The Ninth Avatar: review

Since the author of the Ninth Avatar, Todd Newton, is a friend of mine, his book gets its own discussion instead of an end of the year paragraph. This is his debut novel.

Before starting to read, I found the cover art appealing and the font annoying. I consider it a huge plus that the novel can be read as a standalone.

A cast of characters from different cultural and religious backgrounds are joined in a fight against an undead army that is ravaging their land. A Mystian priestess named Starka has visions that the turmoil foreshadows the Avatar of Darkness. She is sent into the world to attempt to influence the events of her prophecy, and meets survivors who are determined to bring down the Carrion army.

My impressions of the book are divided largely between the different character sections. There were a few character arcs that I always enjoyed reading and a few that grated on me. In particular, I was interested in everything to do with Cairos, a wizard whose city was destroyed by the Carrion army. I could have easily read an entire book that centered around him and his magic – his sections read easily and the small glimpse of his backstory was immediately interesting. I also appreciated the sections dealing with Xymon, a Carrion army general. He had the aesthetic of a Nazi officer or any real subordinate climbing to the top through bloodshed. His jealousies, grasping and fear added interest that wouldn’t have been present if his army had been presented as a vague force of evil. Most of the other characters with their own sections were enjoyable and sympathetic but spread a bit thin.

However, the main character Starka annoyed me so much that it was difficult to read about her. I think she must be the sister of Bella from Twilight. She was always doing stupid things, asking stupid questions, had a 14 year old’s sexual maturity, and was always needing to be rescued by a man. To be fair, she was previously a sheltered member of a patriarchal religion, and she felt accurate as such, but it didn’t make her easier to read. I was disappointed in DaVille as well. He had a troubled past as a warrior, but I never got a good sense of his deeper motivations. I felt that his character was trying to have it both ways – that he was so damaged and beyond human emotions that he couldn’t connect to anyone and being pulled toward his destiny was all that was left for him, and that he was developing emotions toward Starka and becoming more caring – and I ultimately didn’t buy either. Disliking main characters who are supposed to be good guys made things somewhat difficult.

A real strength for me was the way that religions were constructed and appeared to have real signs and powers, despite each culture having its own religion and own gods or forces. It struck me as being like a world where Christianity, African traditional religion and Hinduism as well as fantasy style magic all had undeniable manifestations, and while each religion could sequester itself to some degree, it would be impossible to entirely deny that the other religions had real and tangible powers. I’d have liked to see even more about the interactions between different religions and their followers, especially how they dealt with the Pillars and the Avatars. For example, Wan Du’s deity appears to speak him, but it’s not very clear the relationship that the deity has with the Pillars, or if there’s spiritual conflict  between deities of different cities when there’s physical conflict between the warriors of the cities. I would also like to have more information on the different Avatars and how their manifestations come about. I think that the setting would be conducive to having some short stories filling in some of the history and details of the different religions and cultures.

The main problem that I had with the plot was how several plot points came and went very quickly and without much precedent. The subplot about Starka’s brother seems like it’s going to be important at the beginning, but it goes nowhere for a long time, and even when it surfaces again, it does almost nothing to change the events of the story. Elsewhere, spells and charms and magical items occasionally come out of nowhere to advance the plot. Perhaps trying to fill up an entire world with characters, cultures and an epic conflict was a little too much. There’s a reason that epic fantasy tends to require several volumes, and I felt that some detail and buildup was sacrificed to be able to tell the entire story in one book. I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of epic and I prefer standalones, so my preference would have been less character perspectives and a more focused quest, but I think that the story would work well with expansion. I also think that it would work well as a movie. I’m excited that Todd Newton is continuing in this setting by writing a prequel, and I’m hoping to find out more about the beliefs and cultures that make up the world.

Sometimes it makes me sad…

… how many people I’ve known who I will probably never talk to again.

On the other hand, it’s awesome to meet up with people I haven’t seen for years. In the 3-4 times it’s happened over the past year, it’s always gone just great.

