Most everyone has at least one hobby horse he likes to ride, and mine happens to be the role of religion in genre fiction. For whatever reason, genre writers tend to portray all organized faith uncharitably, despite the fact that it remains a motivating force for people across the globe. That's why I've so enjoyed the work of Lars Walker. A Lutheran with a love for gritty fantasy and a nigh-encyclopedic knowledge of Viking lore, he handles religious topics with an imaginative depth and philosophical subtlety that few can match -- at least most of the time. In truth, Walker has written one novel I didn't enjoy, namely Wolf Time. Composed in the same vein as Margaret Atwood's watch-out-the-theonomists-are-coming dystopia The Handmaiden's Tale, it inverted that volume's ideological perspective while retaining its dire tone. So, I was less than thrilled to learn that Walker's newest effort, Death's Doors, was a sequel of sorts. Would it improve upon its predecessor or stumble into the same dour ditch?
Tom Galloway faces a troubling future. Yes, he ghostwrote a successful popular account of Scandinavian history and is working on another title, but professional success doesn't guarantee personal happiness. Years ago, his wife terminated her life at the Happy Endings Clinic, and Tom still hasn't reconciled himself to it. He understands that the state allows citizens to voluntarily partake of state-sponsored euthanasia -- and provides the same service involuntarily to those who express existential despair through "subversive" activities. But he can't stand that his depressive daughter Christine seems set on following her mother's lethal path. He worries about Christine all the time, even when trying to infiltrate a local cult. Remember that second book he's penning? Well, Tom's agent wants something splashy this time, so Tom has joined the Mimirshoff group, an uber-tolerant reimagining of Viking spirituality. (Congregations have to tolerate most anything and anyone for the government to allow them to gather.) But the Mimirshoff group may be more than just a collection of manipulated dupes. Its charismatic leader claims she can open a door to the past, and a public demonstration of her power ends with a Viking royal getting transported into the present day.
Okay, okay, let me take a deep breath. You know that big block of text you just got done reading? Wipe it from your mind. It barely begins to explain Death's Doors. In fact, I'm not sure that I can do so in a reasonably sized review, but I'm going to try. Imagine a blender. Chuck in Atwood's aforementioned novel, Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder," Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and Walker's own West Oversea. Add a generous pinch of profanity, a scoop of Christian church history, and several comment sections plucked at random from various Huffington Post articles. Now pulse for two or three seconds. Voila! That's Death's Doors. Yes, it's just as lumpy as it sounds. But it's also works.
Let me explain what makes Death's Doors better than Wolf Time. Part of it is Walker's clarity of purpose. He wants to provide a narrative exploration of the ideals proffered by America's elites while making an apology for the virtues of living on in a painful, broken world. But even that might've failed had he not taken pains to humanize most every character and fought hard against stereotypes. A racist fascist waxes poetic over the history of Western Europe. A gay member of the Mimirshoff group confesses to Tom that he and his Republican lover have both been diagnosed with AIDS. Shiites and Libertarians take up arms together against invading radicals from the Islamic Republic of Michigan. A woman who commits a terrible crime ends up becoming an unexpected love interest. Yes, the novel's a bit too talky. Sure, not everything seems equally plausible. (I can't imagine a society that would regulate reproduction and religion while mandating that smokers can light up wherever they want, including others' homes.) Yeah, it contains enough controversial content that most everyone will get mad at some point. But read it anyway. Doors opens upon fascinating ideological exploration.
(Picture: CC 2011 by Abas Koro)