I wasn’t ready to turn to stone.
So begins Nadine Brandes’ epic YA Christian historical fantasy (a combination I don’t think I’ve ever seen before), Fawkes. I’d heard of it many times before actually reading it, and my impressions were definitely wrong. The first thing I thought of was, of course, a certain phoenix of Harry Potter fame. The mask on the cover made my mind jump to acting and drama. The term “historical fantasy” intrigued – and confused – me. And the first page, in which the main character Thomas Fawkes tries to cover up his turned-to-stone eye, merely added to the uncertainty.
What was this book about? A plague in which people turn to stone? A society in which everyone wears a mask? A school where the pupils “bond” to colors, and those who fail to do so are outcast? Where men and women speak the languages of colors, and they obey? Where people are separated by the terms “Keeper” and “Igniter”?
And all that in the first six pages.
Well, I was right and I was wrong. The book is about all of that, and none of it. It’s about divisions – and the reasons for them. It’s about boundaries – and those who dare to cross them. It’s about fighting for what you believe in – and learning that it’s wrong. It’s about finding something to die for – and finding something to live for.
I just finished reading it this morning, and I’m already ready to start over. The gift it gave me is indescribable. Some books have the power to change how we see the world, and this one did it for me. I now see the divisions in my world not as barriers, but as opportunities.
I invite you to do the same. Pick up Fawkes! Read it! Learn from it! (And marvel at this gorgeous cover!)
I’m now going to move on to thoroughly review the book, and while I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, I can’t promise anything. So please, if you would like to read the book and decide what you like (and don’t) about it for yourself, stop here. Read it. Then come back and see what I thought.
But if you want to hear more about the book (with as few spoilers as I can manage), read on!
In 1604, Thomas Fawkes is sixteen and about to receive his color mask, which will allow him to control the color that bonds with him (meaning he will be able to manipulate with his mind things that are that color). He hopes that this power will help him cure his plague, which has already turned one of his eyes to sightless stone. But when his father, Guy Fawkes, refuses to give him a mask, he runs to London and becomes involved in a plot to assassinate King James. You see, King James is an Igniter – he believes that masked people should not only control the color of their mask, but all colors, and speak to the White Light. Thomas is a Keeper, and has been taught that speaking to the White Light is dangerous and wrong.
Thomas starts out helping with this plot only because he’ll have the chance to gain his mask in the end. But it becomes personal when people he knows are killed for the fight. And it becomes confusing when one of his friends is revealed to be an Igniter – with proof and passion for her stance. Which side is right, and where should Thomas stand?
what I liked
The writing is magnificent. Nadine Brandes knows words, and she uses them to great effect. Her style is easy, flowing, and simple – but she knows how to throw a punch, and she does it. Just when we think we know her writing, how she’s going to say something, she changes it up. Perfectly.
Emma’s chin lifted. Defiant…. A line of freckles ascended from her left upper lip and ended beneath her eye… like a constellation…. Emma wasn’t slave or servant.
She was… Emma. Powerful. Masked. Artist. And I imagined everything she’d been hiding and how long she’d been hiding. How alone she must have felt. (p. 222)
The plot had me reading quickly, wanting to know what happened next. There was only one place where I paused, turned a few pages ahead, and checked to see when it would get interesting. And that’s saying something – the way I read is rather odd (I will skim a two-page spread, then read the first paragraph, skip to the next interesting one, read a few more, then go back and read everything I missed before moving to the next spread), and it’s rare that a book has the power to hold me where I am, keep me in its thrall, instead of letting me go so I can turn ahead before coming back. This book captured me for nearly all of its story. It clocks in at 430 pages. They were all interesting.
I loved the historical details too. I’ve never really studied the period the story was set in, so I learned a lot (although of course I should probably research the 1600s in England to figure out how much of what I learned was made up and how much is accurate). The relationships between people of different skin colors was eye-opening. I didn’t know that slavery was already illegal in England at this point (the U.S. was way behind on that one)!
People in elaborate costumes stood inside the shell – all blackened with paint.
Like the boy I saved.
But it didn’t created the same intrigue as his natural, smooth dark skin. These painted bodies looked almost comical – or disturbing, as though they’d been dipped in tar but not feathered….
