“Life and Death in Balance”

Review by Joey Madia

As a fantasy writer, I know quite well the challenges (and rewards) of writing in a genre with abundant tropes and forebears with names like Tolkien, Lewis, and Martin. There is much to live up to and every opportunity to make anew, with a fresh perspective or unique element, must be seized.

Daniel Lawley has succeeded in honoring the fantasy genre, while emphasizing adventure and religious–philosophical elements that allow his novel to stand on its own amidst excellent company.

Each chapter of Bliss begins with an excerpt from an ancient book, rhyme, song, or proverb. This is a crucial device in Fantasy to give the world depth, history, and substance. These epigraphs also cue the reader to the philosophical themes being explored in each chapter, working, in quatrains, like a Greek chorus.

The world of Bliss has two suns, which is interesting because the story is rich with dichotomies… life and death, light and dark, powerful and powerless, good and evil… all the things we expect in a Fantasy–Adventure novel. As the two suns shine down upon the characters, they are constantly reminded of these dualities, which operate in dynamic tension throughout, yielding notable effects.

At first, as we are introduced to such religious entities as the Order of the Pearl and the Temple of the Three, we can emerge easily into the world through the classic religious symbolism of the Trinity.

A familiar door opened, we then witness the Inciting Incident that leads to the Call to Adventure—a nine-year-old girl named Armatrine Dupree is taken by the priests of the Order from her guardian, Arlandus. Reminiscent of Witcher and the Merlin sagas, we learn that Armatrine is the Chosen One. And who doesn’t like a story filled with the grim struggles, self-doubt, and quest for redemption after costly mistakes that come with honoring your purpose, no matter the personal cost?

Lawley quickly establishes himself as a writer with a flare for words and poetic images. For example: “In the orange flare of burning candle light a sinister crimson crept.” “… his cutlass, razor sharp and dripping with murderous intent.” “…friction transforming her skin into a chitinous carapace.”

If you’re lost on that last pair of words, look them up. It’s a spot-on description of the object in question.

As many know, I do a lot of storytelling, writing, and performing as pirates in the Golden Age. So I was thrilled to find here this misunderstood breed of rebel revolutionary in the guise of sky-sailors who are in many ways like the pirates of the 1600s–1700s. Having been immersed in research for five years, I guarantee Lawley knows this world well. Other than the sea being replaced by the sky, protocols and the ship itself operate almost exactly as in long-ago Earth times (pay attention to almost—Lawley created interesting upgrades). Also like our history, the powers that be are compelled to action against the pirates when their bottom line suffers, when they then go full on, the whole nine yards. The lead pirate is Captain Afton Orochi, of the wonderfully named Stormkite. If you like blaring cannons, press gangs, boarding raids, and daring maneuvers, Orochi delivers them all.

The action sequences are elegantly described and full of energy. Lawley gives us a swordfight complete with technical terms (strike, reposte) that speak to authenticity through research, although they don’t delay the story for an instant.

This balance of detail and energy also comes into play with the abstract elements of Bliss. This is not just an adventure story but high fantasy filled with the spiritual and philosophic. Lawley has created an impressive array of character types to explore different expressions of these themes. The narrative never bogs down with didactic passages, even from the priests. Questions of Cosmic Balance, Destiny, and the role we each play in the dance; themes of matriarchy and the Triple Goddess; following our inner voice; the limits of Materialism; what constitutes True Power; and the Oneness behind Duality—all are explored by the actions of the characters, summed by the quote: “All creation existed in a circular state.”

These are crucial themes in light of the times in which we find ourselves.

Further driving the action, there is an object that must be found and retrieved, part and parcel of the requisite hero’s journey, which is laced with serious challenges and entertaining surprises that kept me turning pages.

Stories are nothing without their malcontents, willing to ransom the kingdom or ruin social order to get the wealth and power they believe they deserve. In Bliss, this character is Brother Mitrick Tenebris, who sells his soul in service to a character that all I wish to divulge about is that she is in some aspects the trope of the dark, evil goddess and in others a breath of fresh air and essential to the philosophical structure of the themes. In Jungian terms, the shadow aspect so crucial to personal and Universal balance—that which we deny or suppress—comes back to destroy us. Their scenes are crisp and easily visualized. Were I to cast this for film, Stephen Dillane and Katie McGrath would be perfect.

Although Bliss features what most call magic, it is woven in subtly and is very much a part of Lawley’s carefully crafted world. Being a practitioner of meditation, lucid dreaming, and astral travel, I categorize it as much more a part of the natural world than the supernatural one, as it is for the characters.

There are moments in Bliss that writers of fantasy should take note of and learn from. The action and violence can be brutal. Rightfully so. Making war all about glory on a horse (or quarterdeck) and not in the mud, muck, and mire does a disservice. So when Lawley writes, post-battle, “All around her the wounded lay bleeding, or dying, or soiling themselves with the fear of the end and the release of bodily functions,” that’s a lesson in writing Reality into your Fantasy.

In these Trying Times, it is important to remember that all things—people, organizations, or ideas—eventually die, which makes way for the new.

Bliss offers such comfort, balanced with eloquent reminders of the often steep price such a cycle demands.

TITLE: Bliss
AUTHOR: Daniel Lawley
PUBLISHER: United Kingdom, 2020
ISBN: 9798633753684