Miserere: An Autumn Tale is a debut novel by Teresa Frohock and book one of the Katharoi. This dark fantasy novel will be followed by Dolorosa: A Winter’s Dream and Bellum Dei: Blood of the Lambs.
The Fallen would like nothing more than to gain a foothold into Woerld, the place between hell and earth, and use it to get closer to earth and by extension closer to heaven. Woerld is protected by the Katharoi, warrior-priests who use their special gifts to prevent the Fallen from reaching their goal.
Lucian Negru was once a respected Katharos of the Citadel. Yet Lucian’s twin sister Catarina entered into league with the Fallen and betrayed him, forcing him to make a choice between his own sister and the woman he loved, Rachael. For his crime of leaving Rachael in hell where she was possessed by a demon, Lucian was exiled from the Citadel and forbidden from using his ability to open the gates to hell ever again. Since then, he has been held prisoner by Catarina, who gives him everything he wants except for his freedom. He has learned the hard way that attempts to escape will have severe consequences, but when he hears Rachael is dying, he manages to escape anyway. As a crippled man, Lucian suspects he’ll be quickly captured and dragged back to Catarina, but he’s unexpectedly helped by a priest who not only reminds him he is still a Katharos but also gives him an opportunity to make amends for his past actions. As Catarina pursues Lucian using any means she can, Lucian is faced with many choices – and possibly a chance to redeem himself and even earn Rachael’s forgiveness.
Miserere: An Autumn Tale is an excellent debut novel and a great character-driven, dark fantasy book. It has strong world-building and well-developed main characters, both of which are handled in a way that sets it apart as different from a lot of fantasy. The strength of this book has certainly put Teresa Frohock on my radar as an author to watch.
A battle between heaven and hell is a very familiar basic plotline, but one of the things I really appreciated about this novel was that it was not the usual take on this sort of story. Other than one very short part, it is not set on earth, but a completely different place with its own set of rules. Woerld is a very complex place where all religions work together to keep the Fallen in hell where they belong. There are different factions for each religion, and gifted people from earth cross over to Woerld to learn from a chosen Katharos and join the cause. In this particular book, the focus is on the Citadel, which Lucian and Rachael both belong to (or, in Lucian’s case, used to belong to). This is the Christian faction, which accomplishes their goals through prayer and Psalms as well as their gifts, which are different for each Katharos.
The prominence of religion in this novel may make some wary, and if religion is a topic you like to avoid in your reading, this may not be for you. Personally, I thought Christianity was a basis for the story and not a conduit for an underlying message. The prayers seemed more like something the Katharos did to get a result like reciting a spell would be in a lot of magic systems. There was no strict adherence to rules – women could be priests, both Rachael and Lucian had fornicated with no guilt or removal of their gifts, and intermarriage between religions was not frowned upon. All religions worked together for a common cause so I felt more like this was the perspective chosen than a preachy book even if a lot of the general ideas did come from Christianity.
In addition to the setting, this book is different from many of the common heaven/hell stories in that there are no hot angelic beings involved and the Fallen are horrific, not beautiful or at all romantic. There are no love stories between some sort of gorgeous fallen angel and a mortal, but instead there’s a quieter romantic thread involving a past between two human adults. This brings me to what I loved most about Miserere: the depiction of Lucian and Rachael as mature adults.
Lucian is 40 years old and full of remorse about what happened to Rachael. He’s crippled and a prisoner to his sister, and because of this he has lots of reasons to feel sorry for himself. In spite of that, the story doesn’t get bogged down in angst or self-pity and starts out with Lucian trying to do what he can to keep his sister from letting the Fallen prevail and amending his past. Even knowing the basic details of what he did to Rachael, he’s a likable character who knows he’s made mistakes and doesn’t seem to think he’s worthy of forgiveness. The full details of what happened are not revealed until later in the book, but there’s enough there to get the sense that there is more to the story than what’s been told so far. Throughout the novel, he’s faced with a lot of choices – whether or not to rescue the girl Lindsay from hell even though it means breaking his promise not to open the gates and facing the consequences, whether or not he’ll let himself be swayed by Catarina, and how to treat with Rachael and the Citadel. I love seeing characters have to make choices since it really shows what they’re made of, and I loved seeing Lucian face them.
Rachael is also dealing with a lot since she’s still living with the consequences of Lucian’s betrayal, possession by the Wyrm that is slowly taking over. She’s internally strong and admirable, and she is not the typical young and beautiful heroine. In fact, she’s described as quite the opposite of beautiful due to the Wyrm’s effects on her. Yet Lucian still cares for her and seeing her does not change that, showing their relationship was not superficial. Rachael also impressed me because she was capable of being fair and looking at the facts. While she wasn’t ready to fall into Lucian’s arms on sight after what he did, she also wasn’t petty or vindictive. She looked for the truth of his actions instead of reasons to hate him.
The other characters weren’t as compelling as Lucian and Rachael, but I did like Lindsay, the girl who found herself on Woerld when she was chosen to become a Katharos. As the person who didn’t know how things worked on Woerld, she did make a convenient excuse for explanations, but she didn’t seem like she was there just for this purpose. This was partially because of her spunk, determination, and just how much I enjoying reading about her friendship with Lucian, but it was also because this was a book that didn’t just give everything all at once in a big infodump. There was a lot of mystery in the beginning with only vague references to what happened with Lucian, Catarina, and Rachael and the story of what went on before Miserere started.
As is often the case, the villain Catarina had the least depth, although I did get the impression from Lucian’s reflections that she had undertaken a gradual descent into evil. As children, the twins were very close and both were chosen to be Karathoi. Yet Catarina became plagued by jealousy when Lucian became close to Rachael and couldn’t bear her twin caring about anyone more than her. She had reasons for what she did based in very human emotions, but whenever we get her perspective in this book she just seems very vile. As she sacrifices to gain more power, she seems to be shedding a lot of her humanity, and I think her scenes depicting her as very evil may just be a result of meeting her long after she’d become corrupted by the Fallen. Personally, I loved that the main characters all had pasts and there were previous happenings before this book, but I also would have liked to have seen a little more of why Catarina was this way and seen a little more of her humanity. While her motivations that started her down that path were revealed to be very human, they still came across as spoiled and selfish and therefore not all that sympathetic. Some of her scenes did come across as a bit cliche or cheesy.
While there is a plot of overcoming evil, the plot is very much focused on the characters’ journeys and fleshing out the world. It is largely about redemption, forgiveness and mercy, reconciliation, and making amends with the past. There are some dark parts as well, including demon possession and a rape by Catarina and her demon familiar in exchange for power. It’s definitely not a light and happy book although that doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom and nothing good ever happens to the main characters, either!
Overall, Miserere: An Autumn Tale is an impressive debut novel, especially if you’re a fan of character-driven, dark fantasy. The villain Catarina was a bit over-the-top evil, but she isn’t the worst I’ve read – there were at least some glimpses of a more gradual decline into evil and she has been in league with demons for a little while. Any flaws with Catarina are more than made up for by the well-developed main characters. Lucian and Rachael themselves are what truly hooked me and kept me reading eagerly, especially since it was a refreshing change of pace to read about mature adults who acted their age. It also has a world I’m looking forward to learning more about in future volumes, and I’m really looking forward to reading more by Teresa Frohock.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the author.
Tomorrow I will have an excerpt from Miserere: An Autumn Tale, an interview with Teresa Frohock, and a giveaway for a copy of Miserere!