An Epic Fantasy Read for Summer

by Edna King

May 2019
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Fantasy’s strength as a genre is showing the inner battle that occurs daily in every person’s heart.
— Nicholas Kotar

A few days after Pascha, I took my sons to see The Avengers: End Game. My guys relate to these movies in a personal way. They argue about which character is the most like each of them. When my older son says the younger is The Hulk, the younger proves it by puffing and huffing in a little fit of temper which belies his usual gentle, studious self. The Avengers depict their inner struggles but in an action packed thrilling way.

Why are The Avengers so popular?  Maybe it’s an innate need we have for epic heroism that is also relatable. The Marvel Universe is a place where unlikely people who don’t particularly like each other decide to cooperate with each other against impossible odds to become a team we can root for. Flawed characters harness their weaknesses, overcome temptations, and maximize their strengths to heroically save the world- all while relieving tension with humor. We are faced with challenges in our own lives, but when movies or books explore moral dilemmas in real life settings, it usually comes across preachy, moralistic, and trite.  No one wants to listen to a lecture about getting along with your brother but if the story involves Thor and Loki, it’s suddenly exaggerated enough  that can we relate to the quirks of their relationship while being entertained, not preached to.

Wouldn’t it be great if a creative, grounded Orthodox Christian wrote epic fantasy novels which could reach a modern audience, inspire heroism, and explore beautiful deep truths without feeling contrived or preachy?

Nicholas Kotar, an Orthodox Christian who conducts a choir of monks in New York and writes a blog called A Light so Lovely on Ancient Faith, is writing a series of epic fantasy novels called the Raven Son books. The Raven Son books are loosely based on Russian fairy tales, infused with Kotar’s Orthodox faith, and spiced with the influences of great writers such as Tolkien.  These novels inspire heroism, show flawed characters struggling to save their world, and depict the power of beauty to conquer evil. The Raven Son books are not preachy or overtly Christian; they are refreshingly artistic fantasy novels.

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In the Raven Son series, Kotar has created a world with unique mythical creatures, relatable yet heroic characters, and its own historic mythology. Adventures and unexpected plots twists keep the reader engaged, but there is an underlying pattern and consistency within the series which reassures, keeping us reading towards an ultimate conclusion without feeling like we’re headed to the last episode of Lost.

The Russian fairy tales which inspired Kotar are a much wilder kind of story than our pop culture versions of fairy tales. Disney’s tales follow a comfortingly predictable plot line, feature one dimensional characters that tend to be either good or bad, and usually have happy endings.  

In contrast, traditional Russian fairy tales are untamed stories. These stories engage us, challenge us, and inspire us in an authentic and almost primitive way. I’m familiar with Russian fairy tales because our family used to read Russian fairy tales aloud at bedtime. Two of my sons were adopted from Ukraine and they loved hearing these stories over and over. At first, I found the tales frustrating because of inexplicable plot twists, characters that get dropped and are never mentioned again, and abrupt and unsatisfying endings. After a while, I became fond of these freewheeling aspects of the tales.

Many of the stories feature a youngest, lazy, good for nothing son named Ivan who likes to sleep on a stove all day. Ivan gets dragged into heroic action, usually by his nagging peasant mother. Despite all odds, Ivan saves the princess --who typically despises him and resents his assistance.  Ivan defeats sassy, cruel, and illogical villains after his more heroic appearing older brothers fail to do so. The older brothers are expected to be the heroes yet turn out to be selfish cowardly posers.  Ivan usually has to overcome ridiculously impossible and pointless seeming struggles to accomplish his heroic task and is both insulted and reluctantly helped along the way by a series of odd and often grouchy minor characters.

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My life is like a Russian fairy tale because so often things don’t make sense. I’m stuck in circumstances that seem inexplicable and unfair. The people I try to help resent my interference.  I can’t see how it’s all going to come right in the end but I need to keep trying anyway, even if I’d rather sit on my porch swing and sip a glass of wine. People come and go without any particular reason. I feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over even when I try to make changes. Then suddenly, I get encouragement and help from an unlikely source, but the story isn’t over and it keeps going on like it was before but with different challenges. Does that sound like your life, too? That’s what Russian fairy tales are like, but with fantastic creatures, settings, and magic. Kotar has taken elements from these tales and woven them into his books to create modern fantasy novels which have deep roots in storytelling while resonating with our modern lives.

Kotar creates characters that are inspiring and yet realistically flawed.  An example of this is Voran, a hero who without warning falls to a base, foolish, and just plain icky temptation. Afterward, we share his disgust with himself and yet feel sorry for him as he must suffer terrible consequences. Voran’s perseverance grants him some respite, but he doesn’t get an easy resolution. Voran has a gift of healing others in a self-sacrificial and perhaps saintly way, but he’s conflicted by frustration. As he wanders for years, Voran’s seemingly never any closer to his true goal of saving his city and being with the woman he loves. His world is populated by unlikely and yet inspiring heroes who navigate places where time and space create unexpected glitches. In Voran’s world people are oppressed by evil gods who create elaborate religious deceptions and set up oppressive surveillance states to control the masses.  They are also helped by lovely angelic beings who sing with compelling beauty but are a bit like moody unpredictable prima donnas.

When I started reading book one, it felt unfamiliar (it reminded me of wandering the streets of Kiev hoping to find a place where I could order coffee in English) but I soon overcame that and found my way around the alternate universe of The Song of the Sirin. When I first purchased book two, The Curse of the Raven, I was disappointed at its short length, but by the time I finished reading I saw it as a complete novella and concluded its length was a bold and wise choice.  While reading book three, The Heart of the World, my husband had to repeat himself a few times with increased volume before I heard him because I was so deeply immersed. A few days later, I joined Kotar’s Reader’s Club and then downloaded book four on Kindle.

If you enjoy fairy tales, epic fantasy, heroic adventure, The Avengers, and The Lord of the Rings, or if you would just like to enjoy well-crafted artistic books with characters who might remind you of Elder Paisios and Gandalf at the same time- these books are for you.

They are available at Ancient Faith or from Amazon. If you go to Kotar’s site, you can read his blog, join his Reader’s Club, and read a preview of each of his books: http://nicholaskotar.com/books/

Edna KingComment