Would you become a Christian if it meant certain persecution?
The Sword and Serpent Trilogy is an exciting series which weaves together legends of many early Christian saints and martyrs into a fascinating narrative. Dr. Taylor Marshall, a Catholic Theologian and Philosopher, draws on what we know of the lives of iconic saints such as St. George, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Nicholas, and St. Christopher. Get to know these fourth century saints in a personal and inspiring way through these notable new novels.
“Saints aren’t born. They are forged.”
In his creative retellings, Dr. Marshall seeks to convey the humanity of great saints to the reader. By showing the journey of growth and conversion which saints like St. George and St. Christopher might have taken, Dr. Marshall makes these saints accessible and relatable to readers in a new way.
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In the first book, Sword and Serpent, Jurian (St. George) loses his home and family because of Christian persecution. Jurian’s coming of age and maturity parallels his journey in faith as he moves past anger and revenge to follow God’s gentle guidance. Along the way Jurian encounters and is helped by courageous saints like St. Nicholas, St. Blaise, and St. Christopher. The dragon Jurian meets is not quite quite the dragon you might be expecting. And he slays the dragon, but not by himself.
In the second book, The Tenth Region of the Night, female saints get more page space. St. Catherine of Alexandria, Aikaterina, jumps off the page with her prodigious intellect and insatiable thirst for truth which leads her to the One Truth eventually. Intermingled with Aikaterina’s story, Jurian’s journey continues as he works to free St. Christopher from his persecutors.
In the third book, Storm of Fire and Blood, Jurian travels into exile in the wilds of Britain, bearing the sword Excalibur back to its homeland. Meanwhile, Aikaterina rules Alexandria for her ailing father and debates with Emperors. All the Christians prepare themselves for the coming storm of Diocletian persecution.
Some Fine Storytelling
Quite independent of the religious merit, the Sword and Serpent trilogy is worth reading as a well-crafted story. The attention to historical detail is meticulous. The balance of humanizing the saints without diminishing their holiness is superbly executed. There’s a fascinating subplot about the sword Excalibur and Arthurian legends. There’s another intriguing storyline about the influence early Christian saints may have had on a young Constantine. A bit of myth, a bit of legend, a bit of historical fact combine to make a captivating and inspiring series.
Wisdom from the Past
The Sword and Serpent books superbly portray the first centuries of the Church when to be Christian was to accept persecution and eventual martyrdom. The courage and faith of these early saints during the Diocletian persecution offers an inspiration and a challenge to us all. In our post-Christian world, our children need books like these to remind them of where we came from and what heroic virtue we as Christians are capable of achieving.
Enjoyable For Teens and Adults
The Sword and Serpent series is completely clean and appropriate for teens. There is no foul language. Alcohol use is somewhat frequent, in keeping with the historical time period when beer or watered wine was commonly drank by all people with meals. No glorification of drunkenness though.
Given the backdrop of Christian persecution in the fourth century, there is some level of moderate violence. For example, some Christians are burned to death; others are fed to wild beasts. However, there are no gratuitously graphic descriptions of these acts of violence.
I wholeheartedly recommend this fine series for all teenagers and also for adults! The Sword and Serpent series is a perfect impetus to renew our sense of faith and hope and rediscover the power of the Gospel message.
Looking for more great books for Catholic teens? Check out my book lists!
Adrastea is a thrilling new fantasy novel by Anastasia Vincent. This exciting coming of age novel is inspired by some of my favorite high fantasy authors like Tolkien and Lewis. I also saw resemblances to the popular Wingfeather Saga. Teens (and adults) who enjoy Wingfeather, Narnia, and Lord of the Rings will certainly enjoy Adrastea!
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In-depth World Building
One of the best things about Adrastea is its well-developed fantasy world. This first book in The Annals of Orbis is set primarily in Arietis, a kingdom populated by Cievo: tree-dwelling people with antlers. Other inhabitants of Orbis include Humans, Elves, Snow Sprites, and Shefro. Each of the five kingdoms of Orbis has its own language, terrain, and race.
Betrayal and Exile
The action in this first book centers on the young Cievo Princess Adrastea. After witnessing her parents’ brutal murder at the hands of a human, she flees for her life. Finding unlikely allies in a human and a crippled Cievo, Adrastea survives and even thrives in exile. Naturally, she is determined to avenge her parents. But will revenge truly bring her peace?
Adrastea embarks on a journey to find her parents’ killer. But soon she finds her journey complicated by unlikely allies, betrayals, and new friends. This novel has a touch of mystery, lots of action and adventure, and several clever plot twists that will surprise you!
Classic Fantasy Themes
In high fantasy tradition, there are the classic themes of betrayal, redemption, and sacrifice. Like Lord of the Rings, there is inter-racial tension between the different inhabitants of Orbis. Adrastea has to move past her prejudice towards humans to work with her allies to find her parents’ murderer.
