Recently through the Catholic Writers Guild I met the wonderful Mrs. Susan Peek, homeschooling mother and novelist. Like one of my favorite authors, Louis de Wohl (whose books, strangely, I have yet to write about on this blog), her specialty is saint stories. In addition, Mrs. Peek is doing her fellow Catholics a beautiful favor by bringing to light the tales of saints who have fallen into obscurity, through her ongoing series, "God's Forgotten Friends." Geared especially towards teens, they are not only inspiring examples of holiness, but also rollicking adventures! I am happy today to offer my readers reviews of two books in her series: A Soldier Surrenders: The Conversion of St. Camillus de Lellis and Saint Magnus: The Last Viking.
In this brand-new edition of A Soldier Surrenders (previously published by Ignatius Press), Susan Peek takes us back in time to a lonely Italian road in the winter of 1570. It's here that we meet Camillus de Lellis--a giant of a young man devoted to drinking, gambling, and offering his sword as a mercenary to the highest bidder. This rough exterior conceals a soul of surprising compassion--he feels deep pity especially for the wounded and dying of the battlefield. But, as a "soldier of fortune", he carries his share of bad habits and hard luck. Despite his skill at the cards, his love of the tavern and the gaming table more often leave him penniless than not. And he bears a secret shame--a mysterious, painful wound on his leg which can't seem to be cured by ordinary doctors.
The quest for healing brings Camillus to the San Giacomo Hospital in Rome, where, empty-pocketed as usual, he reluctantly serves as a volunteer caretaker in exchange for receiving treatment of his wound. His hospital experiences increase his desire to aid the sick through personal love for each patient. Nevertheless, his raucous tavern habits and his tainted reputation as a mercenary leave him few friends among the hospital staff, with the exception of one kind-hearted fellow orderly, Curzio Lodi. But even Curzio's patience wears thin when Camillus persists in indulging his passions to drown his personal woes. At a crucial turning point of the story, Curzio berates his friend:
"You think you know so much about courage, Camillus? Well the truth is, courage comes in a lot of different forms, and God is only interested in one of them! You're not a soldier; you're not even a servant! You're nothing but a slave, Camillus! A slave to your own self-will!"Camillus stubbornly tries to forget his best friend's chiding. Dismissed from the hospital for unruly conduct, he attempts to reenter his former life as a mercenary. But continued ill luck and the still-unhealed ulcer on his leg eventually reduce him to destitution and beggary. Finally, at the lowest point of pain and humiliation, he sees the light. He commits his noblest act as a soldier, gives up his own will, and surrenders to God's.
Having given his personal struggles into Divine hands, Camillus finds renewed direction in life. He returns to San Giacomo, where his vigor and commitment in serving the sick earn him the rank of hospital superindendent. But Camillus realizes his vocation does not end there. To fulfill his lifetime longing to minister to the dying souls of the battlefield, he enters the priesthood and founds the order of the Servants of the Sick. Their symbol: a red cross on a black cassock--the original Red Cross organization.
Mrs. Peek punctuates the spiritual drama of the plot with battles, duels, and lively dialogue. While I was a bit taken aback by the modern idiom of the narrative, her contemporary style offers a lively sketch of the boisterous, hot-tempered, and ultimately God-passionate Camillus de Lellis. He's a man we can all imagine knowing--and loving. Applause and thanks to Susan Peek for rediscovering the life of this "saint for strugglers"!
It had never occurred to Magnus, second son of Erlend, to arm himself with a weapon before setting off for Vespers...
This opening line of Chapter 2 in Mrs. Peek's latest saintly adventure story introduces us to Magnus Erlendson, the teenage prince of an 11th-century Orkney Isles kingdom, who would much rather dedicate his life to God in the monastery than spend it as a sword-toting warrior. Fortunately, Magnus is not in line to the throne--his older brother Aerling and his cousin Hakon are. Unfortunately, that is about to change.
When Magnus catches the unscrupulous Hakon committing an atrocious crime, he is swept into a life of turbulence, bloodshed--and holiness. Hakon is banished from the kingdom, swearing vengeance on Magnus. True to his promise, Hakon enlists the help of the king of Norway to overthrow the Orkney Islands. While Hakon snags the throne, Magnus and his brother Aerling become Norse prisoners.
After many trials, spiritual and physical, Magnus manages to flee to Scotland, where he lives for ten peaceful years. Despite his cousin's treachery, Magnus defeats his impulse to hate and now only wants to put his past behind him. But duty calls again when Hakon himself enlists the exiled prince's aid to help put down illegitimate rivals to the Orkney throne. Magnus returns, reluctantly, only willing to leave his tranquil exile to restore the peace at home. But Hakon's hate has not faded over the years--and his further treachery will test Magnus' spiritual mettle to the core. The climax of this story is so heart-racing and heart-wrenching that I dare not reveal it--readers will have to experience it for themselves!
Packed with desperate battles and action galore, this is no saint story for the faint of heart. However, the spiritual themes are an equally integral part of the tale. Magnus' struggle against hatred and revenge proves to be more dramatic--and more important--than any of his clashes with the blade. The unlovable villain Hakon also turns out to be a surprisingly deep character, when faced with Magnus' choice of love over hate.
Mrs. Peek's distinctive contemporary style is noticeable in the book, but doesn't detract in any major way from the historical setting. My only critique would be that some of the minor characters verge on being caricatures, seeming only to further the book's theme of forgiveness. However, the main drama between Magnus and Hakon is well-rounded and fully satisfying.
Overall, Saint Magnus: The Last Viking is a rollicking good tale of a truly extraordinary man--a warrior-saint whose innate peace changed the hearts of everyone around him, including his enemies. It's sure to be a favorite among all young adventure-lovers of the Faith!