The Negroes left their shell and stepped foot on Brittania’s shore and their dark sin turned miraculously pale…. [Emma’s] hands fisted at her sides. (p. 214)
The conflicts on so many different levels were gripping and detailed. There was the Keeper/Igniter fight, the masked/maskless power gap, the rich/poor difference, the white/black (skin) discrimination, and the plagued/healthy separation. Thomas was a maskless, poor, white, plagued Keeper. Another main character was a masked, rich, black, healthy Igniter (placing them on opposite sides in every conflict). But the lines weren’t so clear: other characters were rich Keepers, plagued masked, and maskless black-skinned. Very few characters were complete opposites of each other, and so who was friend and who was enemy was hard to sort out.
In fact, it took nearly the entire book before I figured out which side – Keeper or Igniter – I was on. Usually, when I read a book in which the main character is uncertain which side he should be on, I as the reader know immediately what he should do and am cheering him on when he makes the right choice and yelling at him when he does the wrong thing. (I frequently yell at Luke Skywalker.) But with Fawkes, I didn’t know which side was “good” (or were either of them really good?), and I hoped Thomas was making the right choices without knowing much anything.
Eventually, though, the morals came out. My favorite kind of book teaches you something about right and wrong, and Fawkes didn’t disappoint. One of my favorite scenes has Thomas arguing with an Igniter friend. (In this scene, Thomas is the point of view character: the “I.”)
“Be careful, Thomas… Be careful that you’re fighting for the right cause.”
I snorted. “What, for the Igniters?”
“No. Don’t fight for the Igniters. Don’t fight for the Keepers.”
…”Shouldn’t I fight for what I believe in?”
“It’s not as simple as that. Fighting for what you believe in is too subjective.”
I raised my head to meet [my friend’s] eyes.
“We need to fight for truth. Your beliefs can be misguided.”
“So can yours,” I ground out, defensive…
“Exactly. Both Igniters and Keepers and people in between fight for their own agendas… instead of being willing to discuss and seek what’s right.” (pp. 266-267)
Later in the story, Thomas is talking to the White Light (which turns out not to be as bad as he thought). He’s contemplating betraying some of his friends since his convictions have changed.
Was this right? Could I betray them? After all, they were fighting for what they believed in. For what I used to believe in. But didn’t most bold acts arise from someone’s belief?
“Belief needs to be founded in more than just personal convictions.”
But I am choosing to believe in you.
“I am not subjective. I am foundational.” (p. 350)
After the death of one of his companions (who is actually on the other side of the conflict), Thomas begs the White Light to “take care of him.”
“I never stopped,” it says.
what I didn’t like
[I will be sharing some quotes from the story that relate to what I didn’t like. The main reason I didn’t like them is because of violence/mature themes, so if you don’t want to read that, skip ahead to the next section.]
The violence in Fawkes was surprising and felt rather out of place with the rest of the story. It’s branded as YA (which I mostly agree with), and there was no swearing and no sexual content (there was one kiss, but that’s it). However, there was plenty of violence. Hangings took place:
He reached the top of the ladder. A man slipped the noose around his neck. Then [he] leaped from the ladder and met his death. (p. 426)
A traitor’s sentence was mentioned (I’m guessing this is historically accurate):
Hung till near dead, then disemboweled while still alive. Then cut into pieces and burned. All in front of a cheering crowd. (p. 412)
And bloodshed and violence were described:
“Ye ‘aven’t ‘eard, then?” ….
I ceased my breathing and swallowed hard. “Heard?” ….
“O’ the six massacred Igniters.”
I stiffened. “No.”
“Their blood tore right out o’ their bodies.” (p. 132)
There was also one battle scene, a couple of duels, and some mentions of other punishments/deaths. The battle wasn’t that violent; one person was stabbed (but recovered), some people were shot (their deaths were not described graphically), and there was a lot of arguing and insulting. The most disturbing part of the scene, actually, was that people were turning to stone.
In addition, there was some strong language. Not really swearing/cursing, but insults. A character says, “If you do not agree to all my terms… then I shall tell my guardian that you forced yourself upon me and – after he castrates you – he will string you up on the gallows without a tongue!” (p. 105). Later, after Thomas spends some time with a girl outside, her (unwelcome) suitor reprimands Thomas: “Get off her, you dog.” He tells the girl, “You were throwing yourself at that plagued Keeper like some street trull” (she was doing nothing of the kind) (pp. 224-225).
Finally, some characters don’t have healthy familial relationships (although they do learn, eventually, to treat each other with respect). I don’t have a problem with this through the course of the story. However, once a father tries to kill his son without knowing who he’s killing, and then later, he tries again, this time with full knowledge of his crimes.
[REALLY, THERE IS A BIG SPOILER BELOW!]
But this too is redeemed. (In a sequence with violence.)
I saw my father’s face.
And it was kind.
