There are times when I really do not know how to write a review about a particular book. This is one of those times. From All False Doctrine is just really hard to describe.
So I’ll start by saying: Ten out of ten. Alice Degan absolutely knocked it out of the park when she wrote this one. Which was her debut, so wow. If it doesn’t wind up right at the top of my list for the year, I’ll be astonished.
At times it’s useful to do comparisons, right? So, sure, let me try to do that. From All False Doctrine is like … it’s kind of like … okay, it’s sort of like a cross between a Wodehouse novel and In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. But with demonology.
You may be familiar with the technical distinction between a “novel” and a “romance,” where a novel is a story that is really about the protagonist’s interior journey, while a romance is any story in any genre that emphasizes the external adventure. If you wanted to use those categories here, I think you’d conclude that From All False Doctrine is a novel, with romance. If you’d prefer to stick to ordinary genre categories and use “romance” in that sense, then From All False Doctrine is a historical fantasy novel, with romance. If you wanted to pull out its defining characteristics, you might say it’s a story about personal growth wrapped in a comedy of manners, with romance. Oh, and demonology.
There are two primary protagonists and two important secondary characters. We meet them all in the opening scene, which takes place on a hot August afternoon on a beach in the Toronto area. I don’t recall quite when, but between the two wars, in there somewhere, so call it 1920 or thereabouts. You may recall that recent discussion about opening with a burst of action or more quietly? Well, this one opens quietly, with dialogue, and nothing at all important happens except that Elsa and Harriet meet Kit and Peachy. (Yes, calling a character “Peachy” did bother me a bit. I have very low tolerance for silly character names no matter how good the book is.)
Elsa and Harriet are students, attending the university. Elsa is a few years the elder. Raised by a revival-style preacher in a farm family, Elsa is a rationalist, a materialist, and an atheist. She is studying Classical languages. Harriet is much the wealthier and decidedly more conventional. She is studying economics. They are very good friends.
Kit, the natural child of a university professor and an unconventional woman, is an Anglican priest. Peachy, from a wealthier and more conventional family, is a dilettante songwriter who has never settled to anything. They are very good friends.
So on this day on that beach, these four people meet. The reader does not need to be astute to realize that these four characters are going to become two couples; that happens at once. However, if the reader does happen to be astute, they may at this point guess that dialogue is going to be central to this novel because practically nothing happens during this opening scene other than casual conversation between these people. We do hear about the central problem, but we only hear about it and it’s not introduced as a problem. In fact, it’s going to be some time before anything “happens” in the ordinary sense. The dialogue is extremely well done, and I fell in love with this novel right here.
During this meeting on the beach, the four characters happen to chat about a manuscript Elsa wants to work with for her Master’s degree. This is a manuscript that was found in Egypt and contains details about a cult based on the Orpheus myth. The beliefs described in this manuscript have to do with descending to a metaphysical plane and remaking the self through the pure power of the mind. Spoiler: there is more to this than any of the main characters suspect. Extra-spoiler: the metaphysics that are actually true in the book are perhaps not what the reader initially suspects either, given the Orpheus cult. Keep in mind that the story strongly reminded me of In This House of Brede. The actual heart of the story – I don’t think I’m giving too much away, I think this is pretty clear to the reader from early on – is Elsa’s internal movement from atheism to faith.
I think that’s all I want to say about that. Except I kinda fell in love with Kit too.
Let me see, other things to mention. All right:
Pace: Slow in general, but there are certainly moments.
Reading speed: I read this book very, very slowly, a few chapters a day. That’s almost never how I read books, but first, the writing was so good I wanted to savor it, and second, I kept wanting to take my time thinking about things that had just happened in the story and where I thought it might be going.
Shocking reveals: At least two.
Daring rescues: In general, characters do a pretty good job rescuing themselves. But there are moments.
Tension: Astonishingly high at times, considering anybody can see the story is moving toward a happy ending.
Flaws: It’s possible Kit might strike some readers as a little too good to be true. Also, right at the beginning Elsa was somewhat unbelievably ready to talk openly about herself with a young man she’d just met, though, granted, Kit was being very easy to talk to. Plus, Peachy, really?
Who should read this book: Anybody who rolls their eyes at the typical facile or incorrect presentation of religion in genre novels should absolutely try this book. I’m not an expert in theology or anything, but I don’t think those readers would be disappointed. Also, anybody who likes both Wodehouse and modern fantasy should absolutely try this book.
Sequels: Yes, there’s one sequel. I picked it up immediately after finishing the first book, but it may be a while before I read it. I’m going to want something lighter before I read another book with as much, how should I put this, as much deep reverberation, as From All False Doctrine.