Coming of Age Story
This is a coming of age story which follows Adrastea from age 13 to 18. Adrastea’s transformation from troubled, attention-seeking child to mature young adult is well-written and will resonate with teens. Her friendships with kind, noble people of multiple races help her grow and learn to think past her own selfishness.
Strong Female Characters
I appreciated that this fantasy story focused on several strong female leads with a variety of personalities. Of course there’s quiet, moody Adrastea, but she is balanced with other female characters. There’s kind Aleta, a crippled girl who befriends the troubled young princess and refuses to be pushed away. There’s cheerful Daphne, an acrobat on a mission to save her sister. And then there’s exuberant Abene, who brings joy and friendship into Adrastea’s life.
A Variety of Villains
Similarly, Adrastea is far from one-dimensional in its take on evil. The cast of villains is quite diverse. There’s a cunning, evil sorceress, and there’s a greed-blinded uncle. There’s a hurting decoy prince who is manipulated by his wounded vulnerabilities. And there’s the Grapevine: a crew of ruffians. And there’s another crew of raiders with their own brand of justice and loyalty. Of course, there’s also Adrastea’s betrayer (no spoiler about who it is). With its diverse cast of antagonists, Adrastea keeps you guessing throughout about who the ultimate mastermind is.
Parents will want to know that there is some amount of violence. The deaths are not graphically described, but people do die, sometimes at teenagers’ hands. I would compare the level of violence as comparable to Narnia and Wingfeather, so most teens should be fine.
There is no sexual content, no language, no alcohol or drug use.
Overall, this is a very clean book. Parents can feel safe giving their teens this creative, fast-paced new fantasy novel!
Adrastea is available in paperback, on kindle, and readable for free on Kindle Unlimited.
After thoroughly enjoying and reviewing Shannon Hale’s Princess Academytrilogy, I’ve been working my way through her Young Adult series, The Books of Bayern. Like Princess Academy, there is much to admire in the Books of Bayern. These books have a similar focus on strong female characters, the importance of friendship, and sacrifice. They are overall a clean and captivating fantasy series that older teens will enjoy.
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The Books of Bayern are set in a fantasy world where certain people are given the “gifts” of being able to communicate with and even control animals, wind, fire, water, or people. In the first book, The Goose Girl, Princess Ani finds her throne usurped by a ruthless imposter who uses her gift of people-speaking for evil. Ani’s gentle spirit wins her friends, and these friendships prove as important as her own gift of wind-speaking in regaining her throne. And, of course, winning the heart of the heir to the throne.
The subsequent books, Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born, have similar plotlines about consciously choosing to use your gifts for good or evil, friendships, and young love. Each features a unique, strong heroine: gentle Ani, fiery Enna, smart Dasha, and shy Rin. Each heroine must learn to control her gifts and use them for good.
Overall, these books have inspiring, positive themes for older teens. Free will is one major theme. Ani and Dasha consciously choose to use their talents to benefit others. Enna misuses her gift at first, but repents and resolves to never harm another person again. Rin also struggles with her power to manipulate others but chooses to not use her gift rather than use it for evil. Always, personal choice and responsibility are upheld.
Other major themes include friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice. Friends undergo great dangers to help one another. Ani saves Enna’s life in the second book at the risk of her own. There’s also a theme of sacrificing for country. Enna and Razo are willing to undertake a dangerous diplomatic mission in the hopes of preserving a fragile international peace.
Another great theme is mercy and forgiveness. On many occasions, Ani, Enna, and their friends go the extra mile to attempt to capture enemies without having to kill them. These heroines have an innate respect for human life, even if it’s the life of a sworn enemy. They even attempt to save Ani’s nemesis throughout the series. They also extend mercy and forgiveness to one another with grace.
Although the first three books have romantic plot aspects with main characters pairing off, I appreciated that Hale deviated from this pattern in the fourth book by having Rin remain single for now. Rin is more troubled by her gift than the other heroines, and makes a very mature choice to refrain from relationships for the time being to work on improving herself.
A Few Criticisms
Although the themes are mostly positive in The Books of Bayern, there are a few potential areas of concern for parents of tweens and younger teens.
These are fantasy-adventure-romance stories, so invariably there is a certain level of romantic exchanges and kissing. Overall, these exchanges are not particularly graphic. No more than the occasional passionate kiss. But teen romantic love is a definite plot aspect, so if you have a younger teen you don’t want focusing too much on romance, skip these for now.
Along the same lines, there are a few occasions where bad guys leer at or threaten the heroines where there are definite sexual harassment undertones. There are also a couple occasions where even the good guys notice a girl’s figure or beauty in a somewhat objectifying way.
There’s also a decent amount of violence, especially in the second book, when Enna gets too obsessed with burning and revenge and starts setting people on fire. More sensitive younger teens might not like the death toll in these books.
