Review: Steven L. Peck, “The Quickend Chronicles: The Rifts of Rime”

Title: Quickend Chronicles: The Rifts of Rime
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Cedar Fort
Genre: Fantasy
Year: 2012
Pages: 263
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-59955-967-4
Price: $14.99

C.S. Lewis was underwhelmed by “namby-pamby” Christian children’s books. Such books, he felt, were “calculated to nauseate any child worth his salt” with weak symbolism and lame platitudes.1 He was both “grieved and amused” that few reviewers recognized the Christian overtones in his science fiction series Out of the Silent Planet, but he became confident that “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.”2 If his Narnia series can be criticized today for its rather overt symbolism, it is perhaps as much due to our knowledge of Lewis as a Christian as it is with his series’s obvious symbolism. Despite his cover being blown, I think Narnia holds up today because of Lewis’s willingness to place his theological ideas within a fiercely imaginative world containing moral ambiguity, death, doubt, and redemption. And above all, despite sneaking Christian doctrine into fiction, Lewis insisted that the “first business of a story is to be a GOOD STORY.”3

Steven L. Peck’s new novel for young adults, The Rifts of Rime, succeeds in precisely Lewis’s prescribed way: it’s a “good story” first and foremost, even while weaving theological ideas from Mormonism into a tale of moral ambiguity, death, doubt, and the hope of redemption. Peck actually wrote it over twenty years ago; its woodland creature vibe preceded the Harry Potter craze and the more recent vampire stuff. Rifts is a rawer Peck, it lacks the precision of his more recent works (The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in Hell). At times his story excels his actual execution. The book’s title, “The Quickened Chronicles,” tantalizingly suggests Peck may have more in store. I imagine the publisher would be happy to let Peck extend the series depending on this volume’s success. Given how far Peck has come as a writer since this was written, I’d love for this book to succeed. This is precisely the sort of fiction I’d like to read with my own kids someday, far from the “namby-pamby” stuff C.S. Lewis criticized. At the same time, it isn’t dominated by religion, and it isn’t a Christian allegory like Lewis’s Narnia series was. Religion is just one element within the overall culture imagined by Peck.

Rifts begins with a scripture-like creation narrative in which the gods, “The Wealdend, with fur black as obsidian” gather the forest animals for a new “Quickening.” They assign each species a role to play in the new world; the ants, marmots, wolves, and Grey squirrels receive special commissions, while “The Folk,” a different squirrel group, are given a special and somewhat debilitating fold of skin along their sides, and are commanded to watch over “wood and word.” This creation scene sets the stage for Peck’s woodland in which mundane reality and ideal scripture clash. On the ground, the creatures have developed a caste system and warfare arises as scripture is corrupted. A rebellion arises to challenge a crushing tyrant.

Enter the everyman unlikely hero of Peck’s story: Pinecone, a poet squirrel of the Folk. (Leave it to Peck to make a champion of a lowly poet.) Pinecone becomes entangled in the political machinations of the Thane, leader of the Grey squirrel army who is supposed to protect the forest from the unquickened fox, coyote, hawk, and other predators, but who instead seeks to oppress the Folk because of their “curse,” that fold of skin given by the Wealdend. But throughout Peck’s thrilling squirrel warrior battles he challenges the simplicity of standard “good versus evil” tales. Some warriors realize their leader has gone astray while others in good faith try to fulfill their warrior obligations.

Peck, a BYU biology professor, research scientist, and engaging author of poetry and fiction, pays close attention to nature throughout the story. His squirrels rub their little hands together and squint with anxiety, his wolves are slyly feminist with the women leading the pack, his ants bid farewell with a blessing only an ant would offer: “Tunnel deeply before the rains and may the path you follow smell strongly until you return” (68, ARC copy; your page numbers will differ). All throughout, Peck calls attention to the seeming ambiguities of the Wealdend’s created order, as this selection suggests from The Book of Quickening, verses of which introduce each chapter:

Is there dishonor in the hawk
because it eats the Quickened? 
In the Wealdend’s Tree even with our enemies
we touch noses and embrace” (68).

This squirrel doctrine infuses the advice of a warrior who is training one of the Folk for battle, one who lost her mother to the claws of a hawk: “You must never kill with hatred or revenge in your heart. When you understand your enemy, you understand that this creature is doing only what the Wealdend have asked it to do…Your mother and this beast now dance together in the great Tree of the Wealdend, where all beings are Quickened. Do not let hatred spoil your strength” (58).

Perhaps the book’s most interesting theological component is these reflections on death and the problem of suffering. These squirrels ask difficult questions:

“…why does [death] come so needlessly? Why do the Wealdend set something up that will bring so much joy only to have it cut short before it really even has time to flower? I know he doesn’t need [our friends] as much as we do, why take them there when they could bring so much joy into our lives? It doesn’t make sense” (162).

