A young woman fleeing the horrors of World War II is astonished to find an undiscovered medieval world when her plane crashes in the Bermuda Triangle. Forced to join forces with a gifted but troubled warrior-prince to survive, El’s knowledge might just be the key to winning their civil war… but how can she share it, when the world she’s stumbled upon is altogether too much like the one she left behind?
If you’re in the market for well-written, clean, and intriguing Christian fantasy with deep themes, realistic romance, and plenty of action and adventure, may I suggest the Darcentaria Duology by J. J. Fischer. Through a unique blend of 20th-century history and medieval fantasy, Fischer reimagines the classic story of Ben-Hur into a two-book saga of vengeance, love, forgiveness, and freedom.
I could not put these books down. I read The Sword in His Hand in two or three days and finished The Secret of Fire not long after. I could go on about the writing, the plot, the cast, the worldbuilding, and the themes, but I feel like I talk about those elements in all my book reviews, so I’m going to focus on what sets these good books apart from other good books I’ve read:
While the story takes place in the medieval fantasy kingdoms of Darcentaria, these kingdoms are couched in the “real world” during World War II. I’m not always a fan of the real-world-meets-fantasy-world trope, but in these books it worked, and it worked really well. While we never see World War II directly, we see it indirectly in several of the characters, their backstories, and their struggles, along with a few other glimpses in Darcentaria itself.
The upheaval and carnage of WWII provide such a powerful backdrop for—and mirror of—the power struggles, racial division, and divided loyalties of the fantasy kingdoms, not to mention the fascinating exploration of technology and its effects on civilization. Rather than just giving a greater context for the fantasy world, this parallel setting contributes to the story itself in profound ways. What struck me was seeing how humanity is the same whether in a medieval kingdom or in a modern nation.
The two main characters have their own faith journeys, each very different but just as powerful and realistic as the other. Most importantly, each journey is relatable. No matter where you are in your own faith, you can find connecting points with either character (or perhaps both) as they navigate life and its moral and spiritual challenges, no matter what world they’re from.
What I loved most was how Fischer wove the gospel message into her fantasy. I’m leery of stories that combine true faith with make-believe worlds, but the way Fischer’s characters lived, shared, and responded to the Christian faith in the fantasy world was purely beautiful. I always enjoy defamiliarization (making the familiar strange in order to garner a fresh appreciation for it), and the ways Fischer showed Jesus, the gospel message, and other Bible truths to the foreign culture and characters of Darcentaria gave me a new perspective of some things I’ve known my whole life.
I mention this because I’m not a romance reader—I enjoy books that have some romance in them, but I don’t go for romance plots. In this duology, I would say the plot is equal parts romance and adventure, and I found myself equally intrigued by both. What I appreciated most was the realism of the romance, in its pros and its cons—each character has plenty of obstacles to overcome to fully understand and love the other, while every step of their deepening relationship shows another aspect of the beauty and power of true, sacrificial love.
It’s worth noting here that while these books are clean, they don’t shy away from the gritty side of reality, romantic or otherwise. There are past relationships, affairs, secrets, lust, and violence. The main character is nearly raped twice, and several characters suffer a significant amount of abuse. The author keeps the “on-screen” details sparse, if included at all, but for the general presence of mature themes I recommend these books to older teens and above.
A few final comments: the cast contains an equal balance of male and female characters, in lead and support roles, with a refreshing variety of personalities, ethnicities, backstories, and motives. The plot is more twisty-turny and interconnected than a plate of spaghetti, and the narrative itself is a showcase of creative writing. And the worldbuilding details are spot-on. As a medieval fantasy writer myself who’s done lots of research, I was thrilled to recognize quite a few of the details that brought the setting to life and enriched the story.
I honestly don’t know how these books are the author’s debut novels—in my opinion, they’re the quality of a magnum opus. Whether you’re a Christian or not, I highly recommend the Darcentaria Duology as books worth reading. I’ve had my first taste of J. J. Fischer, and I’m a big fan. I can’t wait for her next books!