Overall, A Fun Fantasy Series for Mature Teens
Teens who enjoy fantasy and adventure will enjoy these books as light, overall uplifting reads. Given the caveats above, I recommend them for older teens versus tweens and younger teens. Tweens and younger teens will appreciate the Princess Academybooks much more!
For more of my favorite books for teens, check out these lists:
Catholic Apologetics in graphic novel form: what could be better? In this latest volume of the Brendan and Eric in Exile series, everyone’s favorite space pilots are reassigned to fly the space taxi in recently settled Mars. There, they find a society where religion has been outlawed and Christians face real persecution and death. Brendan and Eric find themselves defending the sacraments and Catholicism like never before in Weapons of War!
The mysterious author of the Brendan and Eric books is actually a contemplative monk and priest, so it comes as no surprise that these books are steeped in solid theology. Readers will find handy notations in the bottom margins of the story noting key passages in the Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church which back up Brendan’s reasoning. In this latest volume, Eric and Brendan debate on a wide range of apologetical issues: with Protestants who challenge them about the priesthood, confession, and Baptism, with atheists on marriage and the Eucharist, and even with a lady who believes in universal salvation. The Bible verses fly as fast as the drones in this novel!
In this latest book, Brendan and Eric spend a good deal of time debating Biblical interpretation with the Protestant pastor. But when faced with a anti-Christian society, the Protestants and Catholics on Mars work together to get the message of Jesus’ love and promise of salvation broadcast to the uncatechized inhabitants of the planet. Risking all their lives, they broadcast a message about Jesus’ love and mercy. Later, the Protestant pastor and his assistant again help the Catholic characters to rescue their priest, who has been imprisoned. There’s a great message in this novel about working together with our separated Protestant brethren, who are Christians too.
Great For Teens
The graphic novel style of this book will speak to tweens and teens. This book would make a great gift for First Holy Communion or Confirmation, or even for someone completing RCIA. Even adults will enjoy brushing up their Sacrament Apologetics with this easy to read format! The other two books in the series are also excellent. In the first volume, The Truth Is Out There, Brendan and Eric learn about God, and how faith and reason are not contradictory. Then in The Big Picture they combat a maniac who wants to change God’s plan for salvation. This series is a wonderful way for Catholic kids to learn about the Catholic faith and apologetics in a fun, engaging format.
For my great graphic novels for Catholic kids, check out this list!
James Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, wrote a wonderful series of books for adults, in addition to several collections for children. Drawing on his years of experience as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, Herriot wrote his memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. These memoirs take the form of a series of loosely connected stories, mostly anecdotes about the animals and owners he encountered. Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, Herriot’s uncanny gift for storytelling makes these books classics I love to recommend to animal lovers young and old.
“All things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small”
The poem The Creation by Cecil Frances Alexander inspired the titles of Herriot’s books. This poem really captures the spirit with which Herriot approached creation, always marveling at its wonders and seeing the hand of the Creator. In a spirit very similar to St. Francis of Assisi, Herriot cares for each animal, great and small, he encounters. He embodies a great example of stewardship of creation, often helping animals whose owners have no way to pay for his services. His great love for nature surpasses the boundaries of Kingdom Animalia. He also loves natural beauty, often describing the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire dales with the affection of a lover.
Community and good old-fashioned virtues praised.
Herriot writes of a different generation and lifestyle. He describes a now old fashioned way of life based on hard work and simple pleasures. Both Herriot himself and the farmers he encounters endure back-breaking work, whether birthing cows or forking hay. They enjoy good food, family time, and the occasional treat of an outing to a concert. The lack of technology and slow pace of life is a shock, perhaps a necessary one, to the twenty-first century reader. Was Herriot’s generation more peaceful in their hard labor? Happier in their simple pleasures?
Community is of great importance to Herriot. Neighborliness is an important quality in an isolated, low-tech community- even if the nearest neighbor is a mile away! The farmers are almost always hospitable and kind, taking care of the vet with a cup of tea and a seat by the fire after a call. In return, Herriot and his partner Siegfried often extend credit to cash-strapped customers.
Any questionable content?
Herriot’s memoirs are somewhat autobiographical. He recounts his charming, clean story of falling in love with Helen, his future wife. This is no more graphic than the description of a few kisses. On the other hand, the young veterinary student, Tristan, is a wild college student who is described as having several lady friends. Nothing graphic again, but the insinuation is that he knows them rather too well.
Tristan is also described as being frequently drunk. Herriot’s partner in the firm, Siegfried Farnon, is also occasionally described as drunk, and even rarely Herriot himself. Usually the consequences of drunkenness are portrayed as unpleasant: embarrassment at the least, or even a lost client. But occasionally Herriot does recount a drunken episode with a humorous twist.
The only other caveat I have about these books is the occasional foul language. The farmers are earthy men who swear when angry. Their language ranges from taking the Lord’s name in vain to the occasional f-word. The language is infrequent enough that is easy to take a permanent marker and cross out any words you don’t want your teens reading.
Who will enjoy the James Herriot books?
