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Benediction Denied: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel Kindle Edition
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This latest offering is part of the Labyrinth of Souls series released by ShadowSpinners Press. The series is inspired by the Dungeon Solitaire card game created by Matthew Lowes, who has also contributed a novel to the series. Engstrom’s novel is a dark species of modern day Märchen, the subgenre of fairy tale in which an Everyman character is transformed by an encounter with magical forces. This is no children’s story, though. It is an exploration of consciousness in which false assumptions do battle with self awareness.
The story unfolds against the backdrop of a turbulent region in the African Congo, and descends pell-mell into a nightmarish subterranean realm of terrors and wonders. Visions of bizarre and fantastic environs are summoned with artful clarity. Engstrom throws curve after curve at the reader with deft precision at a breathtaking pace.
Weird fiction at its finest. Highly recommended.
And then his world disintegrates.
Adam finds himself fleeing underground, struggling to survive in the dark with a supernatural deck of cards and his memories: memories of a co-worker’s warnings about the local trickster god; memories of his family, what each one of them means to him; memories of how love and betrayals, some subtle, some as direct as a blow to the face or a knife in the back, make up the fabric of his life.
The writing is masterful, one of the most skillfully crafted stories I’ve ever read. Adam’s intense longings for light, water, sustenance, hope, and freedom are so palpable that reading this story is a harrowing experience. Innocuous-seeming remarks peel back to reveal a grinning death skull; monstrous encounters in the labyrinth turn out to have their origins in “ordinary” acts of mundane cruelty.
There is a deep irony at the heart of the story that is reflected in the title. If God, perhaps in Trickster aspect, is listening to Adam's prayers, the only way of granting the wish of his heart is by denying his most heartfelt desire. He can have one; he cannot have both. Which benediction will be denied? And just who is doing the speaking? Is there a benediction Adam himself is leaving left unspoken?
Benediction Denied is inspired by a card from The Labyrinth of Souls game deck, designed by Matthew Lowes and illustrated by Josephe Vandel. Engstrom is one of several authors bringing these Tarot cards to life in story form. The traditional Wheel of Fortune has many implications, whether you read it as a lesson about humanity as a whole, the course of a lifetime, or experiences over many lifetimes. I wish I knew what Lowes and Vandel were thinking when they decided to represent number ten of the Major Arcana as a broken windmill. For me it invokes a song - two, actually - and memories of mills grinding grain, a visceral sense of our human dependency on seasons of nature, and Cyrano de Bergerac. This story, with its use of a magical set of cards, calls to mind a song by Alan Parsons Project:
"There are unsmiling faces in fetters and chains
On a Wheel in perpetual motion....
And they think it will make their lives easier
But the doorway before them is barred
And the Game never ends when your whole world depends
On the Turn of a Friendly Card.