I’m excited to introduce The Dark Divine trilogy by Bree Despain! It’s Christian fantasy with universal appeal. The books are built smoothly on a religious structure without sacrificing quality. The latter is important. My dad introduced me in my earliest years to both classical fiction and religious fiction, the latter which I have often criticized for its limited focus and inferior quality. Except for obvious exceptions such as The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, I rarely recommend Christian fiction to anyone other than a fellow believer. Yet sometimes religious fiction helped me in my Christian walk in a way that general fiction couldn’t. Therein lies a dilemma. It’s one which plagues special interest fiction (regional, religious, social issues, etc.). While such books serve a legitimate need, even their intended audience might pass on them if the quality isn’t there.
Cover of The Dark Divine
Despain uses the parable of The Prodigal Son as the backbone for The Dark Divine trilogy, and yet despite this biblical connection the purpose of these books is to entertain rather than to preach. Fantasy lovers should appreciate that it features werewolves; Christians should appreciate that Despain gives them a religious twist. This twist actually serves as one of the themes of the trilogy. An old court document inspired Despain. It told of a man who was accused of being a werewolf. Instead of trying to fight his accusers, he admitted to being a werewolf but argued that the town didn’t understand what werewolves really were, which were creatures created to protect humans from evil beings. In The Dark Divine trilogy, Despain expands on this idea, making her werewolves creatures made by God to protect humans from evil being but who then became so prideful of their special abilities that they were corrupted by their power. Those characters in her trilogy who are bitten by a werewolf face a choice. Some choose to embrace their volatile nature, turning into creatures who are worse than those they were made to destroy. Others fight against this nature by choosing to love. Yet it’s no easier for them to do that then it is for any Christian to avoid sin. I’ll talk more later about the themes, but definitely each book had me thinking about how we all have a choice in how we live and are not puppets of destiny.
Now that you know The Dark Divine trilogy is a werewolf fantasy, I’ll turn to its treatment of religion. Even though I began this review by labeling this trilogy “Christian,” its take on Christianity was a mystery to me for some time. The books weren’t published by a Christian publisher, and they don’t bear the traditional hallmarks of Christian fiction. And so I started wondering about Despain’s background. After searching the internet, I learned Despain is Seventh-Day Adventist. Also, while her father isn’t a minister, he is a church leader. This information in mind, I started wondering whether The trilogy would be another conversion story. It isn’t. From page one, the Divine family believe in God and live by their Christian faith; there was no one to convert. Satisfied on this account, I considered the possibility that Despain instead intended to trick readers by having the Divine family reject their faith. She doesn’t. Although main character Grace often rails against God, and her mom succumbs to mental illness when faced with a crisis of faith, the family always returns to God. When Grace is at her lowest, a mentor gently admonishes that she must take up prayer again. She does. My next reaction was to think the use of Christianity was superficial, and of this I was critical. To my surprise, this made me feel guilty; I don’t like Christian books that are overly preachy, so wouldn’t I therefore like books that portray Christianity in a positive way yet are not preachy? But I realized that I wouldn’t care for a book that simply used Christianity as a character trait. So where does that leave me? I don’t want to be preached at, but if Christianity is to play a role in a novel, it should actually makes a difference in characters’ lives. In The Dark Divine trilogy, it does.
Let’s turn to concrete examples of how Despain integrates Christianity into her books. As I noted above, Grace’s dad is a pastor. There are frequent references to the duties he must perform in that role and how the family help. Connected to that, one of crucial characters in the first book is a is a man who threatens the pastor, receives forgiveness, and joins the church. While not a typical experience for most teenagers, I found it refreshing that Grace and her siblings attend a religious school I also grew up in Christian schools. As for Grace’s classmates, while they’re naturally expected to live up to high moral standards, not all do. Scattered throughout all three books are references to scriptures, prayer, and miracles, which all feel natural because her characters are three-dimensional. There are even references to Jesus, which surprised me–popular religious television shows such as Touched by an Angel and Joan of Arcadia typically refer only to God in an attempt to maintain a broader appeal. Nowhere in secular fiction, even in the classics whose authors held religious convictions, has Christianity been so prominent. Naturally, it helps that Grace’s dad is a pastor. Yet all these references felt comfortably familiar to me, having grown up simply in a Christian home. Even so, I could have just as easily disliked them, if not for Despain making her characters otherwise as ordinary as those found in general fiction. The Divines are a flawed family who experience extraordinary situations and just happen to face them with faith.
Earlier I said that I’d talk more about themes. When Despain first started submitting The Dark Divine for publication, one publisher expressed interest but asked her to drop the religious aspect. Despain didn’t, because she felt it integral to the story she wanted to tell. I am thankful that she stood her ground. The Dark Divine trilogy is about love–not the romantic kind although that definitely exists, but rather the sacrificial kind such as found in Harry Potter. In the Christian world, this type of love is found in the gospel. Scripture even teaches: “Greater love hath no man than to lay his life down for another.” Readers familiar with the Harry Potter series know that his parents made this sacrificial choice for him, which forever changed Harry’s destiny. At some point in The Dark Divine trilogy, at least one of the main characters will make a similar choice with long-lasting repercussions. The Dark Divine trilogy is also about forgiveness–its nature and cost. Daniel is the prodigal son who returns, while Jude is the older son who resents how much attention is given to Daniel. Jesus ended his parable of the prodigal son simply with the father saying, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” In Despain’s story, neither of the two sons have an easy path ahead, for Daniel must fight the temptations within him for his old life while Jude finds jealousy can lead to some dangerous choices. Despain also creates a “Good Samaritan” character, who represents compassion instead of violence. Yet Despain recognizes that nothing about being Christian is simple; one verse will advocate turning the other cheek, but another has Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. The Bible is not black and white, and Despain gets this.
There is a lot of teen paranormal fantasy literature out there right now. And frankly, most werewolf and vampire and witch and demon fiction will quickly be forgotten–because it isn’t about anything else. The Dark Divine trilogy rises above other books in this genre because, as you can see, there are so many more layers. I picked it up every chance I had and cried when it ended. I enthusiastically recommend this trilogy to anyone who loves fantasy. It’s the perfect blend of faith and fun! And it’s also well written. Despain will be on my list of authors to watch.
My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.
How would you rate these books?