Anyone who appreciates a masterfully told anecdote with a lilting rhythm punctuated by impeccably timed punch lines. Anyone who loves animals and nature. Anyone who likes autobiographies, comedy, or a sweet love story. Really, I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying these books. I wholeheartedly recommend them for teens and adults who are looking for a light-hearted series.
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Teens and Romances
Most teenage girls go through a stage of craving romance novels. Beware of letting your daughter even browse the romance section of your library these days though! She will be bombarded with sensual images on covers and graphic content within. Even many “Christian” romances are heavy on the sensuality and low on any sort of inspiring theme.
What type of romance should teens be reading?
What should you look for in a romance for a Catholic teenager? There are the obvious “no’s”: no graphic sexual content, no positive portrayal of premarital sex, no living together before marriage, no dark drama about failing marriages. But a worthwhile romance is so much more than a list of “no’s.” Great romances showcase the true nature of love and humanity.
Themes in true romances
What is true love? It’s desiring the good of the other. Some of the greatest romances ever written explore this theme, like A Tale of Two Cities, in which Sydney Carton undergoes an incredible redemption and gives his life for the good of the woman he loves. Truly great romances will portray true love as selfless, giving, or redemptive. These type of romances often show the love between a man and woman as reflecting the love of God for us.
Is any human being perfect? Is love a feeling or a choice? Great romances do not portray the protagonists as perfect in every way. They often show that all people are imperfect, and forgiveness is the way to happiness. Or that true love isn’t just a magical feeling, but sticking together when life is tough and rekindling the flame of love in the face of adversity.
Are humans made for solitude or community? As much as we might sometimes envy the hero and heroine of Riders of the Purple Sage who push a boulder and cut off the rest of the world, this is not reality. Worthwhile romances usually have greater depth than a simple boy-meets-girl-engagement-marriage story line. They examine relationships with family, community issues, world events, or other broader topics.
Fortunately for your teenage daughters, there are plenty of novels which combine love stories that range from passionate to funny with worthwhile themes.
Here are a few of my favorite novels for teens that have themes about true romance and love.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is such a wonderful combination of adventure, intrigue, and romance. This classic novel has a strong romantic plot about an estranged husband and wife falling in love with each other that teens will love. And it also has great themes about sacrificial love and forgiveness that parents love to see their kids reading.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp is particularly powerful because it a true story. The real Maria who inspired The Sound of Music writes with a simple, charming voice how she met her future husband and family. This is a love story about Maria and the Captain, but also an example of a loving relationship in the context of family, community, and society.
They Loved to Laugh is another love story where love is experienced on several levels. It has great themes about family, friendship, and forgiveness.
The Rose Round is by the wonderful Meriol Trevor, a fantastic Catholic author who wrote one of my favorite children’s series, The Letzenstein Chronicles. The Rose Round is intended for a teen audience and follows a brother and sister pair who both find friendship and love in unlikely places. It has a great theme about looking beyond physical appearance to determine personal worth.
The Light Princess by George MacDonald is a classic fairy tale about a princess who loses her gravity, physically and emotionally. Only true sacrificial love from a prince can restore her to health and balance.
This list would be incomplete without some Louisa May Alcott! Though Little Women focuses mostly on sister-relationships, other Alcott books like Rose in Bloom and An Old-fashioned Girl are about finding love, sometimes in unexpected places. Rose and Polly learn to remain true to their beliefs and wait for a man wiht a pure heart.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is an exciting historical fiction novel about a fiery teenage girl who becomes deeply involved in palace intrigues, caught between two rivals for the Egyptian throne. Oh, and of course there is romance too. I love how this story shows Mara’s growth from utter selfishness to understanding the sacrificial nature of love.
Manalive by G. K. Chesterton is another book that fits many genres. I call it a romance for two reasons. First, because it teaches the reader that everyday life is romantic. Second, because a third of the book is about two characters falling in love and fighting in court to be allowed to marry.
Here are some novels with romantic plots I recommend for teens over 14.
Funny and memorable, My Heart Lies South is a true story about a young American journalist who falls in love on a trip to Mexico and ends up staying. Readers will love this amusing love story that also touches on the difficulties of assimilating into a different culture and family.
Do not assume all of Gene Stratton-Porter is appropriate for teens, but Laddie: A True Blue Story is really a charming story told by Laddie’s Little Sister, who explores themes about family, nature, redemption, and forgiveness. She also recounts how Laddie fell in love with and won the heart of a Princess.
Freckles is another great book by Gene Stratton-Porter. Similar to Laddie in many ways, a simple lad must win the heart of a high-born girl. A charming romance, and a great story of personal growth and overcoming disability.
The Robe is the story of one man’s quest for love and truth. He finds it in Christ. But he does also find love with a special young woman, which teen readers will enjoy.
The James Herriot Books are the funny and endearing stories of everyday life as a country veterinarian. James Herriot weaves his story of wooing and winning his wife into his animal anecdotes.
