WARNING: This review involves sensitive subjects that may trigger some readers
Score: 85/100 (8.5 out of 10)
This book by William Thon blends fantasy and historical fiction to put forward a criticism of organized religion, western imperialism, and mankind's exploitation and destruction of the environment. It can also be read as an allegory for the persecution of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in general. That's the simple thesis of the book, but it's actually quite complicated plot-wise since it involves so many characters doing so many things. “The Cottage” features such mythological figures as Athena and Apollo from Greek mythology as well as mythical creatures like fairies, nymphs, elves, and centaurs. The story centers on Porius Saladin, a wizard primarily living during the time of the Inquisition administered by the Roman Catholic Church, as he attempts to bring persecuted people and creatures to his safe space, his magical titular cottage where they can just be themselves. Meanwhile, Porius and his ragtag crew of characters including Thomas, James, Leal, Simon, and Marcus, are antagonized by the brutal, sadistic, depraved representatives of the Catholic Church like Pope Eugene IV and Cadmus Upton.
Whether you enjoy this book or not will heavily depend on your world view. You simply cannot read the story without gathering the anti-religious subtext. If you are a devout Christian, especially a Catholic, this is certainly not the book for you. If you are a practicing Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Buddhist, this may not be the book for you either.
If you want to see humanity expand and grow in population and colonize more and more territory, possibly at the expense of the Earth's climate and natural resources, then this book isn't for you. If you like drinking from your plastic bottles and eating from your plastic Tupperware whenever you darn well please, then this isn't the book for you. If you want us to “drill, baby, drill” for Alaskan oil and reopen the Keystone Pipeline at the expense of the environment but at the benefit of energy independence from Russia, Ukraine, and the Middle East, then this isn't the book for you. If you're a fan of capitalism and all things western and American, this may not be the book for you.
This book can actually be frustratingly didactic—it's very loud and relentless in its preaching. This book includes more tree hugging—both physically and metaphorically—than “Stumbling Through Adulthood” by John Sheirer and “Wisdom” by Jason Merchey combined. Heck, there's about a hundred times more tree hugging in here than “Story of Tree and Cloud” by Daryl McCullough, a book that actually centers on a tree being in love! That's saying a lot. You have Greek gods cheering on Porius as he tells you in this book about the evils of plastic. We kid you not. The evils of plastic are a focus of discussion in this fantasy novel. Porius then goes on a tirade about the evil automobiles that are coming. Darn automobiles getting us from place to place faster and more efficiently! If only they didn't exist, then we could exploit such animals as horses and camels to carry us and our human junk across state lines.
It's ok to have an environmentalist theme in your book and still have it be entertaining. We have “Ferngully” and “The Lorax” (both the Dr. Seuss book and the movie) which do it in an appealing and entertaining way. The problem is, this particular book seems to conflate anti-environmentalism, anti-science, extreme violence, war, racism, prejudice, division, and persecution with Christianity and western capitalism. Well... no. Just no. You don't have to be a Christian or a westerner to start a war, be racist, destroy the environment, or distrust science. China, India, and Japan—three eastern nations with an extremely small, barely-existent Christian population—are some of the leaders in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
The book also seems to imply that everything was just fine and dandy in the world before Christianity. Was it really? So, you're implying that people never waged war on one another; the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans just stayed in their little lanes not causing any trouble to anyone, not conquering anyone, not torturing anyone, not raping and pillaging the cities and towns of other people? The Spartans before Christ just trained to be the most peace-loving society ever?
The book seems to imply that everything would be just fine and dandy if Christianity just disappeared, and that the world would be a more peaceful, intelligent, and loving place without it. Oh, really? Pray do tell us how the totally-not-Christian governments of the CCP and USSR treated the millions who died and suffered under Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. Pray do tell how the totally-not-Christian Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot treated the citizens of Cambodia as they massacred about 2 million of them.
Pray do tell how peaceful the totally-not-Christian Vikings and Huns were as they pillaged the countryside, raping and pillaging as they went along. Pray do tell how the purge of religion following the French Revolution under Maximilian Robespierre led to less people being decapitated, tortured, and drowned to death for their supposed religious and political beliefs. The Reign of Terror was a thing.
