Good fiction deals with powerful themes and does so by embedding them in the plot line and character arc—so the word becomes flesh. This is the power of great drama and fiction: that we get caught up in the story and the emotion opens our heart, and as our heart is opened so is our mind. Author Roger Thomas understands this and delivers powerfully and effectively in his heart-thumping, page-turning novel with strong Christian themes, Under the Watchful Sky…
Under the Watchful Sky, by Roger Thomas (358 pages, Tumblar House, 2018)
I first came across the novelist Roger Thomas when he heard about my book on the magi and sent his own novel about the three wise men—From Afar. Legends have proliferated around the magi story as no other incident from the gospels. Mr. Thomas’ take on the ancient tale is one of the best. He weaves in some expert historical research with a tale of adventure, courage, humor, and faith.
I was therefore pleased to receive his latest novel Under the Watchful Sky. I am not always enthusiastic about reading new fiction. Too much of it is long winded, amateurish, or overly intellectual. When it comes to drama, films, and fiction, I am unashamed to admit that I like a page-turner, a plot-twister, a cool character and hearty hero. If I want a sermon I’ll go to church. If I want philosophical introspection I’ll read Kierkegaard. If I want political posturing… actually I would never want political posturing.
I want a good story told at a breakneck pace, but in saying that I do not look only for action. You can keep your ninja superheroes. Good fiction deals with powerful themes and does so by embedding them in the plot line and character arc—so the word becomes flesh. This is the power of great drama and fiction: that we get caught up in the story and the emotion opens our heart, and as our heart is opened so is our mind. Roger Thomas understands this and delivers powerfully and effectively.
Under the Watchful Sky is the story of Derek—a young guy who works in the morgue of a Michigan hospital. When a suspicious suicide turns up he gets embroiled in a dark conspiracy. Running parallel is the story of Janice, a nurse at the hospital who is also drawn into the dark forces at work in their world. Set in the near future, America is coping with the after shock of a half-century of the culture of death.
There are too many old people for the young to support. The costs of health care is skyrocketing and threatens the nation’s economy and security, so an army of euthanizers is at work. The idea of marriage, family, and children has broken down completely, and Derek and Janice are two of the victims. With their own tragic family backgrounds, they are adrift like survivors of a shipwreck.
Isolated in a world devoid of meaning, both find a way forward—Derek finds the way of life, and Janice is lured into the way of death.
Derek falls in with an alternative, Catholic agrarian community while Janice is drawn into a gathering of intentional killers funded and empowered by the federal government’s Department of Homeland Security. As the story gathers pace, the two are suspected then captured, and the plot takes a climactic turn which resolves the tale and opens the door to Mr. Thomas’ sequel.
Under the Watchful Sky is a welcome addition to the dystopian genre. I could not help noticing the author’s nods to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Place names echo Middle Earth, and Janice’s seduction by the sinister MCV cult shadows Mark Studdock’s entrapment by the members of N.I.C.E in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. Mr. Thomas’ Butch nurse Melissa channels Fairy Hardcastle, while the members of a heroic, off-the-grid farming community remind one of the community of St Anne’s.
Mr. Thomas is to be congratulated for dealing so effectively with pro-life themes. He shows a society in which the breakdown of the family has left people lonely, depressed, and impoverished.
Artificial contraception and artificial conception have produced an underclass of “bastard” people who were conceived as commodities. What follows is that those who were conceived as commodities end up treating others as such, and the elderly, infirm, disabled, and unfit will be exterminated. The agrarian community, on the other hand, is joyfully pro-life. They not only have lots of children, but they also rescue the old people destined for extermination and give shelter to the survivors of the marriage and family shipwreck.
While I admire Mr. Thomas’ accomplishment, there were a few holes in the characters and plot. While Derek and Janice were convincing, and the disabled mechanic Sam was a terrifically terrifying character, some of the supporting roles in the agrarian community were perhaps too good to be true. The co-incidence of the villains setting up shop so close to the country community seemed too easy, and taking the final resolution out of Derek’s hands was an easy mistake. There was an exciting climax, but it was both predictable and one which smacked too much of the deus ex machina for my liking. The fact that the resolution was conducted by a machinist in the rafters was almost a literal deus ex machina.
Under the Watchful Sky would be improved with a better cover. The back design is weak and the typeface bland. The front cover art is not strong, nor does it immediately convey the strength of the thriller-dystopia genre and content.
These are minor grumbles. The book is a great read—perfect to put into the hands of young people of high school and college age. The themes Mr. Thomas raises are vitally important, and the dystopia he creates seems all too possible. Tumblar books are to be congratulated for publishing this novel. It is encouraging to see publishers and authors take the risk of producing heart- thumping, page-turning fiction with strong Christian themes. Budding scriptwriters would do well to be in contact with the author. The novel would make a nail-biter movie or TV series.
Now all we need are some investors with deep pockets to commit to the hard work of marketing and promoting the book (and funding the film) to get this story out to a much wider audience.
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