[Parental warning: mild language]
Everyone knows that teenage girls should read Pride and Prejudice, but don’t stop there. Read The Jane Austen Collection for more classic stories about finding love, with a side of social commentary and comedy.
[Parental warning: mentions of out of wedlock relationships, illegitimate children, mistresses]
The Virginian is a classic western full of cowboys, shoot-outs, and true love. With his quiet humor and gentle nature, the reader is rooting for the Virginian to win the lady.
A Tale of Two Cities is, as I mentioned above, a stellar example of how true love is sacrificial. No-good Sydney Carton never does get the girl, but his pure love for her ends up being his redemption.
P. G. Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster novels, but he also wrote some hilarious romantic comedies such as the Adventures of Sally. Many of his Blandings Castle novels also include a strong romantic plot, such as in Heavy Weather and Summer Lightning.
A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel is the first in a series of historical fiction novels about the Napoleonic Wars. Each book includes a love story, which is kept carefully PG. Strong female heroines abound in these novels. [Parental warning: one of the girls is wilder and does break some of the rules, occasionally is described as dressing in a more risque fashion, etc. There is also mention of someone keeping a mistress, which is portrayed negatively.]
[Parental warnings: one scene of attempted date rape in the very first book]
Older teens (16+) will enjoy these more difficult novels.
A classic mystery, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is driven by a romantic interest. The protagonist and narrator must solve the mystery of who the woman in white is in order to gain a happily ever after with his wife.
By request, I conclude my series of reviews of popular teen dystopian series with my thoughts on Divergent. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is one of the most popular in this genre, probably second only to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”. Like Hunger Games, Divergent features a strong female protagonist, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who tells the story in the first person present. And like Hunger Games, Divergent raises questions about societal norms, fascism, and what a good person is to do when confronted with an unjust government. Like Hunger Games, there are certainly positive messages to take away from reading the series, but the question is: do the positives outweigh the violence and negative messages?
THE OVERALL STORYLINE
Divergent, the first book in the series, introduces the reader to a dystopian Chicago which is divided into five factions, each of whom is obsessively fixated on one virtue. Abnegation values self denial, Candor values honesty, Dauntless values bravery, Erudite values knowledge, and Amity values kindness. Usually a person has an aptitude for one faction, but a few special Divergents have aptitudes for multiple factions. At 16, a teenager has one choice to decide which faction to join, and Beatrice “Tris” Prior chooses Dauntless. Divergent follows Tris through the initiation process, then stars her and her boyfriend Tobias “Four” stopping an attempt by the Erudite to seize control of the city.
Book two, Insurgent, describes Tris’ attempts to figure out what is beyond the fence which encloses Chicago. With the help of a few unlikely allies, she reveals hidden Erudite footage about the origin and mission of the city: to produce a primarily divergent population which can help the outside world.
The final book, Allegiant, reveals Tris, Four, and others leaving Chicago and entering the outside world. There, they learn that Chicago is actually an experiment by the Bureau of Genetic Welfare to determine if living in factions can help return damaged DNA to its original “pure” form. The series concludes with Tris sacrificing her life to wipe the memory of the scientists at the Bureau so that the genetically damaged will be regarded as equal human beings thenceforth.
Overall, it’s an exciting, fast-paced series with a compelling, charismatic first-person narration style. Its popularity is easily understood. But beneath the swift-moving story line there are a host of issues which parents may find concerning.
Hunger Games took a lot of bad press for violence, but honestly I found Divergent much more consistently violent. Teenagers intentionally harm other teenagers, such as one occasion where a sixteen year old sticks a butter knife into a rival’s eyes. There is an inordinate amount of hazing in the first book, both instructor on student and student to student. There are massacres, and there are executions which involve shooting the wrongdoer in the head. There is a scene where a group of students attempt to sexually molest and then murder Tris.
Even more alarming to me is the amount of violence Tris herself commits willingly. At least in Hunger Games Katniss mostly committed violence under duress. Tris chooses Dauntless as her faction because she craves the danger and adrenaline rushes, but quickly decides that if it takes hurting others to excel, she’s willing to fight her way to the top. She scorns her classmate who refuses to beat others senseless to improve his rankings. In contrast, Tris herself continues kicking a girl who has bullied her long after she’s beaten, and then says she doesn’t feel guilty at all. Tris also repeatedly has to shoot her family in the head to escape her fear landscape, a visual I had a hard time shaking.
Divergent is simply awful when it comes to setting an example of a chaste relationship to teens. The protagonists, Tris and Four, are forever ending up making out in bed together, sometimes scantily clothed. There are no explicit sex scenes, but a lot of talk about wanting to have sex, descriptions of taking off clothes, hands under clothes, and sleeping together. There is also a disturbing theme about using each other and kissing or sex to forget problems temporarily and avoid addressing relationship issues. Tris is forever saying things like, “I press my mouth to his, because I know that kissing him will distract me from everything.” Are these messages about what is appropriate between teenagers and using one another what we want to teach our teenagers?
