Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy
by Theodore Beale
Do elves have souls?
The Sanctiff taps young scholar Marcus Valerius to investigate the ancient question. Others accompany him: an old family slave, a dwarven bodyguard, and a contingent of warrior priests to protect the embassy as it enters elven lands.
There’s much at stake, though. This is the first human embassy to travel to the elven capital in hundreds of years. Should something happen to Marcus, the humans could use it as an excuse to start a profitable war. If Marcus rules that elves don’t have souls, they can be treated as animals. A holy war might erupt. And if elves do have souls, the church has a new mission field that would demand some creative missionaries.
No matter what Marcus decides, it will change the world. That is, if he survives the rigors of the quest, the enemies of the light, and betrayal.
Marcher Lord Press published this little book. They came to my attention through Mike Duran’s blog. This publishing house devotes itself to Christian fantasy and science fiction; they even have a ‘mature readers’ imprint. Intrigued, I poked around their website and found Beale’s novel.
Beale created a neat world. Imagine your standard fantasy realm: elves, orcs, dwarves, humans of various nations. One of those nations is very similar to Rome at her height, with the church sharing power. Because he combines two standard settings in imaginative but logical ways, he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining how things work, even though the setting is unique.
In Marcus, Beale presents a likable protagonist that avoids most hero clichés. This is a man more of thought than of action; there’s a reason the Sanctiff chose him for this mission. When danger strikes, he’s not the one swinging the sword. He is certainly the hero of the story, but he doesn’t suddenly become proficient in weaponry when enemies attack.
Marcus brings a personal attendant, a slave, on his journey. I found this character the weakest of the ensemble. Marcipor grew up with Marcus, and the two are closer to brothers than master and slave. I am uncertain whether or not Beale intended slaves to derive their names from their masters, but “Marce” the slave and Marcus’s names are so similar, early on in the novel I got confused as to who was speaking. Since the society is based on ancient Rome, it is entirely possible that Marcipor did get his name from Marcus, though it’s never explained. I think Beale could have saved some confusion and found a different name for the slave.
Beside the simple name confusion, Marcipor’s flamboyant personality annoyed more often than it helped the story. We are told that the two are good friends, but I was not shown this fact except for two pivotal scenes.
Beale, especially early on, seemed to struggle with show-don’t-tell. It may simply be that his exposition exposited. As the book continued, the telling decreased and the showing took over.
I am happy to say that Beale’s various races are similar enough to the standard clichés that we find the dwarf to be a dwarf and the elves to be elven, but he steers clear of stereotypes. Lodi the dwarf was a great example of this. His hate of the elves stems not from a culture clash or simple misunderstandings, but an active disappointment and betrayal.
Setting? A perfect amount to paint a realistic world without going deeper than we need for the story.
Characters? Likable characters who appear well-rounded.
But now, what about that plot?
Beale never gets into specifics that this church teaches – it’s a novel, not a catechism, after all. However, characters do quote Bible passages that should be familiar to a number of Christians. We learn that they worship the Immaculate. We have all the trappings of the Roman Catholic Church, though without any mention of Mary. Relics and saints play some prominent roles, though.
The Sanctiff’s decision to investigate the elves now drives the action. I don’t remember Beale ever identifying why the Sanctiff should make a decision on the matter now, though it may have come up early in the book. It kicks Marcus out the door and onto his journey.
I will admit some disappointment with the pacing of the story; a full half the novel takes place on the road before the embassy even reaches the main elven city. The journey is entertaining, but Marcus can’t even begin his investigations until he meets some actual elves. I want to note that the journey is filled with neat stories and allows the reader to meet various important characters within the embassy, including a few of the warrior priests. However, it didn’t seem like the novel needed to linger there.
Once we arrive at the elven city, though, things move fast. A dinner party that includes torture and a near-prelude to war? Assassins in the dark and a kidnapper? The novel seems to revel once all the players are in place.
The moment I knew that I did not merely like the novel, but loved it, comes here. I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say this: Marcus discovers evidence that leads him to write the Summa Elvetica, an official treatise on elves, for the church. And what he discovers actually made me cheer. Beale shows his mastery in showing, not telling, in that particular scene, and it lifts the rest of the novel from “pretty good” to “great.”
The conclusion of the novel nearly disappointed me. I thought Beale would go the hackneyed route of, “The church is shown the truth but chooses to ignore it.” Ah, but he has another trick up his sleeve to bring this story to a satisfying conclusion.
Oh! The story ended, but there’s almost a hundred pages left?
Beale actually wrote the Summa Elvetica. He wrote a treatise in the style of the medieval church. It’s included as an appendix.
OK, that’s neat and all, but how many of us read medieval religious treatises?
Oh. It’s only a few pages. What else?
Beale includes two short stories set within the world of Summa Elvetica that shine more brightly than the novel. Honestly, the book’s worth the price of admission for either of these two stories. I’m delighted they’re included.
And if you click over in the link I provided above, you’ll see that in ebook, the novel (and the bonus features!) are only ninety-nine cents. [edit: I have been informed by Marcher Lord that they’ve recently standardized their ebook pricing, and Summa Elvetica is now $2.99. I still consider this a great deal for a great book!]
Seriously, this is a book that’s well worth your time. You want to read some good Christian fantasy? Want to read stories that actually ask real Christian questions within a fantastic setting? You want to support Christian speculative fiction? Pick this up. And while you’re over there, check out some more of Marcher Lord’s offerings. I know I’ll be back for more!