Book Review: Things Unseen (A Long-Forgotten Song) by C.J. Brightley

Things Unseen

Things Unseen by C.J. Brightley, A Long Forgotten Song Book One, Christian Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Dystopia Novel, thought-provoking and compassionate.Series: A Long Forgotten Song, #1

Author: C.J. Brightley

Genre: Fantasy (Dystopian, Christian)

Book Description:

History student Aria Forsyth’s studies lead her to dangerous questions about the Empire’s origins. A mysterious man named Owen, impervious to the winter cold, further unravels the safety of the world she thought she knew. At first, Aria believes Owen is human. He says he’s not. What if they’re both wrong?

A moment’s compassion draws her into a conflict between human and inhuman, natural and supernatural, and she begins to discover the secrets of the Empire, the Fae, and what it means to be human.

Rating: Interesting, Thought-Provoking

The First Review:

Things Unseen is not the sort of book I would ordinarily pick up. It is a Christian Dystopian Urban Fantasy, and most of those are genres I tend to avoid. However, the author shared some spoilers about the series in a Discord I’m in, and that caught my interest.

Researching this thesis is an exercise in dedication, frustration, making up stuff, pretending I know what I’m doing, and wondering why nothing adds up.

That is the opening line, by the way. Though I didn’t find myself immersed in the characters or the setting, or particularly invested in the writing style, I did find Aria’s experiences and thoughts decidedly interesting. Her frustrations with not being wanted to actually study history, but instead to simply find the right way to parrot so-called “facts” without exploring or questioning them. With getting an F on a paper she wrote, with the professor giving a reason that she had stated something she had not even stated … the real reason being that she allowed for and invited interpretations of events other than the official one in her paper.

What was the point of history, if you couldn’t learn from it? The people in history weren’t perfect any more than people now were. But surely, as scholars, they should be able to admit that imperfect people and imperfect decisions could yield lessons and wisdom.

It wasn’t as if it was ancient history either. The Revolution had begun less than fifteen years ago. One would think information would be available. Memories should be clear.

When Aria meets a strange, mysterious man who seems to frighten the bookstore lady, she becomes reckless and impulsive. She reputedly pursues her mysterious stranger into dark, lonely, or frightening situations with a recklessness that seemed … slightly odd. At the same time, the whole situation is slightly odd, if not more odd, and the fact she hardly takes a moment to appreciate the eerieness of the places she gets herself into, or the danger that most people would perceive in apparently equivalent situations, may be due to an intuition, one that she isn’t even aware of, but nonetheless guides her thoughts and feelings. After all, it certainly seems to surprise him that she is even able to track and follow him, and it’s not because the young history student has exceptional tracking abilities.

Or it could be put down to a young, rash recklessness. After all, Aria is a young woman who doesn’t remember large pieces of her own life, and only barely seems to notice it, yet she has noticed that something is off with the situation and what she’s being taught. If she has a somewhat off-kilter approach or perception of things like mysterious strangers, that might be to be expected.

But when Aria’s repeated trailing of the young stranger put them both in danger, her world, too, is changed. And, on the spur of the moment, prompted by something she sees in him and the questions she’s been nurturing, she makes a decision that forever changes her life, throwing in her lot with those who flee, hide, and oppose the Empire.

While the characters didn’t immediately connect to me, as I read the book, I found myself more invested in their personalities and encounters. Owen’s responses to Arria, and the seeming mix of irritation that she’s following him, and some sort of consideration that she cares, that she is not hostile, were endearing. There’s something so soft, so indefinable, and also so firm, pain and compassion, frustration and determination with no bitterness, in his interactions, and the ability to see that she cares, that she doesn’t intend harm – even while she is putting him in terrible danger, unknowingly. At the same time, even after she throws her lot in with him, Arria is still terribly irritating – and at the same time, from her point of view, her need to have answers and understand is quite understandable. Yet it’s very irritating when she does not know how to shut up.

When she glanced up again, he was sitting, leaning forward with one arm resting on his knee.

“Why are you following me?” His voice was soft. “I’ve done nothing to you.”

“I wasn’t following you. I was walking, and I saw a shape here. I wasn’t sure it was you.” She edged a little closer. “I was worried. You were hurt, and the IPF…” her voice trailed away. “I thought they meant to help you at first.” She frowned.

He huffed softly, a short hard sound that might have been a laugh. “They never mean to help us.”

Aria tried to see him in the darkness. His form was shadowy, and she could see only the pale, angular shape of his face, his arms, and his bare feet. Closer. “I wasn’t looking for you, but you’re hurt. It’s freezing out here, and you don’t have any shoes. Let me give you mine. I have more at home. They’re boots, and they’re too big for me anyway. They ought to fit.”

She sat back and started to pull at her laces.

He reached forward and stopped her with one bare hand. “I’m fine.” There was a hint of warmth in his voice now, and she met his eyes.

He swallowed and looked away first, glancing back toward the empty street beyond the steep bank. “Thank you for your concern. It is unusual.”

I really enjoyed the themes of compassion and something that might be called loyalty – to never leave your friends and fellows behind, no matter the risk, no matter the unlikelihood of successful rescue, no matter the likelihood you will be captured as well. For all of Aria’s split-second decision earlier in the book to throw in her lot with the rebels, the real moment when she becomes committed is when she witnesses the suffering and atrocities inflicted on a Fae child who’s been held as a captive of the Empire. It is compassion that makes an end of fear.

