Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.
Several months back I was asked if I wanted to join the Speakeasy blogging network. The offer was something like this, “Hey, you seem intelligent and we have free books that need to be reviewed. Interested?”
They offered me free books, I joined.
This is my first review of a book acquired through Speakeasy – Father Dark, by Steven L. Case. Let me lay some groundwork for reading this book fairly.
First, it’s a work of fiction and not theology – it needs to stand on it’s own merits. If, in Case’s world, dead folks can become “guardians” then in that fictional universe it’s perfectly acceptable. Is this Christian theology? No. Nor does it have to be – it’s fantastical fiction and doesn’t claim to be anything else.
Second, if you interpret “Christian book” as “family friendly” then this not for you. Case doesn’t use any euphemisms to discuss very real and messy issues, and his characters swear, a lot. More on that in a minute.
Understand the ground rules? Let’s get on with the review.
Father Dark is pretty much the story of an anti-hero angel who comes down to Earth, kicks butt, and takes name. He has a rather unusual set of “working clothes” in which he does his primary work by night. During the day he is the eponymous “Father Dark,” a new Episcopal priest at an old inner-city church. If you ever read the graphic novel Batman: Holy Terror you pretty much have the picture of the plot. Only in this case, I found it boring instead of intriguing.
All we know about Father Dark’s mission is that he was sent down to earth on an assignment without an end date. Unfortunately, we never really find out what the mission is. We see him “clean up the neighborhood” in ever escalating acts of violence, but readers are never offered insight into why this work was so important it warranted angelic intervention. The story is mostly just a lengthy beat ‘em up with occasional interludes of conversation.
There’s a rather large ensemble of characters in this novel, few of which are ever developed. The story begins by reading over the shoulder of a troubled teen blogger 1. Her first blog entry is somewhat stereo-typical teen angst. Of all the characters in the novel, she is perhaps the most developed by the end of the tale. Her sharpness remains, but she allows her heart out a bit more.
Other than her, however, the rest of the characters show very little depth – they are either “all good” or “all bad.” Bad guys drop the F-bomb frequently, do drugs, and beat up women. Good guys go to church, served their country, and golf. Father Dark is supposed to be portrayed as a kind of “grey hat,” on the side of the angels but with a lot of darkness in his heart. The problem is, however, that his civilian identity is portrayed as being too nice. In a book which already calls for a significant suspension of belief, I had real trouble seeing Father Dark as anything more than a “nice guy” who dressed up at night to play hero. There is a revelation of Father Dark’s actual identity late in the story, but even that doesn’t offer him much depth. To be frank, Father Dark is far less interesting than his angelic sparring dummy, Gabriel.
Even with a shallow plot and poor character development, however, I do have to point out this book is funny. There were several moments where I found myself literally laughing out loud, and I don’t often do that with books 2. If you like a some British-like humor, then Father Dark might have some interest for you.
Case choose to write the novel from several different vantage points, depending on the scene being depicted. Father Dark is the general narrator, but for action scenes he often switches to a 3rd person perspective. It takes a little getting used to, but is actually one of the more interesting bits of the story – it gives it a more visceral feel.
The way language is used in the book was, sadly, something I found tiresome. Not, not offensive, tiresome. As I wrote above, the “bad guys” were the ones who swore the most – with “grey hats” like Father Dark and his teenage charge coming in second place. On one hand, I get it. People swear, a lot, and those who swear the most are seen in our culture as being “uncouth” at best. It would make sense, then, that the types of caricatures Case creates to make up the world of Father Dark would swear a whole lot. I just couldn’t get that the over use of cuss-words was a desperate grab for “edginess,” which ends up looking like a cheap narrative device.
Perhaps my greatest annoyance with Father Dark is the setting. Supposedly, the novel takes place in Philadelphia. I’m from Philadelphia, and I have no idea what city is depicted in the novel. Other than an occasional cheesesteak reference 3 and a reasonable depiction of Reading Terminal Market, there is not one reference in the novel which reflects an understanding of Philadelphia itself.
Philadelphia doesn’t have a “downtown,” it has “Center City.”
Philadelphia doesn’t have a “Lower East Side.” The “East part” of the city is actually in New Jersey.
Apparently you drive “across Independence Avenue” to get to Philadelphia’s “south side.” Independence Avenue is a street in Philly, but there is no “south side.”
The tallest building in Philadelphia the Comcast Center – it has 58 floors. There a building in Case’s Philadelphia with at least 65.
Philadelphia’s paper is the Inquirer, not the Enquirer.
I could go on, and if you weren’t from the Philly area you probably won’t care. Being from Philly, I do. Philadelphia is not a city of “sides,” it’s a city of neighborhoods. I know it’s fiction, but it’s supposed to be set in a realistic environment – Case gets the setting entirely wrong. I was also frustrated with the depiction of Philadelphia as a whole – it made Gotham City look like Palm Springs. Like all large cities, Philadelphia has serious problems, but the ridiculous cess-pit portrayed in the novel just doesn’t ring true.
Seeing Philadelphia through Case’s narrative eyes gave me the impression of someone who had heard about Philly, but never actually been there. It was frustrating for me as a reader, and the comments I received from folks on several of the misnomers was interesting 4.
I wish I could say I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t. I read the first third in one sitting expecting some slow reveals and character development. Instead, I was rewarded with cartoonish villains and a poorly-rounded anti-hero. I might have been more forgiving had the setting shown any sign of actual research, but it’s absence gave me several headaches.
If you like funny novels see if your library has it, but I can’t recommend purchasing this book.