Date Published: April 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 390
Print Price: $10.79
eBook Price: $2.99
Philomena is a story quite unlike any other. At times it's a classic adventure story, at others a brilliantly realised fantasy. It can enthral young readers with its buoyant fun, and still entice adults with its depth and themes. It's like The Lord of the Ringsby J.R.R. Tolkien, but more innocent; similar to Ready Player Oneby Ernest Cline, but way more Catholic; almost a Pirates of the Caribbean in book-form, but more hopeful and less wet!
The basic storyline doesn't break any new ground. Cor Nova was once a kingdom of glory and peace, where merchants and travellers roamed the world in great ships supported by bags of gas (interestingly, the original development of these ships is given an enjoyable bit of history, rather than just being assumed as 'part of the world').
Now, Cor Nova has fallen under the iron fist of the evil king Philocrates. Masked soldiers stalk the streets, any books without an official stamp are burned, and the people live in constant fear of their ruler. But there is hope: the last great queen, a just ruler, spoke of a new heir who “would rise to restore Cor Nova to the old order.” She commissioned her trusted advisors to protect this heir, and to guard the last remaining copies of The Rule of Sylvanus – a book which has guided the rulers of Cor Nova for centuries. Dubbed “Bookkeepers,” these men and women have been hunted savagely by the king.
This general history is given in the first chapter or so of the book, and though some of the exposition is a bit heavy-handed – for instance, one character tells the story of how Cor Nova was founded to another characters who already know it – it's a gripping introduction, not least because you begin the story 'inside' the mask of a random soldier. These soldiers are then faceless for the rest of the story, but you can never afterwards forget that behind every mask is a normal person, even when they are fighting against our heroes.
The reader is then slowly introduced to a raft of characters: Cyprian, a young officer upon a merchant ship; Basil, a young doctor with a mysterious past; Veronica, a young writer and artist with questionable motives (note that these three main characters are all 'young' – more on that later).
Another major character is the titular Philomena, although with a difference: she's a ship. Rather, she's the ship which our heroes travel on, and I found myself caring about her as much as I did about the people. Then there's Jules Watt, Forthright Stanton, Bartholomew Oakum... The names can be a bit overwhelming, so it's a good thing that Mark Guiney, the author, spends a good amount of time describing and revealing each of the main characters. It also helps that each of these characters is quite different from the others.
One thing that is rather apparent is the young age of the three main characters: Cyprian, Basil and Veronica are all in their early twenties. There aren’t many other fantasy stories which have people of this age in the lead roles – these days, it's either teenagers or fully-fledged adults. But it works so darn well!
All of these characters are filled with an eager optimism; they still have the dreams and drive of teenagers, but with the added bonus of being old enough to actually do something about it. On top of this, their ways of speaking are right on for their age – probably due to the fact that Mark Guiney wrote Philomena in his early twenties. As a twenty-year-old myself, this adds a brilliant sense of realism to the story and invokes a personal spirit of camaraderie with these characters.
The kingdom of Cor Nova is gradually explored by the reader as we join Cyprian, Basil, Veronica, and the others on a journey across it. Their quest takes them from cities, to mountains, to forests, to oceans, a quest which can be traced on the map drawn at the front of the book. Thankfully, this world is great fun to traverse, and depth is slowly added to this discovery as the story goes on.
One gets the sense that this is a real, living world; there's mention of past wars, suggestions of culture, and enough description to help us picture something real rather than just a 'picture'. Not all of it feels natural – at one point, some characters mention a legendary character, only for that character to walk into the story a few chapters later – but the overall sense is of a living, breathing world.
As could be expected from a book set in a mythical and fictional world, there's no cultural Catholicism – no rosary, Sacraments, or Christ. Instead, Philomena is filled to the brim with little winks and nods to the Catholic faith. For instance, Philomena, Basil, and Cyprian are all names of great saints; there is power attached to 'the word'; a book, which has been formed over centuries by a succession of holy people, is revered. Philomena can easily be enjoyed without being Catholic, but picking up on the wealth of references made it far more fun to read!
I mentioned at the beginning that Philomena is similar to The Lord of the Rings. Guiney’s book deals with themes in a manner similar to how Tolkien presents his masterwork. . What I see as the central theme in Philomena is Hope vs. Fear. Basil, the young doctor, characterises hope, bringing it wherever he goes – whether it’s by his healing works, his words, or simply his presence.
As with LOTR, you can see aspects of Christ in Basil's character (and in others as well), but you would never say that he is Christ; Basil is applicable to Christ, but not an allegory of him. Opposed to him is Philocrates, the harbinger of fear. As the evil brother of Philocrates says, when addressing a group of dissidents, “...there is no hope for you. The age of Philocrates is here.” Just as in the real world, the only true weapon of evil in Cor Nova is fear. It is only with hope, and the light of love, that we are able to conquer the darkness of fear.
Repeatedly throughout the tale, all hope seems to be lost. Our heroes have been captured, or abandoned, or defeated. But then there comes what Tolkien called a 'eucatastrophe' – “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” It is an unforeseen and unforeseeable event which could have come from nothing other than grace.
These little moments add the true heart to Guiney’s story. Philomena gets lifted above simply an adventure story where everything works out, and becomes instead a story infused with purpose and destiny. Though there is never any mention of God (and only one mention of prayer – during a disaster!), it is hard to not see the events of the story as guided by some 'higher worker'.
Also, if one takes time to interpret or translate the names of characters and locations, another level of meaning emerges from the story. The kingdom is called Cor Nova, which in Latin means 'new heart'. The name of the evil king is Philocrates, which could loosely translate as either 'lover of grates' or 'philosophical hurdles' – both of which aptly describe this misguided ruler. In fact, almost all of the characters' names shed some light on their personality and destiny. Though perhaps some would see this as an over-emphasis of the theme, I found it exciting to watch the gradual unfolding of the hidden meanings.
Philomena is not a perfect book. There are moments of unnatural exposition, some conversation that feels forced, and a relationship which goes from an awkward first conversations to confessing love rather quickly, but nothing in the story is a game-breaker. Philomena is so much darn fun to read that I gladly ignore these small quibbles, and I can't wait for the sequel!
I would recommend this book for any young people looking for a slight challenge, all teens, and any adults who enjoy fantasy and adventure.
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Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 1 inches
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