I’m going to dive into the spoilers review now. I’m pretty sure I could say more that wouldn’t be spoilers, but it’s hard for me to tell what is and isn’t, so …well, this “Continued Review” is going to be pretty philosophical, since the book invites many questions and musings of that sort … philosophy grounded in real life or in the concrete circumstances of story, so I hate to put it behind a “Spoilers Warning,” but I can’t think about this sort of thing and also think about what is or isn’t a spoiler or how to avoid spoilers at the same time.

The Continued Review:

The Fae have a direct experience of or connection to El, one that is broken if they defy his commands or their nature. And deep-seated in their nature is an incredible resistance to even concealing the truth from anyone who believes they have a valid reason for seeking it. And they may not lie. They’re supposed to live in sinless communion with God, unbroken by the Fall, though they live in a world broken by it. Lying is forbidden, but they may kill in self-defense.

This is something that roused questions to my mind: why is killing permissible, but not lying? Is lying more outside the nature of commitment and trust in good – purity – innocence – than killing another being made by and in the image of your Creator? Withholding the truth is opposed to nature – but killing is not, or not nearly so much. What is the author trying to say here? What are her feelings about this? And why?

I really enjoyed the theme of “what does it mean to live – to be – untouched by evil, by disobedience, by moving against the Will that made yours, the nature of who you are, in a world that is profoundly broken by evil?” What would the place of such a creature in such a – in this – world? What would living in the midst of that, and responding to it, look like? What would the world – do to you?

These aren’t questions the book answers. No story can answer them! To assume to know the answers – well, this is my personal opinion, but I would say it is arrogance or presumption. But to search for them – to provoke questions – that is what this story offers. And I think it is something that resonates deeply with human nature. Who among us doesn’t desire to be – pure? And wonder how that is possible in this world? Or what it would it mean? Who among us doesn’t desire to be pure, at the same time as we aren’t even aware what that means, what our truest self is? But while we can’t answer that or make a story to answer that, we can have a story to suggest questions or themes, possible images, and to resonate with us.

And here is another passage:

“And when he lied to Grenidor?” she whispered.

He looked up at her then, his clear blue eyes anguished. He shook his head and looked back down at the paper. It was a sacrifice. He chose the worst possible thing. But if he did not have the strength, it would have been better to give Grenidor the information. Even if we all died for it. The sacrifice he chose was too great. More than his life for ours. You cannot understand the cost. He raised the pen again to wipe at his eyes. All my life, I have looked up to him. He is the example, the most obedient, and the most pure. And now, when he is tested, he chose to lie instead of sacrifice us. I do not understand! The pen nib tore through the paper and he bent over, burying his face in his hands. His shoulders shook with silent sobs.

“If he did not have the strength to remain silent, I do not blame him for that. But if he did not have the strength, it would have been better to give Grenidor the information. Even if we all died for it.” Bear with me here – or skip a paragraph or two to find out more, it does not matter – but this is something that resonates deeply with me: what is right and wrong? What is good and evil? So often, people judge by the consequences. But, inherent in the consideration of what it would be to be a creature unstained by evil in a world broken by it (I think), is the question of: is that really the way to look at it? Or are things wrong or right having to do with your nature and keeping that, and not with the consequences – what others may choose to do because of or with your choices?

And Owen’s answer to how he lied …

“How? I do not know. Why? Love. For them. And you.”

This is a place where I was very frustrated with Owen’s Fae friends for worrying that he might have disobeyed El and turned himself into a desolate monster. Isn’t it absolutely obvious that Owen isn’t a monster? Is not desolate of El’s presence? Right from the moment where, when self-defense and slaying their enemies is ordinarily acceptable for the Fae, Owen commands his friends not to kill Grenidor, his torturer?

And that was another thing I found very interesting about the story: One Fae asks for the grace to lie, and in return he gives mercy, forgiveness – extends his love to his enemy. He asks to lie: but he does not kill. It seems to me there is something to be considered here.

And here’s the passage for this:

Owen twitched his hand; he had something else to say. “I prayed. For strength. Forgiveness. I didn’t think El would answer a prayer for the ability to lie, but He did.”

Cillian’s nostrils flared, his voice low and angry. “You should give up these beliefs, Owen. They do you no good. If that is why you did not allow me to kill Grenidor, you are wrong. He deserved it, more than anyone in both our long lives. You know it would be permitted, and you know it is justice!”

“They have something we don’t, Cillian.” Owen’s voice was fading. “They have choices. I chose. I went against the rules, and it was permitted. But it might be only because I chose mercy.”

“But you were wrong!” Niamh cried. Tears spilled down her cheeks, and she reached out to touch Owen’s face. “Why? Why would you let him live, after this?”

Owen smiled. “Because I could! Don’t you see? We have never been permitted such freedom.”

There is more I could suggest. More questions or themes to be explored. Perhaps in reviews of the sequels (when I read them) I will touch on or mention some of those. Suffice it to say, this is not a book I would ordinarily have chosen to read, but it was a very interesting read and I am glad I read it – as evidenced by the fact I intend to read the rest of the series.

C.J. Brightley’s Website

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