Book Review: Francis W. Porretto’s ‘Shadow of a Sword’

Eschatology is that branch of theology concerned with where reality and the soul are heading, the ultimate disposition of all things. In the materialist view, human beings end when they are all dead, and everything else ends somewhere along the path to when the universe either drifts completely apart, to the point where it is of no effect, a death by entropy, or where it implodes back beyond the infinitesimal into non-existence. That’s why materialists are so dull and ultimately so empty. They only answer the questions that materialism asks and declare all else fiction, as if materialism wasn’t the most made up of all final conceits.

I write that paragraph, in preparing to review Francis W. Porretto’s third book in his Realm of Essences series (hard to continue calling it a trilogy when he’s contemplating a fourth book), as a limbering up exercise, much the way a boxer limbers up in the ring before the first round. Porretto is a Roman Catholic and the Realm of Essences series is described by him as Christian fantasy. His work is all I know of the genre, but I don’t really ever believe in the idea of genre (and I mean believe in it the way a kennel club believes that individual dogs must conform to the standards of their breed to attain recognition, and certainly must produce the papers of pedigree to even be considered). So genre, I speak for myself, ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.

Let’s go deeper. Look into Carl Jung’s Archetypes or Plato’s Ideal Forms and you look into very literal approaches to Metaphysics. There is in Jung or Plato another realm beyond the physical from which our realm is, what, copied? Inspired? Thrown together? In other words, in the literal Realm Metaphysical are found the forms, and/or forces, that give shape to our raw material, our physical laws, our rocks, our very flesh, much as the shadows that form in our human minds as ideas originate all human artifacts. You think of DNA, for instance, and you know that you have, not a tiny model that expands to full size, but a code that instructs proteins what shapes to take, and these instructed proteins keep building until the whole living thing is formed. Where does the DNA code come from? If you’re not a strict materialst and hence do not believe that the code, why, it’s based on the biological shape that it in turn produces from, ah, its code, then it is possible, if you don’t believe that, to see that code as a translation, by the numbers that mysteriously underlie our world, from that other realm to this one.

Well, if you think along those lines, and can place it all in the context of Creator, Creation and Creature, and can harmonize in six parts, and want to think about such things, then you are ready for this third novel in Porretto’s Realm of Essences series. But I hasten to add that you don’t in fact have to be ready for it to read it. How often are we really ready for anything anyway?

Here, in Shadow of a Sword, we have a many millennia long battle shaping up in a time resembling our present, complete with modern attitudes and contemporary politics. The combatant archetypes are akin to the disgustingly evil Iago of Shakespeare’s Othello (who in the Realm is known as Tiran, but in our sphere possesses the body and mind of Adam Zlugy, a political consultant with the power to tell people not what to think but what they are thinking and what they will do) versus the Two Samurai (one from the Realm named Franz who lives among us as Malcolm and then a special creature, Christine, who is both of and not of the Realm). We know both of them from the first two novels in the series, Chosen One and On Broken Wings (both very highly recommended).

Much like in the series of The Godfather movies, the principal character of the Realm series dies early, in the early parts of the second book, On Broken Wings. His name is, of course, Louis Redmond, a Nietzchean superman suffused with Christian virtue. He leaves behind his mentor (the aforesaid Malcolm) and his protégé (the aforesaid Christine). As series readers, we miss Louis, but his death has heightened the action in a way that keeps us going like there was no tomorrow. Porretto has indeed become a master of the urgent present, and his characters, both the natural and the seriously more than natural, walk that edge. What is urgent in this world is equally urgent in the Realm, though it could hardly be said that the respective timepieces are synchronized. Though, at the end of the day, everyone in this world lives and talks as we do, and whatever special talents anyone has do not release them from worldly existential yearnings, what I sometimes call the dynamic yearnings of the Lifeworld.

There, I don’t think that I’ve spoiled anything, while hoping that appetites are left stimulated. Readers of the first two novels, accustomed to Porretto’s fluid and engaging prose, will find the landscaping this time out harder of surface and more direct. There’s also a political boulevard running through the middle of this novel and it’s pretty damn interesting. Porretto’s search for honest men in his fiction has led him to search for something even more unlikely, an honest politician, and by finding one he realizes that he ipso facto has placed him in harm’s way. There are good and deadly reasons why politics is the wrong place and wrong time for an honest man.

In closing, we all ask ourselves at different points in our lives what the hell is wrong with the world? In this series, Francis Porretto has tried to illustrate that wrongness in several of his characters and thrown them into contrast with characters of heroic virtue. The first two novels hint at the deeper reaches, the not-of-this-world reaches, of that wrongness, and here he follows through on that, and actually answers the question.

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