Pray do tell how peaceful the totally-not-Christian Mongols were under Genghis Khan as they massacred any and all who would not submit to their rule (and sometimes even if they did surrender), possibly accruing a death toll rivaled only by Mao, Stalin, and Hitler. Yes, do tell us how war, violence, and evil are Christian inventions. It is simply an untrue and misleading premise.
Have Christians, especially the Catholic Church, historically done terrible things in the past? Absolutely. The medieval Catholic Church was particularly rotten and wicked as it instituted such things as the Inquisition and instigated the Crusades. During the Inquisition, people were tortured and killed for the mere notion that they believed or thought differently. These tortures were especially cruel and inventive. During the Crusades, soldiers and civilians alike suffered and died, some under the impression that they would receive a free ticket into heaven if they were successful because that's what the church promised them.
Objectively, the Catholic Church of the middle ages was one of the evilest organizations to ever have existed, and most shamefully it claimed to represent the will of God and Jesus while committing these acts of great evil. A true follower of Jesus would be ashamed and denounce these acts by the church. For one, Jesus encouraged people to love one another and to show compassion. The book does allude to this briefly when a character tells us about a monk named Christopher who is “thoughtful and kind like a Christian is supposed to be” (254). But this is one of the very few example of a good or decent Christian in this book. Almost all of them are despicable—to a demonic degree. The Bible tells us in the Third Commandment “Thou shall not take the Lord's name in vain.” What does that actually mean? It doesn't mean swearing using God's name like so many people think, it means misusing God's name to justify committing evil in his name. In other words, if you are parading around torturing and killing people while saying that it's in God's name as the medieval church did, you are breaking the commandments and committing a grievous sin.
The Catholic Church, especially in the middle ages, committed atrocious acts of evil. And it's an absolute shame and embarrassment—a stain upon all true followers of Jesus just as ISIS and Al-Qaeda are a shame and an embarrassment to most Muslims. Most Christians don't go out harming people, and it would be antithetical to the teachings of Jesus who preached peace, love, tolerance, and forgiveness. He preached that we “turn the other cheek” when struck, and that we forgive our enemies.
We know it seems like we're talking about things other than the book, but this anti-Christian/anti-religion message is strewn throughout the novel. It's at its core.
Let's get back to the novel and explore how even this issue doesn't seem to be handled well. The author's objective in writing this fantasy/historical-fiction novel should be to show how evil the Catholic Church was at the time these events were taking place. The author should focus on the aspects of the Inquisition, how Jews, Muslims, and eventually scientists like Giovanni Bruno and Copernicus (during the Renaissance and Enlightenment) were persecuted. Instead, the book uncomfortably blends mythical creatures in their stead and introduces modern criticisms as the focal point. So, elves, fairies, nymphs, and apparently even gods are the ones being killed off by the Christians in this story.
There are so many things about this that just seem wrong. For one, instead of focusing on the torture and killing, the author seems to want us to focus on a more modern problem in the Catholic Church: the exploitation of minors. Really? Are you going to pick a lane and stay in it, or are you just going to fire a shotgun anywhere and everywhere you can and hope one of the shots hits the target? There is so much discussion of pedophilia and sodomy in this book, and rather than being portrayed with tactful language to protect the dignity of the victims, it's instead written almost comedically in how over-the-top it is. Even the Pope gets in on it, and we have to read about him orally pleasuring himself and taking his time with each of his victims. We even have a youth rescued while tied face down with their “buttocks raised toward the sky” (274). So, what we're supposed to gather from this is that not only are the Christians the ones causing the violence and persecution, but they're also rapists and pedophiles. If you wanted to completely demonize an entire group of people in the most mustache-twirling, vaudevillian way, then what things would you claim? That they're war-mongers, murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. That's a terrible and dangerous over-simplification of a huge group of diverse people (Christians) who make up nearly one-third of the world's population.
