The Anomalous Archive, Part XVII: 'The Strong Survive' by Frank Luke

[This review was originally posted on the Anomaly forum on January 12, 2011.]

"The Strong Survive," 2nd in Issue 6 of The Cross and the Cosmos 

This story provides another snapshot of the intricate high fantasy world that Frank Luke has created. Everything about the story flows from the well-designed and thoroughly planned fantasy setting. Although the worldbuilding is deep and thorough, the author avoids the pitfall of using made-up names without developing their significance in order to hide a lack of depth, which is a flaw that I think is fairly common in modern high fantasy. A couple place names and two cultures are identified on the very first page of the story in the PDF document, but the seasons have the same names as those in our world. Also, there is a balance between the number of original names and those taken from the standard fantasy conventions and/or traditional mythology. That's about what Tolkien did, so it must be good.

This is not to say that I don't have any problems with any of the fantasy elements. To be honest, I was really having a hard time getting past the initial description of the Sachalin race as people with lion or tiger heads.* The mental image I formed in my mind seemed ridiculous, and learning that they are also furry made it even worse. Perhaps this is a little unfair, since I have no problem with the talking animals in The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. I think much of my difficult does not really come from the conception of the Sachalin race itself, but of the blunt description of their animal features. I think it sounds rather clownish for the protagonist to think of the three different kinds of Sachalin as "lion-heads," "tiger-heads," and "cheetah-heads." In this case, I think more made-up names are in order. Instead of calling these three sub-races (or clans, or whatever they really are) by what kind of cat their heads look like, why not give each of them a name from a different Sachalin word? Over the course of a long narrative, the reader will learn about these three kinds of Sachalin, and eventually -- through description, and never directly stated -- the reader will see that Clan A resembles the lion, Clan B the tiger, and Clan C the cheetah. However, I grant that there was not nearly enough time in the space of this short story to develop the Sachalin race that way.

Perhaps because I had a mental image that I personally failed to reconcile to serious high fantasy (and this is more my problem than the story's), the characterization and dialog also sometimes seemed less than serious. Sometimes the dialog seemed a little too forced, especially in the case of the main supporting character. Some of the character concepts are quite unique.

The whole concept of Sachalin society, with its might-makes-right morality but yet a certain degree of medieval refinement, is also quite unique. It provides the framework for the theme that runs through the story. This brings the Christian message into the plot naturally. The story suggests the Christian theme of the weakness of the Flesh, that true strength is to deny the Flesh and its tendency toward sin and selfishness, even though doing so may make you susceptible to harm and death. Thus, the story both shows that the Sachalin worldview is in one sense completely wrong, and in another sense far more true than the protagonist could ever have comprehended. I don't think I've ever seen the Gospel presented so directly in fantasy before. It must have been difficult to develop such a profound theme in a fictional world.

"The Strong Survive" is a satisfying read, building up anticipation for more of Frank Luke's writing and world. The story is inspirational in the sense of catharsis and emotional wellness. By the end of the story, I had become fascinated with the Sachalin race and their kingdom, even though I may not like the way they look. I suspect we had a guest appearance of our friend from "Sunset Over Gunther." It was hard not to take a peak at the preview of "Pursuit," seeing as it was included in the PDF issue right after "The Strong Survive." "Pursuit" appears to bring our two heroes from the two stories featured in The Cross and the Cosmos together. It has been fun to follow the shared characters and timelines of the two stories published so far, and the little we can read of "Pursuit" is incredibly good!

*[The names of the Sachalin tribes have been changed for sequels since this review was written.]


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