The Fire Priest (Pawns of the Gods Book 1) by
331 pages | Published November 21st 2018
Seventeen-year-old Jack Kulinski is the best mixed martial arts fighter of his generation. So why does fighting scare him so much? In the ring, the sound of swarming bees mysteriously fills his head, and it takes all of his effort to not flee in panic. But when his best friend disappears, and Jack, alone, discovers that he’s been magicked to a terrible land ruled by a murderous god and his violent people, he needs to learn how to face his fears and to fight better than he ever has before
Q: Are Fantasy Genre Books really that Removed from Reality?
A: You might think that it would be hard for a 51-year-old author to relate to characters in a young adult fantasy novel, especially since my main characters are strikingly different from me. Jack and Denny are two working class boys from my hometown of Santa Barbara. Jack is a mixed martial arts fighter who is abnormally physically gifted. He’s one in a million, or even rarer, in his athletic abilities. And Denny is exceptionally handsome (and knows it). I wish I could say that I fit into either of these categories when I was younger, but that would be a lie rather than fiction!
Good fantasy fiction allows us to escape our own lives but, almost oddly, at the same time to relate to characters in situations that are literally out of this world. As readers we often experience this without thinking about it. I used to read Piers Anthony when I was young, in the 1980s. He was good at depicting fumbling young characters trying to relate to their romantic objects of affection, despite the world or the species. Certainly J.K. Rowling depicted school in an outlandish but relatable way: the fear of big exams, with Hermione as the anxious over-preparer and her friends as anxious avoiders. The OWL exams certainly would have freaked me out.
The Fire Priest is not my first book, but it is my first novel. It was a funny process to experience what fantasy writing is like on the creation side, rather than as a consumer. (The word “funny” probably doesn’t suffice: perhaps daunting and overwhelming are more apt.) Oddly, when I was drafting The Fire Priest I found that current-day cultural issues kept popping up, often ones I didn’t have much to say about, and even ones I wanted to avoid (but to some degree they stubbornly remained). The story quickly moves from California, a multicultural place for sure and I like to think mainly tolerant, to the world of Tal’alli, in which the inhabitants are decidedly vicious and intolerant. Jack is of Eastern European descent while Denny’s father is white and his mother Vietnamese. Ethnicity is just one way in which they don’t fit in. Tal’alli is also a violently religious place, while neither Jack nor Denny, at least at this stage, has thought much, if at all, about religion. The last things I wanted to raise in what I hoped was a fun, escapist book were religion and identity politics, and yet there are nods to them in the book’s basic premise. We are inescapably the product of our times, even when trying not to be.
At heart, The Fire Priest is about two teenage boys who are magicked to a foreign land and face their worst fears. For Jack, he has to become the best fighter he could possibly be, and at the beginning of the story he’s terribly fearful of this, for reasons that are hinted at well into the book. And for Denny, there’s a real possibility that he loses what he cares about most in himself, and in others: physical beauty. The process of maturation for all of us is in large part the understanding of how to face fear, gain confidence, and accept loss; and for this it does not matter where the story is set, how fanciful it is, or what characters are involved.
Young people who read The Fire Priest will face their own metaphorical journeys to Tal’alli by entering adulthood, although hopefully it won’t be as violent, extreme, or involve consuming magic items concocted by an evil priest. There will be a decided and confusing transition, though. When I was young and at school in California there was an over emphasis on looks and sports: mine was your classic big public high school experience. As disconcerting as this culture can be for thoughtful young people, adulthood is harder and more intimidating. At your first job, nobody cares how fast you run the “hundred yard dash” or if you were homecoming king or queen. The rules change and there are no teachers to explain them. Even worse, when you begin to understand how life outside school works, the grown-ups often don’t seem very grown up. The Fire Priest is about two young people on the verge of adulthood trying to survive in a world that is more violent, divided, and unkind than it needs to be. It’s not so different from our own, is it?
Stephen Murdoch is a writer and investor who lives in England with his wife and three daughters. The Fire Priest is his first novel. Previously, he wrote the non-fiction IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea (Wiley, 2007). He has written for various publications, including Newsweek, The Washington Post, and PRI’s Marketplace. Murdoch is the chairman of two UK companies that provide cutting edge digital and bricks-and-mortar solutions to the mental health sector.
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