These squirrels offer difficult responses:

“I don’t know. I don’t think that it had to happen. I don’t think that even the Wealdend cause everything. They can guide us through the teachings of the Foretellers and the Book of Quickening, but things happen because part of being Quickened means choosing” (162).

Most importantly, the characters don’t appeal to a bright future in the Wealdend’s Tree after death as a way to avoid their difficult questions. Some squirrels see the Tree as an actual future state, others see it as a metaphor, others doubt it’s there at all. As for Pinecone, he focused on how his faith informed his present: “What’s important is not the nature of the Tree, but the life that we choose to live given our knowledge that there is a Wealdend’s Tree” (161).

These conversations are the most overtly theological in the book and perhaps Peck could benefit from employing a bit more subtlety here. Other Mormon elements are scattered throughout,  including the corruption of scripture, the importance of agency, a male and female couple deity, eternal marriage, the difficulty of recognizing personal revelation, and the culture-bound nature of revelation. I was particularly touched by an excerpt from The Book of Quickening which emphasizes mystery; an under-emphasized aspect in Mormonism:

“There are secrets hidden
in every nut, in every branch, in every leaf.
Not only will we never find these mysteries,
we cannot even frame the question to begin the search” (166).

As I mentioned above, Peck’s good story itself works not because of or in spite of, but alongside these theological injections. No doubt a more mature writer these twenty years later, I hope to see more Quickened stories from Peck. I’ve been told the final edition of the book includes an appendix detailing the many names and titles Peck conceived of in the Quickened world. It also contains questions readers can ponder. My advanced reader’s copy didn’t include this stuff, but they definitely would have helped facilitate my reading, given the story’s complexity.

By way of conclusion, enjoy the creation narrative, or “proem,” if you will, from The Book of the Quickened, which precedes Rift’s prologue:

At the end of one time and in the beginning of another,
The Wealdend, with fur black as obsidian,
Gathered all the animals of Their great Tree and spoke,
“Together We have cleansed the forest of the former Quickening
And it is time for another.”
And as They spoke the leaves of Their Holy Tree
Shook with the wind of Their care, “You five will be
the five species of Quickening.”

But the least of all squirrels, The Folk, were not
Listening and played and chattered in the branches.

To the Gray squirrels the Wealdend said, “You will be my warriors
And will protect the weaker from the fox, the badger,
The weasel, the hawk, the coyote and cats of every kind.
But you must never slay one of the Quickened, nor cause
Harm to those you are charged to protect. Go and be happy!”

And still the Folk chattered and played.

To the Wolf Sisters They said, “Where are your consorts?”
And the Sisters answered, “They are hunting and will not come.”
Then They spoke with sadness, “Then Unquickened will they go in
The forest below—You, They chirped, will wander
The earth and learn the stories of the land and the water
And fell the world with your song and breath.
You will never hunt a Quickened being.
Go and be happy!”

And still the Folk played and chattered in the Holy Tree.

To the Marmots They said, “You will learn to heal, and tend the wounded,
Both of body and mind.
You will think and ponder hard questions. Your power is in unearthing
Secrets. You too find joy!”

And still the Folk chattered and played among the branches.

To the Ants The Wealdend spoke in secret.

While on the Folk chattered and played.

To the Folk They turned and laughed in delight, “You must be taught to
Listen.” And the Wealdend placed a piece of skin and fur
That ran from front to rear foot. They made their tail flat and
Heavy so in the trees they were clumsy and awkward. Finally the Folk
Ceased to play and chatter and they listened well as the Wealdend spoke,
“You will care for wood and words, for in Our Tree they are the same.”

 

_____________________________

Footnotes:

1. C.S. Lewis, in Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963 (London: HarperCollins, 2007), 1011.

2. C.S. Lewis, in Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949 (London: HarperCollins, 2004), 262.

3. C.S. Lewis, Ibid. (2007), 502.

Comments

  1. Pretty sure this is the first book ever written which includes a squirrel near death experience, by the way.

  2. My birthday is only 2 and a half weeks away, so if any/all BCC folk wanted to take up a collection for it, this is what I want. Just saying.

  3. What, no Kindle version? I guess the kids will have to make do with that paper stuff. Very excited to pick this up, though. Thanks for the review Blair.

  4. Antonio Parr says:

    Thanks for the review. “Scholar of Moab” was one of the more enjoyable reads in recent memory. I look forward to sharing this book with my children.

  5. A Short Stay in Hell was one of my favorite reads this last six months. I like Peck as a writer, so this sounds like it is worth the price and the shelf space.

  6. Blair, thanks for this! I love all your reviews, and feel quite honored to be the subject of one. I lower my tail to the floor in humility.

  7. Sharee Hughes says:

    I was at a writers’ workshop yesterday and the instructor recommended Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell. I downloaded it to my Kindle, and may start reading it later today. Maybe the Rifts of Rime will be next. Thanks for this review.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,784 other followers