Having tattoos is apparently an integral part of the Dauntless identity, which is obviously lauded since Tris and Four choose it. Parents should realize that in Divergent, tattoos are normalized as a legitimate way of immortalizing a memory. Tris gets several to mark important events and persons in her life. There is also an interesting motif about enjoying the pain involved in getting a tattoo. For example, Four describes getting his first tattoo: “It was agonizing. I relished every second of it.”
The drugs in Divergent are a series of serums which achieve different results: memory erasing serums, peace serums, death serums, fear-inducing serums, and so on. The way these drugs are used is mostly by injection, and some characters use them in ways alarmingly similar to real life drug use. The Dauntless use a fear-inducing serum to cause a hallucination of one’s worst fears: a fear landscape. Four obsessively injects himself and goes through his fear landscape, and even injects Tris so she can “journey” with him. The Amity inject a peace inducing serum to send troublemakers into hippy happiness again. The Amity also bake this peace drug into their bread so that their entire community “feels peaceful” constantly. I find all this drug use normalization concerning in a novel aimed at teens.
Another normalizing attempt in the series is a couple of completely unnecessary plugs for homosexual relationships. One of Tris and Four’s friends, Lynn, confesses on her death bed to “really loving” her friend Marlene. Another minor character, a grown man named Amar, confesses to having had a crush on Four when he was a minor. However, he is described as being over that and now being in a relationship with another minor character, George. There are repeated descriptions of Amar and George hugging and sharing affection.
Another extremely disquieting theme in Divergent is that lying is not a big deal. From the beginning, Tris declare she could never belong in Candor because she lies easily and often. She does not seem to see this as a negative at all. She describes herself at one point: “I don’t know when I became so good at acting, but I guess it’s not that different from lying which I have always had a talent for.” Tris also lies to Four repeatedly, even premeditated lies. For example, in an emotional scene in Insurgent Four begs her not to sacrifice her life by going to Erudite headquarters. She knows she is going to go anyway, but looks him in the eyes and promises not to go, then thinks: “This lie- this lie is the worst I have ever told. I will not be able to take it back.” Additionally, many of Tris and Four’s plans are contingent on lying convincingly. Tris can even resist the “truth serum” and gets herself out of trouble multiple times by lying while under its influence.
ENDS JUSTIFYING MEANS
The reason Tris and Four lie frequently is that they believe the ends justifies the means. Divergent gives lip service to the belief that ends do not justify means insofar as Tris states that it is wrong to sacrifice the lives of human beings for the purpose of genetic cleansing. But in practice, Tris and Four often lie and even kill to achieve their goals. Four explains at one point in Allegiant that for his father, his mother, and sometimes himself, “the end of a thing justifies the means of getting there.” For Tris, it doesn’t even have to be a noble means. She will lie to save herself embarrassment or inconvenience.
Unlike Hunger Games, where God and religion are absolutely ignored, Divergent flirts with the idea of God and religion having some meaning, at least for some people. Praying and talking about God and heaven is something only the Abnegation do in Divergent. I consider this relegation of God and prayer to being a belief specific to a particular Faction an extremely subtle way of dismissing religion.
Tris herself has little to say on the subject of religion. She is basically an agnostic, treating all things religious with ambivalence. She is generally uncertain about the existence of any afterlife. But when faced with imminent death in Insurgent, she states that she does not believe that anything she does or doesn’t do will make an impact on her eternal future, if there is one. “I don’t believe that what comes after depends on anything I do at all.”
PHILOSOPHY OF VIRTUE
At first, I was excited that Divergent was raising questions about what it means to have various virtues. But by the end of the series, I realized that the conclusions Roth leaves the reader with regarding specific virtues and how virtues relate to one another are quite problematic.
I believe one fundamental issue in Divergent is a lack of understanding of what a virtue actually is. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines virtue as a disposition to act rightly, and as a mean between the two vices of excess and deficiency. This simple yet powerful definition is what Roth was clearly lacking when she wrote the Divergent series. She often describes an excess as the virtue. For example, the Abnegation are supposed to be selfless, which Roth describes at times as a complete unwillingness to ever accept help. Unwillingness to accept help is a form of pride, not a virtue. Similarly, she describes the Dauntless bravery in terms of recklessness or rashness, which are actually vices directly opposed to the virtue of courage. These muddied examples of virtue are concerning in a teen novel since many teens are not going to have the ethics background to recognize the false understanding of virtue shown in Divergent.
Another part of Aristotle’s definition of a virtue is that the virtues do not exist in isolation; they are facets of a virtuous person. Divergent definitely treats the virtues as separate goals to pursue, and even vacillates on the question of whether different virtues are actually opposed to each other. Four is more correct than Tris when it comes to this question, telling her in the first book that “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” But Tris disagrees, saying: “It doesn’t work that way. One bad thing goes away, and another bad thing replaces it. I traded cowardice for cruelty.” She honestly believes that one person cannot have two virtues.
