In Teresa Frohock’s debut fantasy novel Miserere, action takes place on Woerld, a plane that is the waystation between Earth and Hell. On Woerld, different religions have citadels, and are represented by Katharoi, paladin warrior magicians drawn from the people of Earth for their varying magical powers. Working together, these Katharoi citadels have just enough strength to prevent the forces of Hell from rising up and invading Earth, and through Earth, Heaven. Using a divide-and-conquer strategy, the forces of Hell try to drive wedges between the various Katharoi, and in the past they succeeded in tricking the Zoroastrians into rebellion against the others. Separated, the Zoroastrians were easily picked off and their land was destroyed, becoming a vast Wasteland. Having somewhat learned their lesson, the other Katharoi returned to working together and held, beleaguered, the balance.
Enter protagonist Lucian Negru, who carries some difficult burdens. Because of a promise to his dying parents, he rescued his sister Catarina from Hell, leaving his lover Rachael to her own devices in the process. Rachael escaped, but with a demon wyrm inside slowly taking control of her consciousness. In punishment, Lucian was banished from the citadel where he trained as a Christian Katharoi. Too late he discovered that sister Catarina had already sold her soul to Hell. She crippled Lucian to keep him servile by her side while she planned with her demon Cerberus to wreak further havoc.
Miserere opens as Lucian makes a mad dash from Catarina’s control. He suspects it’s a kind of suicide, but he’s tired of living under her thumb. He tries to make a run through the Wasteland to turn himself in for judgment by his former Katharoi allies, but he almost immediately runs into a girl and her brother who have just crossed through the Veil from Earth to Woerld. To save the girl, Lindsay, Lucian uses his magical talent and crosses through Hell gates to rescue her. This further violates the conditions of his exile and two representatives of the spy-beleaguered Christian Katharoi are sent to bring Lucian in. One of these is none other than Rachael, who is battling the wyrm inside her, torn between her former love for Lucian and her desire to revenge herself against him for leaving her in Hell. Meanwhile, despite his attempts not to involve her in his quandary, Lindsay is bonding to Lucian as she tries to cope with the strange surprise of her new surroundings and learn her own powerful magic.
All of that is just the set-up for the main drama in Miserere, a fantasy made exceptional by unusual but convincing world building, by its unique melding of religion and fantasy, by sympathetically tormented characters, and by a story with real emotional power. In only 280 pages—a relatively short span by the standards of modern fantasy fiction—Frohock builds her world, populates it with characters you’ll care about, and brings the first leg of her story to a satisfying close while paving the way for a series. This is a great debut, and I’ll be watching for further installments.
Check the WRL catalog for Miserere: an Autumn Tale