Book Review: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist – Ch 8.2

8: MIRACLES: SIGNS OF GOD OR GULLIBILITY? (PART 2)

I stopped in the middle of chapter eight for a long time because I was annoyed and tired. I thought that we were finally getting to Biblical claims, but instead, it was more magic hand-waving tricks. The rest of the chapter can be finished out fairly quickly. The author wants to define for us what is and isn’t a miracle. He says, fairly enough, that for an act of God to be an unmistakable sign from God, it must be distinguished from any other unusual event (p 210). He defines these to be an instantaneous beginning of a powerful act, intelligent design and purpose, and the promotion of good or right behavior (p 211). He does not consider events that can be explained by natural laws to be miraculous. However, he brushes over the issue of Satanic signs. I don’t have the inclination to address the arguments about dualism, but I’ll point out that again the author makes facile points and declares an absolute conclusion. Moreover, he declares that Satan can only produce limited counterfeit miracles that are often associated with immoral behavior. He says that only God can create life, with the example of Pharaoh’s magicians being unable to create life in the form of lice in the third plague, although they were able to imitate the first two. This makes absolutely no sense, because the second plague was frogs, another living creature. So somehow imitating frogs with magic tricks is possible, but lice are impossible to imitate and must be created? I don’t even know where that argument is going.

Moreover, Evangelicals will generally see fit to denounce the kind of miracles that Jesus appeared to accept in Mark 9. Jesus says No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.

Lastly, there are excuses for why we don’t see Biblical miracles today. The author says that miracles were rare and only performed during the times that God was confirming new truth (p 216). But then why talk about miracles at all at this point? In fact, we’re offered with no valid criteria to evaluate whether a miracle happened or not, because there is nothing that we can point to, within the chapter at least, that is both miraculous and witnessed. Even the plagues in the aforementioned examples, if we had any way of confirming that they happened at all, are not clearly miraculous, since anomalies are ruled out from being miraculous. Frogs, lice, boils, hail, darkness, death of children… these are all things that can occur naturally, and predictive powers aren’t addressed in the category of miracles here. Again, these kind of definitions lack meaning without having anything to evaluate. So far, it seems that a miracle is anything that the author labels as a miracle, so that a swarm of lice from an ancient text qualifies, but anything purportedly done in the name of any other god does not.

Genesis 46-50

46: Jacob’s family moves to Egypt. It turns out after all that God sanctions the move to Egypt, telling Jacob that he will make him a great nation there. I think that God talks to Jacob directly more than to anyone else in Genesis. While Joseph attributes his dream interpretation to God, neither he nor his brothers ever appear to have a direct visitation or a personal assurance that they’re part of the earlier covenant. The family of Jacob is listed, and at the end of the list, it’s said that the number of persons in the household is seventy. This is a number that has importance throughout the Bible, but it looks that the list has been doctored a bit to add up. For one thing, there’s exactly one granddaughter in the entire list, but it’s highly unlikely that there would have been only one granddaughter and fifty-four grandsons and great-grandsons, even considering that married granddaughters may have stayed with their husband’s families. I find it really really funny that Benjamin has sons named Muppim and Huppim.

In a previous chapter, it’s mentioned that Egyptians don’t eat with Hebrews, and here it’s revealed that shepherds are abhorrent to Egypt. Even though Pharaoh and the Egyptians welcomed them down because they were Joseph’s family, it’s evident that there’s already prejudice against them as foreigners.

47: Joseph taxes Egypt. It’s an odd detail to me that Joseph takes five brothers to see Pharaoh with him. Why five? Pharaoh agrees to let the family settle in Goshen. Jacob tells Pharaoh that his days have been few and evil, and that he won’t live as long as his ancestors, although he does live to be 147.

