and incredibly impressive for its production values. Nevertheless, the content of the books and the shows simply doesn't pass the Philippians 4:8 test of what we're supposed to think about. I would encourage Christians to stay away from Game of Thrones.

The fantasy book I'm working on is not like Game of Thrones, nor is it like Harry Potter. What then does it resemble?  Well...that will be the focus of my next post on this project. I look forward to telling you more about it.

How You Can Help

If you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, you can email or message me suggestions -- things you enjoy seeing in books you read.

If you're willing to read a rough draft of my story - to help spot errors and mistakes as well as identify problem spots (things that sound awkward or don't flow well or make sense) - that would be awesome. Just send me a message over Facebook, Twitter, or by email. I should have a draft ready in a couple months.

When the book is ready to be published, I'd appreciate you spreading the word. You can share posts about the book and encourage your social media contacts and friends to check it out.

If you want to pick up a copy, that would be great too. There will be an opportunity to get it for free as well as an opportunity to get it for just 99 cents. This will all be during the initial rollout phase. I'll keep you posted.

For now, I ask for your prayers. And for your encouragement and best wishes.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. I really appreciate your time.

Blessings to all!

****

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Monday, January 28, 2019

Jumanji is Loads of Fun: My Review of Dwayne Johnson's 2017 Action Movie

Back in December 2017, while my wife and I were taking a few vacation days in Myrtle Beach, SC, we decided to see the movie Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. A remake of the mid-1990s movie which starred Robin Williams, this Jumanji stars Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson and is directed by Jake Kasdan.

The movie opens with a New Hampshire teenager named Alex coming into possession of a board game called (you guessed it) Jumanji. That night, it mysteriously transforms into a video game cartridge. When Alex starts playing, he is sucked into the game.

Years later, four students at Brantford (NH) High School receive detention for various offenses. They come across the same game and (like Alex) find themselves pulled inside. They land in a jungle as their game avatars - each with three game lives and various strengths and weaknesses. Well, all except Dr. Smolder Bravestone. He has no weaknesses.

Jumanji is an enjoyable fantasy actioner. David Edelstein, writing for Vulture, calls it "good, clean fun" with "self-empowering life lessons." That said, some of my Christian readers may take issue with the adjective "clean" given some of the language, sexual innuendo, urination jokes, and the amount of skin Karen Gillan shows. (Even some non-Christians objected to the latter issue). For a more thorough review from a Christian perspective, I recommend Focus on the Family's PluggedIn review. The truth is, the movie earns its PG-13 rating. In my opinion, it would've been even better had it been content with a PG rating. Still, it's loads of fun. My wife and I definitely enjoyed it.

Jumanji's concept of real-life characters being trapped in a game is of course the basis of the GameLit subgenre. It's a genre that hasn't seen a lot of action on the Big Screen, except (sort of) Tron, a few bad Dungeons & Dragons movies, and (most recently) Ready Player One (which was first a book). GameLit has now blossomed into an incredibly rich subgenre with multiple titles.

Even if you're not into the whole characters-in-a-game concept, Jumanji does well on its own merit. It's full of action, adventure, drama, and comedy. Thus, if you like action movies with healthy doses of comedy, Jumanji is right up your alley. Definitely recommended. 

Jumanji is rated PG-13 and is now available on video and on-demand.