Broken, twisted, bleeding, and bruised, but filled with a fierce strength that buoyed my courage….
“Do you see?” [Father] cried…. And that was when I saw the flash… the glimmer of White [Light] mingling with the blood that slipped from [his face]….
The hangman had had enough. He reached down and yanked Father upward, breaking Father’s balance. His foot slipped; his hand groped for a hold and met nothing…
Then I saw him, lying in a twisted form, but with a relaxed body. Free of pain. White and Red pooling around his head….
A new mask for him to wear – of blood and light. (pp. 428-429)
That’s actually more of a positive than a negative here. The bloodshed (in this case, and in a few others), actually adds to the story. If only it wasn’t so surprisingly stark and out of place in others, I might have only good things to say about Fawkes.
[END OF SECTION ABOUT VIOLENCE/MATURE CONTENT]
ratings and recommendations
Writing: 9/10. I’d almost give this a 10, but I don’t think that’s humanly possible. Nadine Brandes knows her stuff, though. I can’t wait to read more of what she’s written (next up: her Out of Time series).
Plot: 9/10. It could have moved faster in a few places, but it was interesting even when it was slow, and in the end, I was satisfied with the journey I’d gone through with Thomas.
Style: 9.5/10. Similarly to the writing, this was very good. My favorite thing was her use of periods in the middle of phrases. She didn’t overuse it (unlike some authors I could name), so when she did it, it was perfect.
What did she think of me? I swallowed. Hard. Waiting for it – the moment that always dehumanized me…
But it didn’t come.
She didn’t. Look. Away. (p. 66)
Worldbuilding: 9.5/10. My only complaint is that I couldn’t tell where the fact ended and the fiction began.
Mature content: I covered that above, in the section about what I didn’t like, but mainly there was some violence that I did NOT enjoy.
Morals/theme: 9/10. If Nadine had explained more about the White Light (where it came from, if it was a he or she or neither and why, what its specific powers were) and about what happens to characters after they die (is there a heaven? hell? something else?) I would’ve given this an even higher rating. It’s just a bit ambiguous, so I don’t know what she believes and I have no opportunity to critique it.
Age recommendation: At least 13. This is more of a personal issue. The writing level, anyone 10 and up could probably handle, but with the surprising violence and a few references to mature themes, I think the YA rating is just right, and I’d be careful reading it if you are sensitive to violence.
what you should do
Well, you don’t have to do anything I tell you. But here’s what I recommend. If you haven’t read Fawkes, do yourself a favor and read it. There’s so much good in it. So much to learn. I’m so glad I read it, and I want to talk to you about it!
Secondly, check out Story Embers (www.storyembers.org) this summer. They’re going to do an article series on Christian fantasy writing, with examples from Fawkes. I’m so excited!
And if you have read Fawkes?
- Tell me what you thought. I really want to talk about it to someone.
- Read it again (optional).
- Read other books by Nadine Brandes (she has a series called Out of Time and a new historical fantasy, releasing May 2019, called Romanov).
- Research King James, Guy Fawkes, and the historical setting of Fawkes to find out how much was made up (there is an author’s note, but it doesn’t explain everything I wanted to know).
- Check out Story Embers (see above).
- Try out these books that remind me of Fawkes:
- Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Tells an alternate history of our world, set in England in the 1800s, in which magic is real but has been forgotten, and two wizards with very opposing viewpoints set out to rediscover it.
- The Emerald Atlas and sequels, by John Stephens. Three children find out that they have power over magic books and have to travel back in time (all the way to 1900 in the second book) to change the world.
- The Shakespeare Stealer, by Gary Blackwood. A historical fiction in which a boy is forced to try and steal Shakespeare’s plays.
- Auralia’s Colors, by Jeffrey Overstreet. A masterful fantasy by a Christian author, following a group of characters with various powers (one of them has power over colors, which reminds me of Fawkes; other powers include firewalking and stone shaping).
- Watch the movie Belle (rated PG). Nadine Brandes has said it inspired some elements of Fawkes, and I think it’s a great movie.
- Share the book with your friends!
I really, really like Fawkes. It’s a great story, well-written, with some messages we could all use in our lives. And here’s my favorite:
I didn’t fear death, but neither did I crave it.
Not like the handful of men – of friends – before me, strapping their masks to their faces. Loading their wheellock barrels. Dispensing of their scabbards, knowing they’d have no reason to sheathe a sword after this moment.
They had something worth dying for.
“Ah, but you have something they don’t.”
And what’s that?
“Something worth living for.” (p. 395)