Joseph is a profitable overseer for Pharaoh, and he takes all the Egyptian’s silver as payment for bread, and then takes their livestock, and then their farmland and taxes them permanently. He resettles the farmers. While a twenty percent tax is not that high in total, it’s unlikely that there was no tax before that and the arrangement is that the farmland and the harvest actually all belong to Pharaoh now, and the people are being allowed to keep 80% for food and resowing. Not surprisingly, Christian commentary on this chapter includes titles like Socialism Leads to Slavery and The Sin of Socialism. Also unsurprisingly, some of these are sermons against Obama. But look at this: Well, I tell you this – I know the Messiah; the Messiah is a friend of mine; and Mr. Obama is no Messiah! No, brothers and sisters, if Mr. Obama is a character from the Bible, then he is Pharaoh (http://tinyurl.com/4jetlnq). But that’s not the case in this story. If Mr. Obama is a socialist character from the Bible, then he is Joseph. The same Joseph whom God spoke to in dreams, whom God made prosper, whose ascension as Pharaoh’s second in command is always attributed to God, and who orchestrated the entire governmental takeover. Not only that, in this story, the Egyptians are grateful to Joseph for keeping them alive. It’s simply not mentioned at all what God thinks of Joseph’s governance, but the commentary suggests that the writer of Genesis would have considered Joseph’s plan to be smart and to explain the then current economics of Egyptian peasants.

What I do find troubling about the story as a modern person is that the stored grain presumably came from the farms of these same Egyptians during the seven years of plenty. It does seem remarkably unfair that they should be bankrupted when they produced the grain they now have to buy back.

48: Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob relays the words of the covenant to Joseph, but he doesn’t give Joseph any particular blessing for himself. Instead, he says that he will consider Joseph’s sons to be his own. Joseph was probably going to remain an official under Pharaoh, virtually considered an Egyptian, and never need lands or be a shepherd again nor pass those things to his children. For Joseph’s children to be considered part of Jacob’s family instead of Egyptians, they would need to be like Jacob’s sons.

Jacob gives the younger son his right hand, although he blesses both at once. Joseph should probably have smacked him. He tells Joseph that he has given him with single intent over your brothers what I took from the hand of the Emorite. It’s not clear what or where this is, but single intent translates literally one shoulder.

49: Jacob blesses the twelve sons. Firstborn Reuben is displaced from the birthright because he slept with his father’s concubine. The blessings and mixed blessings follow what Jacob knows and don’t seem to be influenced by God. As I mentioned before, Reuben is never rewarded for being the only brother to try to save Joseph’s life as a boy. Jacob outright curses Simeon and Levi for murdering the Shechemites. So Judah receives the birthright, where he is promised that his brothers will bow to him and he will have the tribute and submission.

The other brothers have no stories of their own, so it’s hard to know why they receive the blessings that they do – Zebulon will dwell by the sea, Issachar is a donkey and a serf, Dan is a judge and a snake, Gad will be goaded and a goad, Asher will have bread and kingly dishes, Naphtali is a hind and father of lovely fawns, Benjamin is a ravening wolf. Joseph does get a special blessing and his sons aren’t mentioned specifically. He’s the only son to be connected to God’s blessing. At this point, he’s obviously in a different situation than the others, but I do find it notable that while Jacob appeared also to love Benjamin more than his brothers previously, he gets a weak and ambiguous blessing.The commentary is fairly important here – it isn’t known whether this is a complete composition or a fragmented text, but it’s agreed that it’s one of the oldest, with such old and rare language that the interpretation is sometimes uncertain.

Jacob asks to be buried in the field at Mamre with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. Jacob knows where Rachel was buried, as it was marked by a pillar in chapter 35, but Leah was the one to be buried in the family grave.

