Welcome to my first weekly book review post of 2018! If you haven't already seen it, be sure to check out my book-review-explosion post from last week, in which I caught up on all the stories I'd been planning to review since forever. These regular posts every Friday will be a little less overwhelming than that one.
Granted, I am reviewing five books at once here, but they're all in the same series, so I don't think I'm overdoing it. Today I'm featuring the Blades of Acktar series by Tricia Mingerink. Technically, these are fantasy novels, but given that they don't feature magical elements, they fit best into a subcategory which I believe is called “kingdom adventure.” They also incorporate Christian themes tastefully, without veering into overt message fiction. I'm going to be very careful to avoid spoilers here, as the books feature a lot of amazing plot twists that you won't want ruined for you.
Let's begin, then, with…
Normally I'm not drawn to fantasy novels that feature little or no magic. I'm also not usually fond of “Christian fantasy,” since its religious themes are all too often preachy and obtrusive. But though the first book in the Blades of Acktar series is more medieval than magical and makes no effort to hide its Christian influences, it enthralled me regardless. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that it avoided the common pitfalls of the Christian fantasy genre. Dare introduces an entertaining cast of characters and immerses the reader in a beautifully-realized storyworld. The theme of Christians struggling to survive persecution is familiar, as is the concept of a character at odds with faith drawing closer to belief. But Tricia Mingerink develops these elements in a refreshingly original and believable manner. She wisely doesn't rush Leith Torren's journey toward Christianity, and she avoids making an altar call the centerpiece of the book's final act. This isn't a sermon, it's a story–and it's an excellent one, thanks to Mingerink's captivating style and crisp dialogue. Even if Christian fiction isn't usually up your alley, this book is well worth your time. The surprising ending leaves the characters in an interesting conundrum, setting the board for a sequel.
(Also, there were horses. Can't forget the horses.)
Tricia Mingerink skillfully builds on the intriguing close of Book 1 by raising the stakes for her characters, even higher than readers might have anticipated. This sequel continues to avert the usual pitfalls of Christian fiction in general. For one thing, there are no supernatural deus ex machinas. In fact, quite the opposite takes place. The characters go through all manner of hardships which test their faith to the limit. They grapple with doubt, fear, and grief. Just like in the real world, Christianity in the Blades of Acktar series does not ensure its followers a charmed life–instead, it offers comfort when circumstances are at their darkest. Thus, unlike so many characters in Christian fiction, the leads of this book feel like real people. In addition, Mingerink continues to balance Christian elements with gripping storytelling, and her characterization is persistently impressive. Deny will in no way disappoint those who enjoyed Dare, though it may cost you some sleep if you've grown attached to the Acktar characters. The startling ending of Book 1 is outdone by the massive cliffhanger here, which will leave readers desperate to hurry on to Book 3.
I've spoken in my previous reviews of the Blades of Acktar series about the strong development of Tricia Mingerink's Christian protagonists. This is no less true of her villainous characters. You may not feel sympathy for the villainous King Respen in Defy, especially after his heinous acts in Book 2, but you will at least see him as a person rather than a mustache-twirling stereotype. The cast of characters has expanded a great deal since Book 1, but Mingerink continues to juggle all her subplots without ever making the book feel bloated or allowing any characters to get lost in the shuffle. Though this is not the final installment in the Acktar series, most of the major plot threads are brought to a close here, and in a very satisfying way. The denouement feels earned and believable, and the darkness of Book 2 is balanced by a sense of final justice. I can't say too much about how things play out here for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say that this is not yet another disappointing third book in a “trilogy” (this isn't actually a trilogy, but you know what I mean). The payoff is exactly what readers come to hope for after finishing the first two books.
A clever sidestep from the main series that fleshes out a minor but significant character in Defy…whom I can't name because it would spoil a great plot twist from that book. The protagonist's journey is unlike that of the other characters in the Acktar series. He wouldn't actually have been my first pick for a solo tale based on what I read of him in Defy, and I had expected his story to end quite differently, but I was very pleased with the way it played out. Some of the themes tackled in this story were surprising, but in a good way. Acktar fans definitely should not miss this novella.
Upon finishing Defy, I was unsure how Tricia Mingerink was going to craft a fourth book in the Acktar series. So much was settled in Book 3 that an additional story didn't feel entirely necessary. But Deliver is far from a superfluous extension of the series. It continues the brilliant handling of Christian concepts that characterized the earlier novels. It also continues the journeys of the main cast while delving deeper into the lives of side characters from the previous books–particularly Martyn and Kayleigh, whose snarky romance I found delightful. The far-reaching repercussions of Defy provide plenty of material for Mingerink to work with here, and she doesn't waste any of it. I don't think I'll ever quite be ready to say goodbye to the characters of the Acktar books, but this epilogue to their stories at least helped cushion the blow of the series' conclusion. Fans will not be disappointed by this satisfying last bow.
Also, the audiobook editions, currently available for Books 1-3, are superb. Definitely get your hands on those if you can.
The Blades of Acktar series is currently available on Amazon. Be sure to visit Tricia Mingerink's website, as well. There, you can sign up from her newsletter and get a free Acktar short story (haven't read this one yet, but I'm looking forward to it).
Thanks for reading this Indie Book Review! Check back for a new reading recommendation next Friday, when I'll be reviewing L. Palmer's The Lady and the Frog.