Miserere: An Autumn Tale is Teresa Frohock’s debut novel. It posits a level of reality where faith is physical, prayer is power, and demons are very real.
The world that Frohock has created feels both unique from and similar to our own. That dissonant similarity is evoked in its name, ‘Woerld’. In a sense, Woerld is quite familiar. It’s populated by a culture that feels, and acts, like medieval Europe. There’s towering citadels, men with large swords, and a warrior elite, defined by their faith. On the other hand, that last similarity defines the key difference between Woerld and our own reality – in Woerld, faith is real, and provides power. The warriors are, quite literally, warriors of the divine. They draw power from it, and use it to fight the very clear and very present danger of a demonic horde.
Interestingly, Frohock avoids using a fictional religion for her purposes. Instead, the faith of the characters is mapped to religions in our own world. The characters that the book follows are largely based around the ‘Citadel’, which seems broadly based around Christianity – but there’s mention of other bastions as well, including the wonderfully named ‘Rabbinate’, and a shattered city dedicated to Zoroastrianism. In part, this is due to one of the other quirks in the setting – the ‘Red Veil’. This rather worryingly named phenomenon occasionally appears, and links areas of Woerld with our own world – drawing people through from the former to the latter, bringing their faith with them.
Frohock’s world is one with a structure and order defined by conflict, where a common enemy affects humanity. Of course, since that enemy is actually demonic, there’s always the opportunity for temptation, and a very literal fall from grace.
The characters that the reader follows through the narrative have all managed to take an unfortunate step or two down that path, for one reason or another. The core of the story is wrapped around the relationship of a duo – an exiled exorcist, who entered hell with his love in order to retrieve his sister – and the cause of his exile, the love whom he abandoned in hell whilst performing the rescue. The latter was eventually retrieved, but suffers from blackouts and intermittent demonic possession; the former is crippled, forced to live with his sister, whose rescue was anything but – she’s quite happily embraced the worship of demons.
It seems a bit convoluted, but Frohock excels at bringing the characters to life. Unlike the typical teenage fantasy hero, most of her characters are middle aged, at least slightly cynical, and weary. When the exorcist hobbles from his sister’s house, in an effort to escape, you wince with every clack of his walking stick on the roads; when his love repudiates him, using coldness as armour against forgiveness, you can almost feel the frost riming the page, and feel torn by both points of view.
The exorcist is tormented, wrung out by his betrayal of a lover for his sister, physically and emotionally damaged by the relationship with his sibling, and desperate to make something better. His erstwhile paramour is permanently distanced by her struggle with demonic possession, fighting not to be defined by the horror wrought on her. And the exorcist’s sister is a wonderfully drawn creature, dependent upon him, with a twisted love that requires his acquiescence to every demand, and is selfish enough to require her every need satisfied. She’s skin-crawlingly unpleasant to read, and as such, a pitch-perfect villain.
The plot revolves somewhat around the exorcist’s escape from his sister –but also around his journey with a new ‘foundling’, one from our own world, as he attempts to get them to safety, and away from his unpleasant sister’s clutches. The narrative’s a fairly straightforward journey – though there’s some nice twists, the basic structure will be familiar. But there’s great stuff in here, as the exorcist finds himself regaining his faith, and his humanity, in service to a higher goal, in the person of his foundling. The whole thing rattles along nicely – there’s some lovely pieces of quiet reflection and dialogue, blended with some brilliant faith-as-magic, and the occasional sword fight and an awful demon or two to break things up. I won’t spoil it here, but will say that the narrative, as a whole, hangs together quite cleverly – it’s tense, fraught, and genuine, and it’s very difficult to put down.
Frohock’s done well here. There’s definitely room for a greater exploration, both of the world, and of the characters that are presented to the reader, but what’s there does the job very elegantly. As a whole, the text is both interesting and intense – certainly worth a read.