Clerics in fantasy

Here’s a post by Paul Weimer at Priestess of a Lesser Goddess: H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke

The basic four archetypes for a D&D-like party are the Fighter, the Rogue, the Wizard and the Cleric. In secondary world fantasy novels, the first three are very well represented, to the point of many variations and subclasses and versions of same. But the Cleric is far rarer. It’s not that there are none, mind you, but they are far, far less common as protagonists….

Okay, first, this review makes the novel sound interesting and good. Paul says: “Hall of Smoke is then a story of redemption, of growth, of discovery, of questioning one’s beliefs and trying to come to find what one does believe in, and acting on those beliefs.”

Good reviews on Amazon, too. It’s a little hard to tell if this book has the sort of ending I would appreciate. It’s especially hard to tell because I prefer not to have many spoilers for a book and therefore hesitate to read through too many reviews because honestly, someone is bound to say something I would rather not know. It’s a debut novel, so there’s no way to trust the author based on her previous work.

Well, I’ll pick up a sample, and if any of you happen to read this book, let me know what you think! A basic thumbs up or thumbs down would be perfect.

Now, moving on: It’s obviously true that in fantasy novels, priests, priestesses, and clerics aren’t nearly as common as thieves and fighters. Paul has a theory about why that is, which he mentioned in the linked post, but I’m not sure I’m persuaded. Never mind, though; the thing is, that makes me want to point out some fantasy novels where a priest or priestess or cleric is the protagonist. A few do come to mind! In no order:

1) Pasksenarrion. At the beginning a foot soldier, by the ending a paladin of Gird, the original trilogy still stands out as one of Elizabeth Moon’s best works.

2) Extremely different in every way except that it’d still be shelved in the fantasy section: From All False Doctrine, one of my favorite books last year.

3) The Five Gods novels and novellas, obviously.

4) Not the same, but in The Tombs of Atuan, my favorite LeGuin novel. True, the god is not one anybody decent would want to worship. True, by the end Tenar opposes the god. Still, at the beginning she’s a child-priestess, though the story is one of her movement away from that role.

5) Oh, should have thought of these earlier, but the Deryni series has lots of important characters, including pov protagonists, who are priests. I don’t find these books have held up as well as various others and perhaps should give my copies away. In particular, Camber is really not an admirable character, something I’m not sure Kurtz realizes, and that makes it hard to enjoy the later books set in this world.

6) The Wheel of the Infinite. In contrast, Maskelle is one of my favorite protagonists of all time, never mind one of my favorite priestesses.

7) The Killing Moon/The Shadowed Sun features an important assassin-priest. I should re-read this duology, which I liked a lot.

8. Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow and Children of God are really good … in some ways … and feature a priest as a major protagonist. I doubt I’ll ever be able to nerve myself up enough to re-read these, though. Oh, plus, now that I think of it, they’re SF rather than fantasy.

Well, that’s eight! I’m running low. What other fantasy (or, I guess, SF) novels feature priests, priestesses, paladins, or clerics of whatever sort as protagonists?

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24 thoughts on “Clerics in fantasy”

  1. Ryk E. Spoor’s Phoenix trilogy. Maybe some of the associated novels too (he planned a nonology and split it into 3 trilogies), but I haven’t started them yet.

    Does founding your own religion count? If so Janny Wurts’ Wars of Light & Shadow has a major character who does that.

    cudgels brain .. oh, Torgerson’s (sp?) Chaplain’s War. Probably some of John C. Wright’s fiction, but I bounce off it. Eiflheim by Flynn in which a medieval priest meets aliens. The medieval part is good. Flynn knows how to convey how they thought. It’s one of those novels that has threads set in two time periods, one the medieval, one modern. I found the modern characters mostly forgettable.

  2. Allan Shampine

    I see the reviewer compares the book’s world to Glorantha, which is enough to make me want to buy it.

  3. T. Kingfisher/ Ursula Vernon’s latest two fluffy murder romances about recovering from the death of a god (Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength) feature paladins, obviously, the occasional Rat priest, and Strength also has a protagonist nun (of a sort). A priest of the Rat also wanders through in Swordheart. Paladin’s Grace first had some plot holes, but I’m really enjoying Paladin’s Strength, and absolutely loved Swordheart.

  4. Allan, yes, I thought that might make Craig take a look at it too. If you read it, let me know what you think!

    Right, Kristi, I forgot about those, though I enjoyed them.

  5. Did I get the link from To All False Doctrine from you? I thought it was a recommendation from the Christian fans meetup at CoNZealand.

  6. James Blish’s A CASE OF CONSCIENCE is a classic of SF with a priest as focus. There’s a series of Viking historical fantasies by Lars Walker that have an Irish priest as narrator; the first one is ERLING’S WORD.

