Chosen Ones by Alister E. McGrath.
This is a children’s fantasy by a popular Oxford theologian. Its author would seem to have an agenda: guide children towards virtue, and ultimately towards Christ. Of course it reminds us of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, and that is a good thing, because books like those ones are needed nowadays. It is also the first book in a series called the Aedyn Chronicles.
I hesitated to buy Chosen Ones. Everything about it seemed right – Christian theologian, children’s fantasy in the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia, evocative cover art, nice descriptive prose (if the sample was anything to go by), a plot that paralleled Biblical events. The thing that made me cautious was the number of negative reviews. It does not automatically follow that if one is a Christian and a theologian one can write fiction (especially children’s fiction, which is harder to do). Perhaps that was the case here: perhaps McGrath was dabbling in a mode of writing that didn’t really suit him. Anyway, I eventually took the chance when I saw it on sale, and I’m glad I did.
I think the most useful thing I can do in setting out my thoughts here is to talk about the book’s positive and negative aspects. I’ll begin with the good things. For a while (for about the first third) I had the same feeling I get from reading a Narnia book. It was old-fashioned in a good way, with two rather well-brought-up children (yes, there are two children) who resemble the Pevensies of Narnia. They are not corrupted by modern values or technology, and the setting of the book could very well be mid-20th century (though this isn’t specified). Julia combines aspects of Lucy and Susan, and Peter resembles (at different times) Edmund and Peter (Peter Pevensie, I mean). They are both interesting and likeable, and it is their familiarity that makes them so endearing, one might say. The masked villains are also well done and suitably menacing, so no complaints there. Another strength of the book is the prose. McGrath writes very well – in fact he writes in a way strongly reminiscent of Lewis. The journey to the castle is described with the sort of feel for landscape and nature we see in Lewis’s Prince Caspian. A lot of the things that happen reminded me of different episodes in the Narnia Chronicles, but for me that was a good thing. A bit like revisiting an old friend, or reading a lost Narnia book that has recently been unearthed. The other great quality the book has is the theological underpinning. McGrath’s theological expertise gives the books a depth one does not normally find in children’s books, and there were several lump-in-the-throat moments.
Some of the strengths I mentioned above might to some feel like weaknesses. The lack of originality (yes, it feels like a Narnia book), the old-fashioned feel of the setting and characters, the detailed descriptions of place. Not for me though. In my opinion, there is only one thing holding Chosen Ones back from being a great children’s fantasy, and that is this: there isn’t enough fantasy in it. Lewis gave us wonders in every chapter: talking beasts, magic, monsters, creatures from Northern and Classical myths. McGrath gives us a medieval setting that is populated almost exclusively by humans. There is at least one animal that shows intelligence but on the whole there is very little to get excited about. The plot is also rather simple, but I do not feel this is a deal breaker: it is the serious lack of the fauna of a fantasy world that drags the thing down. McGrath writes so well that one feels he could write a great Narnia-style tale if he tried again and remembered to put a lot of fantasy into it. The theology is without fault, and his prose and descriptions are strongly reminiscent of Lewis, so give it another go, I say. Having said all this, I realise there are two more books in the series and perhaps these include more fantasy elements.
Even with the significant flaws described above I still enjoyed Chosen Ones. Taken as a medieval adventure tale (and yes, it could very well be a time travel story into England’s medieval past) it works well enough. I would recommend it for the values it promotes and the quality of the writing, and fans of Narnia will get that familiar feeling that they get from reading Lewis. But it could have been great, and I hope McGrath gives us more fantasy next time.