The Anomalous Archive, Part XII: 'The Quest' by J.L. Rowan
[This review was originally posted on the Anomaly forum on June 3, 2010.]
"The Quest," 3rd in Issue 4 of The Cross and the Cosmos
One of the basic, though probably not essential, elements of high fantasy is the "adventure quest" plotline. With some occasional exceptions, most of our favorite high fantasy sagas begin with the protagonist being forced to embark upon a fearful pilgrimage of epic proportions. "The Quest" by J.L. Rowan is built upon the adventure-quest plot archetype, as the title of the story indicates.
This is not to say that the plot of "The Quest" is much like typical high fantasy conventions. For one thing, this quest is of a much more personal nature than the journeys in high fantasy novels. To some degree, every adventure-quest plot is a personal pilgrimage. The plot of the novel, however, is more concerned with apocalyptic struggles and the fate of its imaginery world than with the fate of its protagonist's heart.
The individual nature of the personal pilgrimage in this short story is reminiscient of the great allegories of classic literature, such as The Pilgrim's Progress and The Summoning of Everyman. Because "The Quest" does not use personifications of abstract virtues and vices as characters, the similarity is more of atmosphere and affect rather than of technique. Although "The Quest" is not a direct allegory, its symbolism is important. There is at least one instance of very specific symbolism, which is a major component of the overall theme.
The convention of the magical-psychological bond is used to represent the relationship between God and the Christian. The unique version of the bond presented in this story seems to be responsive only to the extent that the protagonist trusts in her bonded. I would suppose that spatial separation, or any other factors that affect the strength of magical-psychological bonds in various fantasies, has litte or no bearing on this bond. The character on the other side of the bond explicitly represents God as the object of the protagonist's faith and the guide of her soul.
Other symbolism is less obvious. The protagonist belongs to a particular order, out of whose ranks she is called to set forth upon her quest. This raises the obvious questions of the symbolic identity of the order, of the quest, and of the calling. For example, the quest in The Pilgrim's Progress is the whole story of the redemption of a soul seeking God. Such an interpretation doesn't fit quite as nicely for "The Quest," although the twist at the end perhaps permits it. It is better to think of the protagonist's journey more specifically as the Christian life, or a particular aspect of it. The order is an assembly sword to the service of its kingdom (and perhaps its deity, which is not clear); each member of the order is party to the faith-based magical-psychological bond. In the limited context of the short story itself (not necessarily in the broader context of the author's fantasy world), it would seem that the members of the order are the Christians, and the protagonist's quest is her Christian experience. One problem with this interpretation is that the protagonist is unusual among her order for having been called to a quest. Maybe the calling represents the Great Commission of personal evangelism, which not all Christian actively fulfill. It could even be interpreted as the noble call to be a missionary. The resolution of the story may support these interpretations. Another possibility is that the order represents the outwardly professing Church, and only those few among the order who receive a call to a quest and answer it are the truly born-again Christians.
A couple places in the narrative make use of "telling" to fill in some details of the worldbuilding. Even though it is, of course, preferable to reveal such information diffused throughout the course of a work, the author made a fair use of the device, without showing off more of her creation than necessary to provide a backgrouned for the all-important quest. There are indications that the total worldbuilding is more comprehensive than readfers encounter in the story. I found it difficult to evaluate the writing, since I don't know much about ponts-of-view. I don't know that omniscient POV is ever used, but the narrative is not a very limited third-person POV, either. It's definitely not stream-of-consciousness.
The short adventure-quest plotline together with a thoroughly-conceived high fantasy realm make for an entertaining and meaningful read. I enjoyed "The Quest" very much. I just wish I were smart enough to figure out the meaning of the twist at the end.