I hoped that by the end of the series, Tris and Four would espouse a more accurate understanding of virtue, but the last book, Allegiant, leaves the reader with the message, “Every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling.” I do not accuse Roth of intentionally confusing teenagers about the nature of virtue, but I think she lacks a coherent, correct understanding of virtue. Unfortunately, this translates into potentially dangerous misconceptions about virtue in impressionable readers.
Considering the sexual content, violence, lies, agendas, and shaky philosophy, I advise not having your teenagers read Divergent. In case you’re still unsure, let’s talk about the ending of the series.
Spoiler here, but Tris dies near the end of Allegiant, so the trilogy ends with a devastated Four receiving life advice from Tris’ best friend Christina. The important take away for teenagers here from the surviving main characters? “Sometimes life really sucks. But you know what I’m holding on for? … The moments that don’t suck. The trick is to notice them when they come around.”
Okay, I will admit there is nothing inherently wrong with this advice. But honestly, I found it sort of depressing. The best we can do is hold out for the moments in life that don’t suck? Really?
How about seeking the true, the good, and the beautiful? How about living with passion and purpose? How about seeking all the virtues and becoming the best version of yourself? How about striving to see each moment as a gift, each suffering as a kiss, each joy as a taste of heaven?
A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel by Kathleen Baldwin is a fast-paced alternative historical fiction novel that offers the reader a captivating blend of adventure, romance, and mystery. This first installment in the Stranje House novels is told by Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam, a young lady of noble birth and many talents. Unfortunately for her, being a brilliant mathematician with a scientist’s curiosity is not an asset to a young lady in 1814. Exiled to Stranje House by her exasperated parents, Georgiana finds herself swept up in a world rife with mystery, romance, and most importantly opportunities for a girl with unusual abilities.
In contrast to many teen novels I read (like my recent experience with “The Selection”), I actually enjoyed Kathleen Baldwin’s writing style and plot. She writes a swift moving story without sacrificing descriptive language and character development. One of the parts I most appreciated was that while Georgiana was clearly the heroine of this book, the other girls at the school also receive character development and seem to be fascinating people too. This harmonizes with one of the major themes in A School for Unusual Girls: acceptance, both of your own gifts and those of others. Each of the girls at the school is highly gifted in their own unique way, but has been rejected by society for not fitting the accepted mold for young ladies. At first Georgiana envies her schoolmates their beauty or talent in other areas, but in the end comes to peace with accepting the gifts she has been given and appreciating what her friends have without jealousy.
The main problem in A School for Unusual Girls is a typical one in secular teen novels: God and religion are left completely out of the world of Stranje House. Personally, I do not see this as a reason to utterly discount a well-written book, as long as your teenagers are noticing the void. In the area of sex, parents need to know that the “romance” in this novel borders on sensual at times, with some passionate kisses. There is also a point in the plot where one of the girls dresses seductively to distract some soldiers. For these latter reasons, I would suggest parents use their judgment in determining the appropriate age for their teens to read this. I would not this book recommend for a girl younger than fourteen.
THE BOTTOM LINE A School for Unusual Girls may not be great literature on par with Leave It to Psmith, but it a thoroughly enjoyable novel with some encouraging themes for teenage girls. I do not see boys enjoying this book at all, but it will resonate with teenage girls who may not quite fit in easily for some reason, whether that be introversion, unusual interests, high intelligence, or something else entirely. I hope this book will encourage girls to explore and develop their individual, God-given gifts.
After reviewing a parenting book, I wanted my next review to be on light literature, so I continued my project of reviewing popular dystopian novels such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner”. Unfortunately, the next teen dystopia on my list was The Selection by Kiera Cass. I say unfortunately because this book is high on the list of “most unsatisfying” and “least worthwhile” books I have ever read, and I almost did not even bother reviewing it. However, given its popularity with teenage girls and status as a New York Times Bestseller, I felt obligated to provide feedback.
The Selection is marketed as “dystopia meets the Bachelor.” I would describe this novel as a very light, vanilla form of dystopia, where hardship consists mostly in rigidly defined social castes and some food shortages among the lower classes. The heroine, America Singer, is, predictably from a lower caste and the long shot to win the Prince Maxon’s attention in a Bachelor-esque contest for the queenship and throne. Again predictably, she gains his attention immediately with her honesty and sad story of having a broken heart from being dumped by her ex-boyfriend back home, Aspen.
Of course this book is not evil incarnate, and I will freely admit there were certain redeeming themes. For example, America is careful to only use make up and clothing to enhance her natural appearance. She also learns a good lesson about premature judgments when she has to rethink her rashly formed opinions about Prince Maxon. America is also a good role model when it comes to friendships, being open, amicable, and charitable to the other contestants. That is the best I can say for her.
