Smith, T.J. Tate Publishing; Mustang, Oklahoma: 2010. ISBN 978-1-61663-101-7.
The third book in the Dan Clay series, “The Sinister Realm” follows Smith’s first two ventures into Catholic Fiction/Fantasy, “A World Away” and “The Harrowing Escape.” However, this third book uses a familiar concept, that which begins the adventures of the previous two books, and moves in a completely new direction. The book makes up for its slow, dry diction by demonstrating comprehension of the Catholic understanding of the human person and a good grasp of the human psyche while creating an extremely imaginative and compelling fictional setting.
The setting is the world as we know it. The characters of the past two books, Dan Clay and his brother William, and their friends Jimmy Parker, Cindy Sommer, and Sam White have just returned from a harrowing month-long journey from a parallel world accessed through an oak tree in the nearby forest. Their journey was physically demanding but was defined by an encounter with and victory over pure evil. They are happy to be back with their families, but not for long.
The old oak tree lost its status as a portal to the parallel world when the travelers crossed back over to their home world. However, a new oak tree has sprung up in the churchyard seemingly overnight, and this one has sinister qualities. Without intending to, without preparation, and without any prior warning the group of friends, plus the local Catholic priest find themselves thrown through the new portal. And the world in which they find themselves is nothing to like the parallel world of their previous journey.
"The Sinister Realm" is far more allegorical than the first thirds of the series. The characters find themselves journeying through the caves of hell, each trapped in a place that corresponds to their dominant vice. Smith creates a very detailed and very precise description of what he imagines hell to be. At first, the book seems to be nothing more than another journey through a strange, and unpleasant, new world. However, as the journey progresses, the evident craftsmanship and mastery of theology, human psychology, and creativity on the part of the author becomes more evident.
In reading this series, and not only in this particular installment, the author’s imagination is the most refreshing aspect. Novels which present unoriginal and unimaginative attempts at the creation of fictional worlds occupy copious amounts of shelf space at both new and used bookstores. Often, even the most unaware reader will notice themes, names, or places contiguous with the settings, plots, and descriptions in other books of the same genre. In his series, Smith effectively and intelligently creates a parallel world that is both fascinatingly new and realistically believable at the same time.
Perhaps Smith most distinguishing characteristic is his diction. As a writer, Smith has an extensive vocabulary. His description is precise and, not one to repeat words, he is capable of using multiple synonyms in one setting. To his disadvantage, the complex, elevated, or extensive diction often distances the reader from the situation at hand and makes it harder to invest in the tale. His dexterity with words also causes a few pitfalls, such as when the character with the qualities stereotypical of a jock uses words only seen in the analogies section of the SAT.
Smith, however, possesses amazing insight into the nature of human beings. His characters are diverse in a way that goes to their very core. And though each character is perhaps cast into roles that are perhaps a little too stereotypical, and the descriptive diction leaves the reader feeling that the characters might be a little flat, those same characters prove to be more genuine and complex than in the average novel. Much of the author’s genius in this aspect no doubt stems from Catholic teachings which profess the inherent value and dignity of every human person.
If you were to pick up only one book in the series, "The Sinister Realm" is the one to read. While the first two installments feature a complex and imaginative setting, as well as an introduction to the characters, this third book demonstrates Smith’s ongoing development as a writer. Of the three, it is the most likely to keep the pages turning and to incite the reader to open the book again and again until the story concludes. However, the reader must be warned that The Quest of Dan Clay series moves more slowly and with much more narration and description than most fiction and fantasy novels on the market.
Parents need not worry about blurry distinctions between good and evil, the appearance of adult topics and themes, or anti-values in this particular book or the series. However, the graphic descriptions of monsters and hellish punishments in “The Sinister Realm” make it hard to recommend this book to younger readers. Mature pre-teens and many teenagers will be able to handle this book, as well as any adult that is looking for an alternative genre.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.