Review of The Chosen by Stephanie J. Bardy
By: Michael A. Arnold

Celeste has great power, and knows how to use it. Merrik has great power hidden within him, and the will to make things right. But there is a great evil in the world, and when Celeste and Merrik team up to fight it they soon they know their battle is going to be dangerous.

In this monthly column reviewing books, many things have been said as points of criticism – a word which does not mean something strictly negative. I like to think that I am a fairly positive reviewer, and criticism can be exploring what makes a book good rather than being critical only. When reviewing it would be wrong, maybe even irresponsible, to imply that all books should have the same expectations of them. For a random example, a book published by Black Library and set in the Warhammer 40K universe can not be judged in the same way as a book like, for another random example, the novel Snow Country by the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata. One would be a sci-fi novel set in a universe full of disguised jokes, the other is a serious work of literature. The intended audience, and intentions and goals are completely different, and this sort of thing should be kept in mind when reviewing. This has really nothing to do with any particular genre, either. Just because something is a fantasy does not automatically mean it is not as complex or artistic as some Modernist classic. What matters is the intentions of the author, as seems apparent from the book they write. The Gormenghast series is often considered a more literary, even if it is a fantasy series.

Also, there is something to be said for fantasy – how it can let you become lost in some other world, free from the stresses and worries of life. Often we read these books for the pure love of being told a story, or we are trying to imagine ourselves as the hero on some grand and noble quest. It can be great fun to just escape from the world for a time, and that was certainly true of The Chosen by Stephanie Bardy, published this year by Dark Myth Publications.

As we continue to live under Covid restrictions (they are very stringent here in the UK at the moment) this book has been frankly a joy – an amazing distraction from the real-world. In the introduction to this book, Stephanie writes 'Lose yourself in the story, hear the wind, feel the cool shade of the forest, and smell the wood of the cabin porch.' With the news, especially around the time of writing, turning into a miserable and endless list of infection rates and lock-down restrictions, I was looking for a story to lose myself in – and that is exactly what I got here.

Generally there are two ways a fantasy world can develop in a writer's mind. The first way is when, like with Tolkien, a world is so carefully planned and built up that it has its own unique feel and vocabulary. With this, a world can have been created and fleshed out long before any story is written about it. The second way is when a thread of an idea is plucked from out the air, and is allowed to unravel – and the world around that original idea also unravels. In a sense this can be like the writer is discovering the world as their characters do. Here, the second seems to have happened, this novel began as a series of short stories that grew into a larger narrative. There are pros and cons for either fantasy-world origin, and it does not necessarily affect the way a story feels or develops, but it can affect the texture of a story. Sometimes with the second option, it feels like a journey into the unconscious as much as a journey into the world itself, and that adds a hint of anarchic fun to a story like this.

But that is not to suggest that this is somehow blindly written or lacking in clever details. When we first meet Celeste she is very mysterious, and is using some kind of powerful magic that is at that point not explained to the reader. By the end of the book, the magic is still quite mysterious and seems to be one with the very nature of the cosmos in this world. It seems thematically appropriate, then, that 'Celeste' the name comes ultimately from the Latin word 'caelestis', meaning 'of the heavens' and by extension divine, or having god-like power like the gods did. Celeste is a powerful magic user, so old she has had many forms and names before this one. Merrik's name is very close to the real name 'Merrick' which etymologically is hard to pin down but originally came from the British isles, and means something like 'Power' or 'Fame'. The fact that Merrik's name has in this sense been altered actually does have an echo in the story. Little touches like this show that the novel has been planned out with intelligence, which is always point in a book's favour.

With a book like this, getting lost in the story is essential. Because I do not wish to accidentally spoil anything, it is worth saying something about the actual writing itself. For the most part the writing is decent, the focus is often more on the characters and their interactions, but there are moments where the writing has genuine merit, and it deserves to be highlighted. Such as this section from an early chapter:

THE COOL NIGHT air caressed his fevered cheeks as Merrik stood on the hill. He gazed down on the small village below him, his home. Chandora was quiet in the early morning hours. Almost as if holding its breath. Waiting. Reality, or the reality his mind could accept, shimmered before his eyes.

Moments with this quality of writing deserve to be mentioned, and the atmosphere such passages are able to create is impressive. If there were more passages of this quality throughout this book then any reader could not help but be drawn in.

This is a very cozy book, one to be read on a rainy day with a bag of chocolates on the sofa, and no TV on so you can hear the rainfall outside. That is what I did, and it was a fantastic amount of fun.