AMERICA THE CHEATER
Since this is a teen romance novel, of course there is a love triangle, activated when ex-boyfriend Aspen decides he no longer wants to be an ex. I found it completely infuriating that America has little problem with dating Prince Maxon, knowing he loves her and admitting she might love him, while also renewing her relationship with Aspen. America admits she knows this is wrong, says she feels guilty, but continues to lead on both men anyway. I found this deceit from America particularly offensive because what initially catches Prince Maxon’s attention is her honesty. Take away her honesty, and she becomes a much less likable and admirable character, and a poor model for Catholic teens.
The whole concept of The Selection actually bothers me. Should a man be dating 35 women at once? Perhaps you must define “dating” to answer that question. Calling taking each of 35 women out to dinner in turn “dating” is one thing, but when you add declarations of love and kisses into the mix, Prince Maxon’s behavior begins to verge more on cheating, at least to me. America struggles with feeling jealous of the parade of “other women,” but thinks she needs to squelch her feelings because it’s all part of the Selection. Yes, it’s strange circumstances, but I find the overall messages here about what dating should look like, especially dating multiple women, troubling.
To give a small measure of praise, at least in this first book of the series Kiera Cass keeps her characters clothed. However, I did find the rather graphic descriptions of America making out with her ex-boyfriend needlessly erotic. One might also pause to wonder why these scenes between America and Aspen are dwelt on so heavily, since the overall impression from the book is that you should want America to end up with Prince Maxon. On this front alone, I would pause to question the authoress’ agenda before handing this book to a young teenager.
Another interesting agenda I noticed in this novel is a theme promoting free access to birth control. The only law America seems to truly dislike is the one forbidding fornication. She is angry that she doesn’t have the right to choose when and with whom she has sex. She also resents that birth control is a luxury only available to higher castes. Again, this is the heroine of the story here, the one the reader is supposed to admire, advocating for birth control and free love. Troubling much?
The Selection ends abruptly on a cliffhanger without resolving any of the main conflicts. A loose end to be tied off in a future book is one thing, but this level of jerky ending is usually a sign that the author is more interested in garnering sales of additional books then writing a worthwhile book. All things considered, The Selection is not a selection I would recommend.
My post Good Catholic Books for Catholic Preschoolers and Kindergarteners is one of the most searched and read on this site, so today I was inspired to write a similar post aimed at Catholic teens. If you are looking for confirmation gift ideas or just good books about the Catholic faith, inspiring saints, and captivating conversions to add to your library, here is the list for you.
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For older teens, Louis de Wohl’s biographies of saints are great inspirational reading. He does a fine job of portraying the saints as fallible human persons who achieved sainthood by responding to God’s call in their lives. A note of warning: Louis de Wohl’s books do contain occasional mild sexual content, so I recommend them for older teens only at parental discretion.
George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic is a fascinating tour of important historical Catholic sites, combining architecture, history, and faith into a seamless, captivating series of letters.
Jason and Crystalina Evert’s books Pure Manhood and Pure Womanhood are fantastic, short and sweet answers to questions teenagers have about dating and sex.
All Things Girl: Truth for Teens is a spectacular gift for a Catholic teenage girl! This book offers chapters on everything from modesty and fashion to social media and peer pressure. An awesome resource for Catholic moms as a discussion starter also.
Youcat by Cardinal Schonborn was designed with the input of high schoolers on the design team to create a visually appealing version of the Catechism to appeal to a teenage audience. If your teenager wants color images and is turned off by the weight of the full Catechism of the Catholic Church: Second Edition, then this would make a great Confirmation gift.
I AM_ by Chris Stefanick is an awesome book to give a teenager or young adult. Stefanick leads the reader to recognize that they are beautiful, courageous, strong, fearless, precious, and lovable. This is a message teenagers desperately need to hear. Each word has a short anecdote and meditation or prayer. Chris Stefanick writes in a very simple, conversational tone that will easily appeal to teenagers, even those with a short attention span!
Resisting Happiness by Matthew Kelly explains how to break past our own procrastination and laziness and choose the happiness we all desire deep in our hearts.
The Truth Is Out There is the first volume of a wonderful new comic book style Apologetics series. This action-packed sci fi series melds interplanetary travel with spirited arguments about the important questions in life: does God exist, why is the Catholic church the one true church, what happens we die, and so many more!
Fr. Gereon Goldman tells his own incredible story of life as a German soldier, becoming a priest secretly, and the miracles that he has experienced in his life. A moving and exciting account of Divine Providence at work.
Parent Warning: plot includes a Nazi plan to seduce seminarians by forcing them to live in households with beautiful young women.No explicit content.
The Song at the Scaffold follows 16 Carmelite nuns as they face the guillotine during the French revolution. An inspiring story based on true events.
The Robe by Lloyd Douglas is the fascinating story of a Roman centurion whose life is changed forever when he acquires Christ’s robe.
For more ideas of great books for Catholic teenagers, check out some of my other book lists such as: