In the year 2042, plague and war wipe out human civilization. From the ashes, new medieval-like societies arises, ignorant, violent, and steeped in superstition. These new societies remember little of the “ancients,” and nothing at all of their religion. Then one day a copy of the Bible is discovered, and it becomes a catalyst for societal rebirth.
This is the fantastic premise of the Chiveis Trilogy (comprised of The Sword, The Gift, and The Kingdom), by Bryan Litfin.
A post-apocalyptic adventure whose pivotal event is the discovery of a Bible? It’s almost a wish list of subjects that would interest a Christian science fiction enthusiast.
I started reading with high expectations.
The Trilogy starts out well enough, and for the first few chapters it seems that it might live up to the potential of its premise.
But, slowly at first, then with plummeting acceleration, Chiveis devolves from a mediocre adventure story into something that I can only describe as comprehensively bad. It is predictable to the point of self-parody, ridiculous to the point of surreality, and its presentation of Christianity is so poor and muddled that I suspect it would do more harm than good to non-Christian readers.
A world ‘without’ Christianity
Worldbuilding is essential to good speculative fiction, and Chiveis’s premise of a post-Christian post-apocalypse has great potential for a compelling world. This is supposed to be a future in which all knowledge of the Bible has been lost, where people have never heard of Christ, are unfamiliar with Christian symbols, and have no knowledge of Biblical history.
How surprising, then, that this future has a Pope! From Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he presides over a “universal fellowship” called the “Christiani” who worship “Deu,” the “one true god.” The Christiani have orders of monks and nuns, warriors called “Knights of the Cross,” and bishops who perform the Eucharist (in Latin).
The above paragraphs probably have you scratching your head. There are “Christiani,” yet no knowledge of Christ? There is a “Pope,” yet no knowledge of the Apostles? That doesn’t make sense!
No, it does not. The whole scenario is completely ridiculous, despite some belated attempts to rationalize it late in the story. Chiveis’s worldbuilding lacks any sort of unifying logic, to the point of being genuinely nonsensical. This is a world in which “Knights of the Cross” who literally tattoo crosses on their foreheads do not know what a cross is.
This fatally undermines the Trilogy’s premise. Time and again, the reader is told that this world knows nothing of Christianity, but time and again that is shown to be untrue. The culture and politics for the Trilogy’s world are actually founded on longstanding tensions between pro-God and anti-God factions. The only reason the pro-God faction isn’t “Christian” is because it has—implausibly, impossibly—forgotten its Deity’s biography. To describe this as a world that has “forgotten Christianity” is a dishonest pretense.
The plot is as ridiculous as the world it takes place in, but for almost the opposite reason. Rather than being disjointed, the plot is a tight nesting of cliches within cliches, so slavishly conventional, so completely unimaginative that there were times I laughed out loud at how predicable everything was.
There are two protagonists, Ana and Teo. You already know all about them because they are fairy-tale archetypes: Ana is the fair and virtuous maiden who get kidnapped, and Teo is the strong and noble knight who rescues her. This encapsulates a majority of the Trilogy’s plot.
The inciting event in The Sword is Ana being kidnapped by barbarians who want her for a sex slave. Teo pursues them and rescues Ana moments before she is to be raped.
That specific scenario repeats over and over again. Ana is attacked by would-be rapists and is on the verge of being violated when Teo suddenly intervenes to save her virginity. By the time The Kingdom concludes, this has happened not once, not twice, but no less than six times. And that’s just when Teo saves Ana from rapists! He also saves her from assassins, drowning, wild animals, and being thrown into a volcano. Saving Ana takes up so much of Teo’s time that it is almost the only thing he does on purpose throughout the entire story. Virtually every other plot development (including finding copies of the Old and New Testaments) is either a side quest while saving Ana, or something that a character blunders into quite by accident.
One might assume that this “save the maiden” trope was recycled out of simple laziness if not for the fact that both Ana and Teo note and comment on it. Teo even has a catchphrase, “I will always come for you,” which he recites to Ana during and after rescues, and which she recites to herself while awaiting rescue. This cycle of rescue and abduction and rescue is evidently supposed to pass not only for plot development, but also for romance.
Christianity changes no one in Chiveis
But the worst thing about Chiveis is not its incompetent worldbuilding or its silly plot. The worst thing, ironically, is its presentation of Christianity.
Christianity is supposed to change people. Christians are supposed to be “born again.” But Christianity changes no one in Chiveis. With the exception of one deathbed conversion, every character who ultimately believes in God is already a “good person” when they are introduced. Ana and Teo are almost cartoonishly perfect, models of virtue and beauty too. Conversely, all of the characters who ultimately reject God are “bad people” from their introduction. This pattern is so consistent that the reader can generally predict which characters will become Christians after reading only one or two lines of their dialogue.
This inverts the Gospel: rather than the Gospel making people good, it is portrayed as something that people who are already good are drawn to. Instead of a world where “all have sinned” and are on an equal footing before God, Chiveis presents a world in which good people inexorably mature into Christians, while bad people do not.
Another significant theological problem stems from the nature of the villains. The villains in Chiveis are not “regular” bad guys. They are Satanists, motivate by love for Satan, and eager to prove their devotion to the original dark lord by being as cartoonishly evil as possible. They wear black hooded robes. They torture animals. They summon demons. Their motto is “Cruelty is strength.” They are united in an ancient blood pact. The villains are so over-the-top evil that they are impossible to take seriously, much less empathize with as human beings.
This is bad writing, of course, but it has the consequence that Chiveis never really deals with the concepts of sin or repentance. The bad guys are so bad that there is never any prospect of their repenting, and the concept of sin seems too nuanced to apply to them.
Conversely, the good guys are so good that they have nothing to repent of. Ana and Teo each commit a token sin in an evident attempt to give some arc to their otherwise flat characters, but in both cases the sin is such a sudden and brief aberration from their normal behavior that there is no sense of transformation, renewal, or struggle when they turn from it. They briefly swerve from their virtuous statī quo and then immediately swerve back, as if nothing had happened. There are two side characters who go through more realistic repentance, but in both cases they are repenting of collaboration with the Satanists, and their repentance is not a rejection of sin as such, but rather a rejection of the Satanists’s overtly sinister agenda.
It is this shallow reduction of Christianity that makes Chiveis a very bad story. Instead of explaining concepts like sin, repentance, atonement, or eternal life, Chiveis treats Christianity almost as a sort of white magic that empowers people who posses a sufficient level of virtue. While Christians might just roll their eyes at this simplistic and inaccurate depiction of their faith, this misinformation could be dangerous to a person who is genuinely ignorant of Christian doctrine.
The Chiveis Trilogy is comprehensively bad and was enormously disappointing. I give it zero stars, and I recommend it for no one. Its only redeeming quality is that it is so bad that many parts are inadvertently funny, and they can be enjoyed on a “so bad it’s good” basis.