Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Review of Robin Parrish's "Vigilante"

Soldier. Super Hero. Christian.

These are the words that describe Nolan Gray, a former war hero who takes up the mantle of "The Hand" to deal with the growing crime in New York City. His objective: to show the people a better way.

Nolan teams up with his former commanding officer and gadget nerd to save the day. Armed with clever high-tech devices, including (by novel's end) an over-abused grappling gun, Nolan's quest to show people a better way takes off. But as he tries to bring Heaven to earth through man's efforts, the government's bungling efforts to reduce crime lead Nolan into a war against a dangerous mobster and a character revealing descent into darkness.

As a superhero/adventure novel, this book is definitely a page turner. There is action to be found on nearly every page, intrigue and a number of surprising plot twists that caught me off guard. Many of the characters reacted to situations in believable ways lending some realism to the unbelievable premise of super heroes. We also find that working with an original character has a number of advantages over working with folks like Batman or Spider-Man. You're not bound by 60 years of (dis)continuity and you just never know for sure what to expect or what will happen next.

As I mentioned a moment ago, there was also a good dose of realism added to the story, in that Nolan finds out quite quickly that super heroics take a toll on the body. After only a few days on the job, he's already pushing himself to go on despite injuries and ailments received on the streets. But he pushed himself and recovered in a believable way, not with bandages and three panels of time like, many mainstream heroes. And points for using graphene and not making any characters come back from the dead.

As a Christian novel, one could look at it in a number of ways. I'm not sure what the author's theology is like, but I don't need to know. Part of the allure of this novel for me is what my own theological baggage brought into it. Ten years ago, I would have thought Nolan was right on even in the later parts of the novel, but after growing in my own faith and knowledge of God's Word, I see the character's journey as a warning to what Christian America is in danger of becoming. A self-righteous killing machine justifying his actions in the name of fighting evil.

Nolan's Christian faith is an enigma. While it would have been interesting to see Nolan wrestle with the "eye for an eye" vs "love your enemies" stances, he's already made his mind up. We are the ones who have to figure out if he's right or not. These arguments were explored in the novel briefly by other characters, but I had hoped for them to be explored more deeply by Nolan. But in some ways leaving things unsaid might be a bolder statement. Especially in the later parts of the story, where Arjay, the unbeliever, is the most Christian sounding person of the bunch.

To me, "Vigilante" was a sobering parable for Christian America's (Christian right, Dominionists and anti-Sharia law folks) eagerness to embrace violence to dispatch America's enemies in the hopes of creating Heaven on earth, rather than bringing people what they need, a relationship with Jesus Christ. Would Jesus really want His people taking life and using violence to make the world "better?" As you see what happens to Nolan's decisions, I think we see that the cost of what his adventure did to him as a person shows it wasn't worth it. But despite the bad, anti-Christian choices he makes, God's grace is still there for him if he chooses to accept it.

Despite the overall awesomeness of the story, I would like to point out a few detractors. First, there are a lot of really short chapters, and some of these chapter breaks weren't really necessary to me. This is kind of a pet peeve of mine (I'm talking to you Steven Barnes! "Cestus Deception!") it makes you feel that you're progressing through the story faster than you actually are.

I was also confused at a few minor points in the story, but those could have been things I missed the clues to and certainly didn't take anythin away from the enjoyment of the story.

As mentioned earlier, something that was huge for me as I read it was that I wanted to get into the motivations of the characters, Nolan especially, and it would have been nice to know if he had just gone crazy or if he's really got a good reason for what he does. There are implications that his experiences as a POW had something to do with it, but there were no solid leads. As I reflect though, I think that Nolan's internal motivations are often manifested through his actions, and we are the ones who have to decide if it's justified. So, while we don't get into Nolan's head, reflection on what he does reveals his motives. I'm not sure what the author's intent was regarding Nolan's character, but it kind of worked out.

On the flip-side, we do see quite a bit of the villain's motivations, which does make for some good and creepy scenes.

"Vigilante" is a solid adventure story, with a little bit of on-page faith and prayer, without any solid doctrinal stance leaving it open for interpretation. However, just knowing the main character is a Christian should cause any reader to be a Berean about how well Nolan's actions line up with what the Bible said. Is he in line with Christ? Or is he in line with the culture?

Give it a look to see what a Christian superheo might look like, or what happens when Christians abandon the Bible and use their own standards to deal with injustice. If anything "Vigilante" will make you think about how justified "Christian" violence is.

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