50: Jacob and Joseph’s deaths. When Jacob dies, Joseph gives him a full Egyptian embalming, then takes him back to Canaan to be buried in the family grave. The brothers tell Joseph, probably falsely, that Jacob had asked him to forgive them and they call themselves the servants of his father’s God. Joseph lives shorter than any of his ancestors, 110 years. He assures his brothers that God will take them to the covenant land and asks them to take his bones with them when it happens. He is also embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt, and as we know, his brothers never left Egypt to be able to take him with them. His coffin is the last image in Genesis.

Genesis 41-45

I’m happy to be almost finished with Genesis.

41: Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams. This story continues to be very different in tone from the other stories of the patriarchs. It’s moralistic and linear. It’s odd that all Pharaoh’s soothsayers couldn’t interpret his dream, because I had the general impression throughout the Bible that prophets who aren’t called by God are fakes and are making up interpretations to begin with. It’s also odd to me, but may be a modern perspective, that Pharaoh would make Joseph second in command with no verification of the truth of his interpretation. It’s hard to tell how much of his rise was clever manipulation. It kind of sounds like he’s setting Pharaoh up when he suggests an overseer, but he’s so bland. Joseph marries the daughter of a priest, probably a sun worshiper. There’s no mention of religious tensions.

42: Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt. First Joseph tells the brothers that the test will be for all but one to be detained and the one to bring Benjamin. After three days, he changes it to detaining one brother and sending all the rest back to get Benjamin. Perhaps he believes that his brothers have also gotten rid of his full brother, who was also probably favored by Jacob. He detains Simeon, and when they return to Jacob, he acts as if Simeon is already gone, while telling them that he is the one who bears all the bereavement. Reuben steps up again as the one who appears to be trying to work things out – he was the one who wanted to spare Joseph – he promises the lives of his own two sons in return for Benjamin’s safety, something that would presumably not make their grandfather feel better.

The brothers act surprised twice when they find the silver in their packs, once on their return trip and once when they are emptying their packs at home. It’s unclear whether these are two versions of the story or if they’re acting out the story for Jacob.

43: Joseph’s brothers return with Benjamin. The ten brothers appear to lie to Jacob. In the previous chapter, they offered their family information to Joseph to convince him they weren’t spies, and here they tell their father that Joseph asked them specific questions about the family. This time Judah promises to be responsible for Benjamin, and Jacob accepts, perhaps a foreshadowing of Judah’s eventual inheritance of the birthright. Jacob was called Jacob in the previous chapter, but is called Israel here. Despite the famine, Jacob appears to still be wealthy, as he can offer more silver as well as many types of expensive goods.

Joseph seems to favor his full brother, perhaps deservedly since Benjamin was the only one not involved in his being sold into slavery. The Egyptians found it abhorrent to eat with the Hebrews, although presumably they ate with Joseph regularly. It seems a sign of contempt that might foreshadow their later slavery, but the commentary says that the Egyptians were prohibited from eating lamb, which was a primary Hebrew food.

44: Joseph frames Benjamin with stealing. Joseph’s household manager is responsible for putting the goblet in Benjamin’s bag and also for accusing him. It makes sense that he would be aware of both, if Joseph wanted to make sure no harm would come to his brothers because of the accuser’s anger. He tells them that Joseph uses the goblet for divining. Like when Rachel stole the household gods, the manager is promised that when the goblet is found, the thief will die, but this time the goblet is easily found.

Judah recounts the entire story of Jacob’s responses to Joseph. He acknowledges that Jacob acts as if Rachel were his only wife and elaborates on Joseph’s story of being allegedly killed by wild animals that wasn’t in the previous chapter. While I don’t condone the brothers’ past treatment of Joseph, I feel dully sad that they’ve acquiesced to being less loved, that losing Judah would be less terrible to Jacob than losing Benjamin. Judah asks to take Benjamin’s place.

45: Joseph reveals himself. Ugh at the moralizing. I think this is the first place that Hebrews/Jews as a remnant is introduced. Pharaoh is happy to have Joseph’s family come to live in Egypt. The thought that the ancestral land where Jacob lives is the land promised by God to Abraham doesn’t seem to come up.