    I’m drawing a blank on cleric protagonists in secondary-world fantasies, which is a little surprising given the tremendous D&D influence. They seem to show up mostly as supporting cast.

    John C. Wright has few actual priests in his books, and none of them are main characters — although one future title has been mentioned that should have one.

  7. Ha, Irina, oops! I guess I should probably change that.

    I don’t know, but I certainly mentioned From All False Doctrine several times here. I got the nudge from Mary Beth on Twitter, I think. Which was lucky, as I’m not on Twitter that much.

    I think I’ve got one of Lars Walker’s book buried in my TBR pile …

  8. If someone from a religious Knights Templar order, who is both a knight and a cleric, counts for this list, then the first one who comes to mind for me is Sparhawk in the Elenium trilogy and the sequel Tamuli trilogy by David Eddings. This is derring-do adventure fantasy for teenage boys with lots of fighting, in a standard medieval-style fantasy setting.

    There is a similar Knights Templar order in the Heirs of Alexandria books written by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer, in which two of these Petrine knights, Manfred and Eric, are part of the cast of PoV protagonists. This is alternate history fantasy, with magic and the devil’s and saints’ real-world influence, set around Venice in the 1500s.

  9. Craig, then definitely take a look at Spoor’s Phoenix trilogy, the main character is a cleric/paladin, the only incorrupt one of a god in a secondary world fantasy.
    I think I don’t tend to classify characters that way. I was surprised to see Bujold’s Five Gods novels listed as containing clerics or paladins as protaganists. But I suppose Ista and Penric count. Caz is never quite a cleric, but by the end he’s something.

  10. Allan Shampine

    Good point about Penric. Hadn’t occurred to me, but he is definitely a cleric.

  11. Mercedes Lackey has a major POV character in Karal, a Sunpriest of Karse, in the Mage Storms trilogy in her larger Valdemar universe. He’s one of my favorite characters of all time.

  12. Probably a little too obvious since it’s explicitly D&D based, but Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick webcomic features several characters exploring the fantasy cleric role: Durkon in the main cast, Redcloak among the primary antagonists, as well as a large number of important supporting characters like Malack, Hilgya, etc.

    The most recently concluded book gave a literal gods’ eye view of why clerics exist in that universe (why give agents such specific and limited power and otherwise take a relatively hands off approach?) and what role they play in the scheme of things.

  13. T Kingfisher just came out with the second book in a fantasy romance series featuring Paladins as protagonists, but part of the setup is that their god died mysteriously, so whether they’re still paladins is up for debate, maybe?

    And, there’s some priest characters in Kate Daniels – has Roman ever gotten POV in a short story?

  14. The big problem with clerics in fantasy is that few authors can get away with giving them as little religion as you can get away with in D&D.

  15. I read Hall of Smoke and thought it was okay. Would you consider Violette Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno series clerical? At least, Dhulyn? What about Tessa Gratton’s The Lost Sun? That was a very good book. Not sure if a cleric was the main character, but kind of.

  16. A Black Dog story from Father Stepan’s POV could be interesting. He’d actually have to answer all the questions Justin ignored, about “black dogs and demonic forces and God and everything.” (And yes, that’s my favorite short story in the bunch.)

  17. Mary Catelli, yes, I think that one very big reason for the general paucity of clerics, priests, paladins, and saints in fantasy novels.

    Alison, thanks! I haven’t read either of those you suggested — and I see The Lost Sun is just 99c on Amazon, so sure, I’ll add that to the pile.

    Pete, I have thought of that. He’s already set up for a visit to Dimilioc. So … yes, that could happen.

  18. I DNF the sample of Hall of Smoke. Not for any particular reason, just not interested enough.

    Alison, the blurb for The Lost Sun sounds like romance is the main draw. Is it? If so, seems like a waste of a promising setup.

    I like the idea of a Father Stephan story.

  19. Redwall! It’s been ages since I read the books though, I can’t quite recall if any of the characters are actually clerics. But Brian Jacques also wrote Castaways of the Flying Dutchman, which has a more clearly cleric-like protag.

    Wish there were more of these sorts of stories!

  20. Speaking of Mary Catelli… priests and inquisitors (including a good one, actually) are just part of the milieu in her books. There’s also an excellent priest character in Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book–not coincidentally also set in the Middle Ages.

  21. The Lost Sun is more than a romance. I’m curious if anyone else reads it and likes it as much as I did. I can’t remember if there are clerics per se, but there’s lots of communication with gods done in a pretty interesting way

  22. Jan the Alan Fan

    In the Dragonlance ‘Twins’ trilogy, the female lead is a cleric.
    The Saga of the Exiles series by Julian May has a couple of characters who are priests.

  23. Oh yeah, I can’t believe I forgot this one: A Canticle for Liebowitz. That definitely has “clerics”. A whole abbey full of them.

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