There are Brazilian and Nigerian Christians, you know? There are Christians in Ethiopia, South Korea, and Chile. Are they all war-mongers, murderers, rapists, and pedophiles? No. What percentage of them fall under these labels? What percentage of atheists and agnostics fall under these labels?
One of the dangerous things about this book is that the author continuously uses the umbrella-term “Christians” to refer to all the bad guys in the book. Christians, as we discussed above, are a very diverse group of people. So, are all Christians bad? It is just Catholic Christians? Just medieval Catholic Christians? Just Catholic Christians who live west of modern-day Turkey? How do you single out this entire large group of people and label each and every single one of them (except maybe Christopher) “bad” or “evil?”
On a similar note, another thing that's very troubling about this book is how homogeneous the Christians are always described. They always look the same, they dress the same, and they all wear crosses. Over and over again, when the evil Christians are around, they are described as wearing black robes and having “large wooden crosses.” This must be stated about a dozen times—that's no exaggeration, you can check. And the protagonists constantly pounce on these Christians, saving the day by killing them in glamorously-violent ways like this is a scene from the God of War games or Bioshock. It is clear from the way these parts are written that we're supposed to be cheering whenever their blood goes splattering everywhere because the Christians in this book are the bad guys.
What's even more disturbing is when the heroes gather all of the crosses from these Christians and start either burning them or throwing them into rivers. These actions are glamorized, and we're supposed to be cheering along with the protagonists as they're doing this. Imagine if we wrote a novel like this where a bunch of “evil Jews” got killed by some protagonists, then their stars of David were collected and thrown into a fire or into a river? Imagine if we wrote a novel like this where a bunch of “evil Americans” got killed by some protagonists, and then the American flags were collected and burned in a fire or thrown into a river? This is highly troubling and problematic imagery. Those symbols (the crosses, stars of David, and the American flag) mean something very important to people—and most of those people aren't mustache-twirling, diabolically evil. Most of them are good people, many volunteer for charitable causes and to help people in third-world countries because they believe it's what God would want them to do.
So, let's get back to the book. Is it well-written? Well, it is for the most part. The author himself reached out to us telling us that it was published before the editing process was completed. There are times when that shows. For example, there are times when character names are misspelled, sometimes on the same page. For instance, Marcus is swapped for “Markus” and “Lil” is swapped for “LeL” at points. Or did he mean Leal? There are also some wrong-word usages like "words" instead of "worlds." However, it's easy enough to read past these things. The writing is not the issue. It really isn't.
Are the characters good? Yes and no. We don't have too much to say about most of them. They seem mostly in this book to be victimized and saved—further used as examples of why the church is evil. However, some of the characters are quite good. Porius, though a bit generic for a fantasy protagonist, is still a kind of beacon of hope in this novel. The Pope and Cadmus Upton are despicable villains, fulfilling their roles in that regard. Athena arguably steals the show as probably the most interesting character overall. She is capable, strong, and ridiculously beautiful. Even Porius was overshadowed by her. There are some issues with Athena though. First of all, if she is so capable and so powerful, why are they even in this mess to begin with? Why can't she just defeat the Pope and Cadmus herself? What's stopping her? Yes, Cadmus has magic or whatever and the Pope has an army, but Athena is... well, Athena. Furthermore, we have Apollo accompanying her. What's stopping these two from just solving the crisis of the novel? If the Christians just have an “imaginary godlike being in the sky” (398), and he's so "imaginary" then what are they so concerned about?
And about that quote above... it reads: “I hope that most people will see that's it's all about facts and science and not an imaginary godlike being in the sky that will cure them of ills... But mortals are so impressionable and gullible.”
Oh, you don't say? Do you know why this quote, which is intended to be one of the lessons of the story, is hilarious? Because the characters were literally just receiving help from Athena and Apollo—two Greek gods—who pop into the story whenever they feel like to play deus ex machina. No, these aren't two characters who just so happen to be named Athena and Apollo, the author is clear that these are intended to be the actual gods from mythology. And the characters constantly rely on them to bail them out of tight situations on their path to Elysium, all the while concluding that one day mankind should forget “godlike beings” and rely on science. And this is why you shouldn't have like 10 theses in the same story, a few of them might run into each other like they're in a demolition derby. You wouldn't play all the notes or chords at once, would you? It would sound like a train wreck.
