Miserere: An Autumn Tale by Teresa Frohock

I think this review needs to be about my relationship with the book. Sometimes that speaks higher volumes.

Sometimes I fear I’m so steeped in “genre fiction” (which is a stupid classification — isn’t every fiction in one genre or another?) that I feel I can spot the cookie cutter types a mile away, and most of the time, I do. Sometimes they’re worth it, a bit of fun here and there, but most of the time I’m just left cold if I bother at all. Every now and again, however, I stumble across something that not only proves me wrong, but does so in a way that puts a big stupid grin on my face. This book is one of those works, a true discovery in the sweetest and most profound usage of the word I can muster.

This book managed to defy insurmountable odds to get to me. I found it completely by accident. A friend of mine opened a store that sells comics, books, and games, and there’s a monthly meetup there. At one of those meetups, the art for this book caught my eye. “Is that a Templar?” I have an indescribable fascination with the Templars, and so I picked it up to read the backside blurb. Nope, no Templar. But we’re apparently dealing with fallen angels. I have an equally indescribable fascination with angels, as it turns out, but having read quite a bit of angelic fiction of both the sappy and “dark” variety (to the point where “dark” is a word that bears no meaning anymore), my understanding is that angels are this generation’s vampires. You have to read about a thousand novels to find one with any understanding of the beings in question, much less to uncover a masterwork. Needless to say, the red flags are firing.

So then I read in the blurb we’re dealing with a parallel dimension between earth and hell known as “Woerld.” I immediately rolled my eyes, and the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t stop laughing. I discussed this with some of my friends in the shop, and the more we discussed, the worse the idea got. I get that it’s difficult to come up with names, especially for fantasy settings, but c’mon. I almost put the book back on the shelf right then and there. Instead, my trusted inner voice told me to take the three steps behind me to the checkout, and I bought the book without a backward glance.

The next morning I had a bit of buyer’s remorse, which rarely happens when I buy books. I’ve bought books I hated outright in the end, but never regretted reading simply because curiosity was satisfied, and I typically allow myself to learn something from the experience even if I don’t finish something because it’s unreadable. With this one, I just didn’t understand why I picked it up. I couldn’t explain it. But there was something inside telling me it wasn’t a mistake. Over the next couple of weeks, the book managed to work its way higher up through the stack of unread tomes, and eventually it came up to the top. As it happened, it did so just as my random historical bug bit me (I can never do just one thing at a time anymore), so I found myself reading the first chapter one morning, thinking the book to be an odd mess and being drawn back to my books on the Crusades or the Tudors. Going through those the whole day, I kept being called back to this book. It’s like it just kept poking the back of my head, pleading to be read. That ever happen to you? I can list on one hand the times this has ever happened to me.

I’m so glad I paid attention to that voice. This book takes a bit to get into, which is no bad thing when it’s written this well, provided you can stay with it. I’m easily distracted by shiny objects, as I’ve already demonstrated, so this book stayed with me instead of the other way around. That this is a debut novel by Frohock surprises me. Some people have a gift, some people nurture a skill. The way this is written, I’d swear it’s both. Characters that you’re not certain you like or want to know have a way of becoming relatable and personal. They have histories. They live and breathe more than many people I can name in real life. Situations I thought seemed contrived suddenly became believable to the point where it just really couldn’t be any other way. Typically I listen to audiobooks throughout my work day, and had this one been in audio format, I would have burned through it instead of living with it in real time, so to speak. As it was though… this is one of those times where I’m grateful I have insomnia and am easily bored by TV. Once it got going, I didn’t want to stop, and the last couple of nights have been spent immersed in this story. Meanwhile, I spent a couple of days at work listening to Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which turned out to be exactly what I feared. It stood in stark contrast Miserere in nearly every respect and required the audio version to get me to the end. If anything, the work day couldn’t end fast enough so I could get back home and dive back into Miserere. I can’t tell you if it stands as a 5-star read on its own or if that’s just in contrast to Gregory’s book, and I really don’t care. I had fun with this!

Our monthly meetup is coming up, and I will be singing the praises of Miserere and Teresa Frohock in the hopes that more of her books (including the upcoming sequel to this one) will find their way to my friend’s shop. Word of mouth is the best advertising, and given my overly-critical nature in most regards, I’m sure I can prompt at least a couple more sales from the readers in the group. I love to discover new talent, and I love to find new stories in a genre I find overly tired but still want to enjoy. A book about a knight / former exorcist finding his path through faith found its way to a reader who needed his own faith renewed.

This sort of experience, ladies and gents, is why I read in the first place, precisely because the truly special books are more than just the sum of the printed pages. Sometimes while you’re judging the book by its cover, that book judges YOU and finds you worthy. That’s nothing short of amazing to me. Take a bow, Ms. Frohock. I’m eagerly awaiting your encore.

5 stars

frohock-miserere