Every night as a child, as far back as I can remember, I went to sleep with my copy of the Lord of the Rings at the foot of my bed. It was an enormous, red, single-volume edition that I was convinced was the true Red Book from Bilbo’s collection. Its comforting weight pressed against my toes, and although I’d wake most mornings to find it sprawled on the floor and be surprised that the enormous thump of its fall hadn’t disturbed my slumber—it was, after all, a very big book—still, just knowing that it was there gave me the courage to close my eyes and sleep.
Even then I knew, even if I didn’t know why, that books are powerful things.
Books are made up of words, after all, and words have the power to build up or destroy, to blaze with light or burn with hate, to steal our breath or breathe life into our souls. And not only are books made up of words but they are made up of Story.
Story. It’s a magical word.
It starts as a whisper and ends in a smile.
Try it. Say it and feel the way it flows across your tongue and tugs at your lips. Story. Story. Story. Are you smiling now?
Words brought the universe into being, the voice of God speaking out His creative intent, His creative Story, and making it so. Light. Dark. Day. Night. Land. Sea. Creatures. Humanity. We are born into a grand Story. Our lives are themselves stories. And all our lives, we are surrounded by, swept upward upon, and inundated with a thousand other stories. Stories both true and false that seek to shape our reality, whispering to us who we are, teaching us how to think, telling us what we need, shaping our vision, clamoring for our attention. Look here. Be this. Believe that.
Story. It’s a perilous word.
It starts in a hiss and ends in with bated breath.
Try it. Story. Story. Story. Are you shivering now?
And yet, sleep I did as a child, with my beloved book for comfort instead of a nightlight. Only now do I realize how fitting that was, for in a world inundated with hopeless and twisted narratives, the best and truest books are like little flickering candle flames, or high and distant stars, piercing the dark of night, lighting our way back home.
It is the power of stories and this conflict between narratives that serves as the backdrop for a fantasy novel that recently claimed first my attention and then my heart: Hidden Current, book one of The Dancing Realms series by Sharon Hinck. Set upon the floating world of Meriel (a world that will feel at once familiar and unique to readers of Lewis’s Perelandra), Hidden Current follows a dancer named Calara who has trained her whole life for perfection, for the chance to be chosen to perform with the Order. With strict dance patterns executed in faultless precision, the Order can control the movement of their world through a vast and endless sea, summon rain and sunshine, even cause crops to grow. Their work, Calara has been taught, is holy and only the flawless are worthy to perform it. But when the threads of the stories she has been told begin to unravel, leaving only questions, she flees the Order and sets out in search of the truth.
Hinck’s writing is brisk and beautiful, the worldbuilding fascinating and vibrant, but is it the way that she describes dancing, the way her words leap and twirl across the page, and the way she captures the heart and central challenges of the creative process itself that truly makes this book soar. We like to cast ourselves in the shoes of a book’s heroes and heroines, but the more I read of Hidden Current, the less I could ignore the realization that I often saw myself reflected most in the dancers of the Order.
In the Order, the gift of dance has become corrupted, perfectionism and control have become the goals, and the art itself has become simultaneously an idol and a means to an end. Too often, I find those same attitudes in myself as a writer. Too often, I catch myself striving relentlessly for perfection, longing desperately to achieve glory or some ideal status, and seeking—vainly—to control every outcome by my own might and main. Too often, I wind up at the end of myself, burned out and worn down to a nub, disheartened and disillusioned and wondering how I got there again.
Somewhere along the way, I think I have forgotten what it was all for.
So, I empathized with Calara as she recognized the flimsy ground upon which the Order stood and began the long, arduous trek toward rediscovering the purpose of dance and the joy of doing what she was created to do. This is what creative work should be. Creative work connected to and abiding in the vine. Creative work inspired by and completed with the Maker. Creative work that does not view the art as an idol nor as a means to an end, neither so exalted nor so diminished, but rather as an expression of love. Love received from the Father and extended toward the neighbor—in Calara’s case, the viewer; in mine, the reader; in another’s, the listener.
Themes like this strike a deep, layered note in Hidden Current that is sure to resonate with many a creative soul, while the story itself masterfully summons that mysterious blend of heart-ache and heart-warmth that the English language cannot aptly describe but that in German is called sehnsucht. In short, I highly recommend Hidden Current to all fantasy readers, but particularly to the weary creators in our midst. Even looking beyond the story and its themes, it is encouraging to know that there are still faithful storytellers seeking to pen books that honestly reflect the beauty and brokenness of the world, and that glorious, unimaginable, unsettling truth that beauty can emerge from brokenness in this grand Story that the Author of Life has been crafting since the beginning of time.
Now, as the months of this pandemic crawl onward, carrying us ever closer to the long, dark, close nights of winter, we need such stories more than ever. Stories that will warm our hearts, stoke our courage, and spark hope in our souls. Stories that will challenge our perceptions, broaden our understanding, and teach us to empathize.
Books like candle flames and starlight to comfort us instead of nightlights, to remind us that “in the end, the Shadow [is] only a small and passing thing: there [is] light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
 Tolkien, J.R.R, The Return of the King
The featured image of Stars over Grand Teton is courtesy of David Moum and used with his permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Gillian Bronte Adams is a writer, wanderer, and wordsmith who is rarely found without a coffee in hand and rumored to pack books before clothes when she hits the road. Working in full-time youth ministry left her with a passion for journeying alongside teens as they follow after Christ. Combined with her lifelong love of story, that passion drew her to pursue the art of writing young adult fantasy novels, like The Songkeeper Chronicles, that ring with the echoes of eternity. Her favorite stories feature outcast characters traveling down broken roads, through epic battles, and onward toward adventure. At the end of a long day of typing, she can be found saddling her wild thing and riding off into the sunset, provided she has not already settled down a mug of coffee and a very long book.