Hey, everybody! Welcome back to Tumnus’ Bookshelf, where we review any and all books written by, about, and inspired by C.S. Lewis, The Land of Narnia, and The Inklings. For today’s review, we will be looking at Jennifer K. Johnson’s debut fantasy novel The Dark Mountain Chronicles Book One: The House of Envy!
Title: The Dark Mountain Chronicles Book One: The House of Envy
Author: Jennifer K. Johnson
Publisher: Xulon Press (July 26, 2016)
Deep in the world of the Dark Mountain lays a kingdom bound by the lies and deceptions of Apollyon. Only a few
know the truth and are dedicated to leading these captives back to the Creator. One such captive is Madam Angeline from the House of Envy. All her life she had been devoted to the Code of Glamour, a way of life that places the self and physical beauty above all else. That is until her sister, Julia casts her out from Hawthorne City, in a power grab.
Angeline is found by a young girl named Ellie and her family, a strange and wondrous group who do not need to be made up like the other people who live within the Dark Mountain. With the guidance of Ellie and her family, Angeline undergoes a remarkable journey home that shows her a world she never knew existed and causes her to confront many truths she never encountered, learns the meaning of love, undergoes a startling transformation, all leading to a final confrontation with her sister.
“What is real?” This has been a question that has dominated the thoughts of people throughout human history from Plato, to St. Paul, to Shakespeare, to CS Lewis, and even our recent blockbusters. Pontius Pilate even phrased this question to Jesus at his trial in the form of “What is truth?” It is also a question that permeates the brand new fantasy book House of Envy Book One: The Dark Mountain Chronicles. In this world all the people, male and female are painted up in a false illusion to mask their fallen nature. It is only those who have been transformed by the Creator who show their true form.
Everything in the Hawthorne City appeals to vanity and creates false illusions. An alterations expert injects customers with chemicals to change how they look. An Orb Dealer lies about the value of the orbs in order to destroy them. A Home of Temporary Unions lures men in with false promises that only lead to their doom, like Odysseus and the sirens. A proud and haughty noble woman lies and manipulates in order to get ahead in the world. Is this fantasy or our major news headlines? Author Jenifer K Johnson addresses many real world situations in what is not only her debut novel, but the first novel in her fantasy series.
The heroine of this story is Madam Angeline, a deposed noble woman whose own jealous sister has betrayed her and had her cast out to die. She starts out as the stereotypical spoiled rotten princess, whining and fussing and refusing to help others. However, through her experiences with the Wentworths she begins to change. We see her learn the importance of serving and helping others, and being a part of something more than herself.
In an interesting twist on fantasy tropes, Angeline’s primary guide is a little girl named “Ellie”. While Ellie’s parents and others in their community certainly do their part to help and guide Angeline, it is Ellie who has the greatest impact on her. In its own way, this dynamic makes sense. Ellie may be a child, but she possesses a child like faith that helps her to become wise beyond her years, while Angeline, though an adult is caught up in worldly pursuits and comes across as childish. This shows that wisdom is not something that is possessed only by the old, but sometimes can be revealed to children.
While there is a clear evil being, Apollyon, whose name is derived from that of the Fallen Angel who leads to the hoards of demons in the Last Days in the Book of Revelation to attack all those not sealed by God, his deeds are done behind the scenes. The main villain for this story is Madam Julia, who has traits of the wicked biblical queens Jezebel and Herodias, mixed with the vanity of the evil queen from Snow White, right down to the point that she would kill any rival, even her own sister to secure her place. Not only is she willing to dispose her sister, but she’s willing to hire an assassin to murder another woman who is engaged to marry a man Julia fancies. While Angeline becomes a woman of true love, Julia spirals to the point that she is trapped in a prison of her own design.
Also as a rarity in “faith-based” fantasy, we actually see characters like Ellie actually pray to the Creator. Typically in fantasy written by Christians characters either can speak face to face with the Deity, as is the case with the Pevensies in Narnia, or they are guided directly by an Angelic being as is the case with Bilbo, Frodo and their friends with Gandalf in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Here, Johnson shows that it’s only through prayer can real change occur. This story also doesn’t have huge epic battles like Narnia or Lord of the Rings, or even any other fantasy series, at least not in the physical sense. Here, the heroic characters fight a battle for the souls of the people of the kingdom, waging it with their words and acts of kindness and love. Further, in the world of The Dark Mountain Chronicles, salvation is re-imagined not just as simply parroting a prayer, but as a physical metamorphosis.
Johnson even manages to handle with a real sense of beauty and grace an important, real world, hot button topic in such a way that it brings tears to the reader’s eyes. The fact that it is dealing with a race of fairy folk and not humans helps make it more heart rendering. After all, who among us hasn’t clapped while reading Peter Pan in hopes of reviving Tinkerbell? Who hasn’t mourned the passing of the Third Age as the wizard Gandalf and the elves leave Middle-earth forever? Who hasn’t reached for the tissue box when Narnia is destroyed?
We feel a deeper connection to fairies, elves, and other fantastic creatures due to our deep fondness for these creations that have been a part of our lives since childhood. As CS Lewis once observed about a young boy reading fantasy literature, “He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” In this same way, by using Fairy folk, Johnson allows all life itself to feel a little more enchanted.
Thus, while other writers would perhaps be more of a blunt instrument when handling such a topic and beat the readers over the head, she handles it with such finesse that it is delicately woven into the story in such a way that it fits perfectly. This only proves that what CS Lewis, and so many other sci-fi and fantasy writers knew was true: sometimes any one of those kinds of stories can better address a real world situation better than an ordinary story set in our world. Johnson shows that this is done by stripping away the rhetoric and getting to the real core of what the issue is, we can still sneak past those watchful dragons of political bumper stickers and angry jargon.
While the main topics Johnson addresses are meant to speak to issues girls struggle with, there is plenty of mystery, intrigue, and even some creepy spine tingling aspects to keep the boys interested. None of these issues distract from the book, but rather they are envisioned as the seedy establishments scattered throughout Hawthorne City that give this fantasy world a feel almost reminiscent of the town of Vanity in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Not only is everything in both Vanity and Hawthorne City covered in a thin veneer that masks it’s lies and deceptions it plays towards the denizen’s pride and vanity, we see that it’s only by surrendering to the Creator that anyone can be free of its spell and see past the lies and false promises.
One of Johnson’s many goals in writing this novel is to create a vehicle with which young people can talk a bit more easily about issues they may struggle with. And indeed, The House of Envy is an excellent place for readers to have these discussions. More importantly she has crafted a wonderful fantasy novel that defies many of the established conventions of the fantasy genre and writes its own rules. At the same time, because of the issues it is willing to tackle; it’s a story that feels so relevant. Here’s hoping for more from this young, promising writer.
5 out of 5 stars.