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by Kathy Tyers
Published by Bethany House, 1999
Recommended by: Greg Slade
I read in the CHRISTSF mailing list that Kathy Tyers' book, Firebird, has been revised and reprinted. Never having heard of either the author or the book, I was curious, so I picked up a copy.
I'm impressed. Most of the science fiction or fantasy published by Christian publishers has been, to be blunt, pretty ham-handed. Little details like having characters act in character, or having the plot make any sort of sense, take a distant second place to having the main character go through a conversion scene before the end of the book, so that the author can be sure to squeeze in a gospel presentation. I'm surprised and pleased that Bethany House have the courage to publish a book by an author with as much imagination and integrity as Tyers.
The setting is, if you will, an alternate universe. There is no Earth, but there is a chosen people and a Messiah. The history of the race is quite different, so that spaceflight and even interstellar war have occurred before the knowledge of the Messiah has been spread to the different peoples. In fact, one major difference from our world is that, while Jesus commanded His followers to spread the gospel, in that world, the followers of the Path are forbidden to speak of it until asked. The protagonist is granted, near the end, a momentary vision of "The Eternal Speaker", but the theology of the work is hinted at, rather than bludgeoned home.
The plot of the story doesn't closely resemble any Biblical story, although partway through, I found myself thinking of the book of Ruth. There is a fairly prominent romantic storyline. There is combat, and while some of it is described, most of it takes place "off stage", like in Shakespeare. There are also flashes of humour:
Danton looked up from his bluescreen. He radiated alarm. "Caldwell! What in Six-alpha are you doing here? Tallis has asked me to detain you on sight." He set down his stylus. "So get out of my sight." (p. 283)
The end papers don't say so specifically, but this is actually the first book in a series. I eagerly await the rest. The second book in the series, Fusion Fire, is due to be released by Bethany House in January. (October, 1999)
Firebird is a fast-paced space opera which was originally published in the mainstream SF market, and then rewritten for an evangelical audience. It centers around two characters: strong-willed Firebird Angelo, and the telepathic Brennen Caldwell.
Born into the ruling family of Netaia, Firebird is wealthy and educated, but she knows her life will not be long. The Netaian nobility eliminates excess heirs once they fall past a certain point in the succession, and Firebird has fallen to the point of no return. Thus she eschews romance and long-term plans, training as a fighter pilot and hoping to die in a blaze of glory. Her class lives in opulent luxury, repressing the common people through a state religion, a culture of obedience and brute force. Their vaguely Confucian religion preaches conformity and worships a set of deified attributes, such as Strength, Knowledge, and Excellence. Their culture is xenophobic, holding itself proudly aloof from the Federacy, an interstellar alliance which upholds human rights and freedoms.
When Netaia begins a war of expansion on nearby Veroh, Firebird eagerly goes off, seeking a glorious death. But Veroh is a Federacy protectorate and she soon finds herself a prisoner, captured and interrogated by Brennen, a Sentinel.
Descended from a nearly extinct people who genetically altered themselves to gain uncanny powers, the Sentinels who live in the Federacy follow a strict code of conduct which regulates use of their telepathic and telekinetic abilities. They also wield a special weapon the crystace is a simple hilt from which, upon activation, emerges a long crystal blade that can deflect laser blasts and cut practically anything. (Sounds like the Jedi, huh?)
Ever since the Sentinels' ancestors misused their powers and died in a catastrophic civil war, a small, exiled remnant has sought to atone by using their powers for good and remaining faithful to their religion. They worship one God, whom they hope one day will send a Messiah. They're essentially Jews.
But not quite. These people have two testaments, and a Trinitarian concept of God. Nor do they seem to sacrifice animals. Their preoccupations and expectations are more Christian than Jewish. As might be expected, their emphases are evangelical. For example, only two aspects of their hoped-for Messiah are mentioned in this volume: he will perform an act of sin-cleansing substitionary atonement; and after he comes his people will again be allowed to proselytize. So perhaps it would be correct to say that the Sentinels are Jedi Jews for Jesus!
Does all this sound derivative? You bet. We've got the Star Trek Federation battling World War II Japan while Jewish Jedi rush about performing mind melds. But Tyers manages to spin it into an entertaining space opera. She accomplishes this by providing plenty of action, and by focusing on strong characters. Firebird is daring, driven and self-destructive. Brennen is powerful, conscientious and intense, and it's not surprising that a romance soon sparks between them.
I felt that Tyers created so much excitement and tension with the military exploits of the first half of the story that the second half seemed rather tame and predictable. Firebird and Brennen go on to engage in dangerous James Bond-style adventures, but the shift in scale creates the impression we've switched genres, from military SF to romantic thriller. Much of the political intrigue will only be interesting if you go on to read the other sections of the trilogy, and I suspect Tyers reworked her books to flow best when read as one epic tale.
The spiritual elements work fairly well. Firebird rejects the graceless tradition she was raised in, but she is not immediately comfortable with Brennen's unfamiliar religion. She struggles with her pride and selfishness while trying to understand his faith. I was particularly moved by her vision of God as an almighty singer, creating and conducting the music of the galaxies. It fits nicely with Firebird's talent as a harpist, and the musically themed chapter headings.
Firebird is a worthy addition to the field of Christian SF, though it's best read along with its sequels. Elliot Hanowski
Kathy took part in an online interview in February, 2000.
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