Anyway, going back to characters, as amazing and awesome as Athena and Apollo are, something that's odd is that they're portrayed like they're the most benevolent little cherub angels imaginable. They really aren't, especially if you're going by the traditional Greek myths. Yes, they were respected and revered, but they were also feared for a reason. Need we remind you that Athena punished her priestess Medusa—who was raped by Poseidon at no fault of her own—by transforming her into a hideous Gorgon that no man could look at? Need we remind you that Apollo tried to rape Daphne? And when he couldn't have her, he practically drove her to suicide by allowing her to be transformed into a laurel tree so she could escape him? One of the most famous statues of Apollo is literally him pulling Daphne by the back of the hair in an attempt to sexually assault her. Yet, here he is in this book being a cool, chill, lovable guy. And it's the same for Athena, she's just a cool, lovable lady—wouldn't hurt a fly who didn't deserve it despite the fact that she is quite literally the goddess of battle strategy, in other words an expert at figuring out how one group of people can kill another group of people.
You know, for all the talk about how much more peaceful and non-warring the gods of the old world were (compared to the Christians), it's sure ironic that the Greeks had so many gods of war and war-related activities. Even Apollo is the god of archery, and that's not just archery intended for hunting animals. He quite literally wields one of the best instruments of death in Greek mythology. Also, his Oracle sure didn't seem concerned when she sent Croesus to go fight a war against the Persians only to get himself and his army destroyed. We also have the glorified story of the Trojan War, which Athena didn't seem to mind as long as she was winning it. If only warfare were an exclusively-Christian problem. If only.
As early as page 39, you get told that the ancient Incas, Aztecs, Egyptians, and Chinese were somehow more enlightened than the Christians because they knew there were other worlds and other kinds of people/mythical creatures out there that needed protecting. You mean the Incans who regularly practiced the sacrifice of children? You mean the Aztecs who are world-famous for their human sacrifices—literally ripping out the hearts of victims and kicking their still-twitching bodies down the stairs? And, by the way, they deliberately fought wars (which Christians totally invented) to get more POWs to sacrifice. You mean the Egyptians who totally didn't fight wars of conquest with one another and their neighbors, and totally didn't use slave labor to build their now-famous structures? You mean the Chinese who, under their first emperor Qin Shi-Haungdi, buried alive scholars and burned their books? Darn Qin Shi-Haungdi being so Christian 200 years before Christ, killing people he disagreed with and suppressing information. It's a good thing the totally-not-Christian Communist Party of China doesn't do that, nor have they ever. The Falun Gong practitioners are totally free to practice their religion in China without fear of persecution, same as the Uyghurs (Muslims). The Buddhists—Tibetan or otherwise—were totally not suppressed and/or killed at any point in Chinese history.
Do you see the problem? It's not whataboutism, it's just that fair-is-fair. If you're going to demonize an entire large and diverse group of people for their beliefs, then prop up other groups of people for their beliefs, those other groups are fair game for scrutiny and criticism as well. And that's probably the main problem with this book: it is entirely one-sided. The characters don't even stop to consider the other side. The Christians in this book are just evil, and everyone else is just good by virtue of not being Christian. And that's a problem, a huge problem.
Does the book have some redeeming qualities? Yes. The nature and mythical creatures are portrayed in a very appealing and fun way. Even the sea monster they fight and kill is cool. And, of course, after they fight and kill it, being good Pagans who value nature, we get this boorishly over-the-top scene in which the characters honor and mourn it. Bud, most people who fight and kill a monster who has tried to kill them—whether they're Christian, Pagan, Hindu, or atheist—are gonna tap-dance on their corpse and celebrate the second they slay it. Anyway, back to the good stuff. This book is imaginative and inventive. The concept of a “Safe Space” in the form of a cottage is a very unique concept in a book. In all honesty, if this book hadn't been so heavy handed, preachy, and one-sided in its message, it could've been a pretty exciting and fun read.
You can check it out here.