Book Review: Miserere by Teresa Frohock
Imagine you’ve set a date for lunch with a friend. When she arrives, your friend hands you a box of chocolates and says, “Go ahead. Have one.” The box looks for all the world like a standard, very nice box of chocolates, but when you open it and eat one, you’re transported to a Parisian chocolatier’s establishment. This isn’t good chocolate; this is chocolate the way the Charles V dreamt it should be made. I don’t have to tell you that you buy your friend lunch.
What does a hypothetical box of chocolates have to do with Teresa Frohock’s Miserere? Nothing and, yet, everything.
I’ll confess that I wanted to like Miserere long before it ever went to press. Teresa and I have chatted for a while across the Twitterverse. We’re both NC-based writers. She has a daughter and a cat. I have (three) daughters and a cat. I like to like the work of writers with whom I’ve already connected, and as Shakespeare so truthfully gave us, “I'll look to like, if looking liking move...” So, yes, I was predisposed to like this book. However, I’ll also confess that I’ve grown disenchanted with much of today’s literature, and predisposition toward liking cannot always overcome that hurdle. Miserere stood a better than even chance from the starting gate, but I feel as if I came to the work fairly.
Thus, let us consider my coming to Miserere as our hypothetical lunch date. I expected to enjoy myself. (I was, after all, the kid who read the back of the cereal box at breakfast simply because it had printed material on it.) What I found within moments of starting the story was the first taste of that first chocolate. As I continued, Teresa failed, time and again, to disappoint. Miserere stakes a claim as “dark fantasy/horror” and delivers both of these. I would characterize this tale as a fable for grownups.
Like so many categories of consumption, “high concept” fiction can be defined as “I’ll know it when I see it.” Miserere, regardless of genre label, certainly clears the high concept bar. The plot, intricate and requiring a complex host of characters, travels at speeds precisely parallel to the best works of non-fiction, full-steam action for a few chapters followed by a brief respite (i.e., break-narrative in non-fiction). These breathers are necessary for both the scaffolding of backstory and for the reader to have a moment’s pause, to feel a bit of relief. The pace of Miserere is, in great part, what renders the story itself believable, so believable we forget this is a work of fiction and fantasy to boot.
Plot only carries a novel so far, and Miserere rises above its competition due in large part to the world Teresa built around which to hang the story and to the people with which she populated that world. Constructed of four planes of existence, the principal action occurs on Woerld, the second plane (separating Hell from Earth) replete with the bastions of all Earth’s world religions. Woerld might be mistaken for an intellectual Utopia; all religious houses work together toward a common goal, the defeat of a common enemy. With war ever present in memory and in threat, Utopia this is not. Its peoples, many of whom are warriors culled from the third plane (Earth), live a dangerous and largely noble existence. From these, our protagonist begins our story, and we follow him on a hopeless path of redemption. How the story resolves itself is a mystery readers will have to learn for themselves. For myself, I left Miserere with only one question: Does Lucian realize that his pursuits of redemption in the eyes of God and in the eyes of Rachel are one and the same? I trust Teresa meant us to answer that one for ourselves.
Woerld, so richly conceived, delivered, and developed, will engross readers. Questions of free will versus determinism even in the face of absolute truth that cannot be denied will haunt readers just as they haunted Woerld’s inhabitants. And when readers face the ultimate acts of betrayal in this tale, regardless how prepared they think they are, their hearts will break.
For these reasons and so many more, thank you, Teresa. Miserere is a rare gem.