The Anomalous Archive, Part VIII: 'Sunset Over Gunther'
[This review was originally posted on the Anomaly forum on April 15, 2010.]
"Sunset Over Gunther," 2nd in Issue 3 of The Cross and the Cosmos
The experience of reading "Sunset Over Gunther" was one of constantly changing expectations for me. The modern-sounding first-person narrative voice had me expecting some sort of irony at first, perhaps even a parody of the high fantasy genre. The title as well as some small details seemed to confirm this first impression as I started reading, but I think I misinterpreted. Doubtlessly, the colorful, modern-sounding narrative voice was intentional, but there is no parody in this story! On the contrary, "Sunset Over Gunther" is grimly serious, without so much as any indisputable comic relief to soften it. It is truly epic fantasy in every conceivable way.
Another way that this short story surprised me was its length. Perhaps it is longer than average for the stories that have so far been submitted to The Cross and the Cosmos, but that's not what I mean. After having finished my second reading of the story, I counted the number of pages that "Sunset Over Gunther" comprises in the PDF document of Issue 3, and I was amazed to discover how comparatively few pages I had read. The first time I read it, it had seemed to me as if it were longer. Although the plot does cover a lot of material, I think that the primary reason for this feeling of greater length is that the plot is structured almost exactly like that of a novel. The story begins with a miniature prologue, the length of which in comparison to the the whole short story is probably about proportional to the length of a novel's prologue in comparison to the whole novel. Unlike the traditional concept of the short story, and like a novel, the plot is not a linear narration of one incident and the immediate consequences but proceeds by jumping across several scenes. Of course, the scenes are much fewer and shorter than they would be in a book-length work. In fact, the only real design flaw that I noticed is that the rapid development of the plot in the few scenes takes away the sense of suspense that seems like it should be present, given the nature of the storyline. However, the only way to correct this, short of expanding the short story into a novel, would be to completely restructure and reduce the plot so that it could be related linearly.
There is no doubt that the plot is of epic proportions, but I think that this is more due to the serious characterization and the deep existential themes than to inherent greatness of the themes themselves. The characters are all portrayed with a solemn intensity. This is not to say that all the characters have solemn personalities, but they are all developed in a serious way. The protagonist is deeply portrayed in every detail of his being, because the first-person narration is told through his eyes. However, other characters do not have the chance to be developed beyond simple archetypes due to the fast rate of the plot, with the exception of one supporting character. The story is somewhat tragic, but it is not a pure tragedy in the Shakespearean sense because the downfall of the protagonist is the inevitable result of fate, not caused by a tragic character flaw. Anyways, I don't feel that the the protagonist's downfall is complete. The stage is set for the tragic hero to find spiritual resolution in a sequel.
The nature of the fantasy world that these characters inhabit was another area in which my first notions, and even my second ones, proved to be inaccurate. The worldbuilding is not really nonstandard in any way; it is a fairly typical high fantasy. This fantasy world does lack much of the high romantic quality of Tolkien's, but that's not necessarily unusual in modern fantasy. The real surprise was that the protagonist's people worship a pantheon of deities not unlike those of Greek or of Norse mythology. Although magic is not directly seen in this story, the setting has a sword-and-sorcery feel to it, reminiscent of roleplaying settings such as Forgotten Realms. There are people in this world who worship the Triune Christian God, and it seems likely that their religion is essentially historical Christianity, pasted into the fantasy context. This nation, for all intents and purposes Christian, is the hostile enemy of the protagonist's people. It is implied that this monotheistic enemy is motivated only by greed; the author is not very sympathetic to them. Thus, the external conflict is between the infidels on the one hand, and the Pharisees on the other. There are other cultures and peoples besides the these two hostile human kingdoms. A fair level of design has gone into the worldbuilding. I particularly enjoyed discovering the way that surnames are formed in the protagonist's culture.
The confusion and especially and especially the spiritual ignorance of the characters provides the basis for the philosophical theme of this work of literature. The internal conflict raises the age-old issue of the apparent paradox between free will and fate (predestination). The disillusionment that the protagonist finds through the failure of his attempts to be strong and heroic lays forth the question of the value of the individual, and the source of that value.
The technical aspect of this complicated story seems to be polished and professional. My attention was caught in the very first line by the skillful poetic quality of the opening sentence. The writing is perfectly capable throughout. However, there are some instances of ambiguity due to the colloquial first-person narrative voice.
"Sunset Over Gunther" takes a bold literary approach to spiritual issues from a Christian perspective. I don't think all Christian authors, or maybe even readers, could handle it. There is some potentially uncomfortable content in the story, and I could imagine its earnest intensity and unbroken severity turning some people off. Personally, I love the story, and I appreciate the philosophical dilemma. In all of literature, it must be hard to find the hopelessness of the human condition explored so concisely as we find in "Sunset Over Gunther." In the process, this story makes our own hope and peace in Christ all the more precious to us, and I stand in awe.