Who would you pick to win a fight? A cuddly rabbit or a cunning wolf? A fluffy bunny or a vicious hawk? The rabbit! Always pick the rabbit. That’s the Truth in the world of the Green Ember.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Every month I review Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month and while waiting for the next free book, I pick a book or in today’s episode, nine books. Today, I review the epic tale-spinning, pack-slaying rabbits of Natalia, written by S. D. Smith and illustrated by Zach Franzen.
Spoiler Free Review of Nine Book Series
In 2014, Smith published his first novel titled, “The Green Ember”, the first in a four book series. Along the way, he wrote the companion trilogy “The Green Ember Archer” and also Book 1 and 2 of Tales of Old Natalia. That’s nine books in seven years to the delight of bucks and does in warrens all over. Bucks are male rabbits, does are female rabbits and warrens are rabbit homes.
Today I review all nine books because I reckon there is a good chance after reading the first book, you will want to read the second and pretty soon one book becomes all nine. So before you take that first bite, you want to ask do you want to eat the whole nine course meal? Cause I can think of a few books, movies and TV series, where it was good until it wasn’t.
This is a spoiler-free review. Because of that, some parts of my review will be, out of necessity, vague. Fans of the series will know what I’m talking about while I hope to entice others with my cryptic comments to hop in and join us on the rabbit trail.
Zig Zag of Surprises
The story begins with a game of Starseek between rabbit younglings, Heather and Picket. To play Starseek, you take three short sticks, tie it with a long scarlet ribbon to make a six-point star with a flowing tail. Throw the star as hard as you can into the tall grasses. Watch it fall like a shooting star then race to see who can reach it first.
Heather is faster and stronger. In a straight line race, she beats her brother but Picket is a genius in spatial calculations. He finds the shortest path to the target. This is a game of zigs and zags. A game of surprises. (Just like the books.)
After their best round of Starseek, in comes a sudden storm. Darkness falls. Thunder and lightning. Fear arises. The children run home.
Smith describes the scene:
Flash! Father and Mother appeared on the little porch between the wide, smooth roots of the tree. Flash! Mother was holding Baby Jacks, her face showing worry. Father peered into the darkness. “Here!” Heather shouted. Flash! Picket shouted too, but their voices sounded small in the pounding rain and irregular claps of thunder. Flash! Mother pointed. Rumble … flash! Father dashed into the storm. The younger rabbits ducked as the sky was split and lightning fell. Heather saw Father in the bright bursts, never ducking, always moving toward them in the darkness. Eager. Determined.
The publisher recommends the book to eight years old and up but as you just heard, five year olds can enjoy this book. This is not the Hobbit. Tolkien’s children’s book has a slower pace with vivid but lengthy descriptions. Tolkien’s Hobbit is like an elephant, big and lumbering. Smith’s rabbits zig and zag from one warren to the next.
The First Warren
The first warren we visit, which is Heather and Picket’s home, is a warm family home. Listen to this conversation between the children and their father:
“Heather, I think you are very brave. What you did today, out there in the storm, took courage. All of life is a battle against fear. We fight it on one front, and it sneaks around to our flank.” He paused, looked kindly at her. “Yes, Father. I understand.” “I regret many things I’ve done,” he said, “but most of all I regret those moments when I said to Fear, ‘You are my master.’” He suddenly looked terribly sad. “What is it, Father?” Picket asked as Mother tenderly took Jacks from him. “It’s only that, when you’re older, you hand out wisdom to your children like you know everything, but it is sometimes hard to follow your own advice.”
Then the father tells the children a true story. And the telling sets Heather and Picket on their coming-of-age tale. They discover the country of Natalia beyond their idyllic meadow, the rise and fall of their family name and the war of rabbits against wolves and birds of prey. That story, Heather and Picket’s story, is the four book Green Ember series.
The three book Green Ember Archer series is Jo Shank’s story. Jo Shank is a friend of theirs who wants to make a name for himself, discovers there is more to life than making a name for himself, and ironically becomes the star of his own trilogy. The meek shall inherit the earth.
Two other books complete Smith’s collection of books so far. The Black Star of Kingston and The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner make Book 1 and 2 of Tales of Old Natalia. Whereas the Green Ember and Green Ember Archer series occupy the same time and space, the Tales of Old Natalia sit in the past. Readers of Green Ember will delight in the origins of Black Star, the citadels and the royal family.
Read the Green Ember First
And that’s my reading sequence. First, the Green Ember series. Then, the Green Ember Archer series. Lastly, the Tales of Old Natalia.
But you might not want to read in that sequence. You might want to read the Green Ember and Green Ember Archer in their published order because the events interleave.
Book 1 in the Green Ember Archer series is old material retold from Jo Shank’s eyes. Book 2 and 3 is better because it’s new material with the battles, politics, and romance of the rabbits we have come to know and love. Tales of Old Natalia is a fun read because we get to know the ancient heroes of the rabbits, the heroes they revere and speak of so often.
Here’s the thing though, we care for the rabbits because of the four book Green Ember series, the first series. Neither the Green Ember Archer nor Tales of Old Natalia has enough mass to pull you into Natalia. The momentum of the war, of little rabbits against towering wolves and diving birds of prey, that momentum is only sustained and only reaches its climax and resolution in the Green Ember series, not in the other books.
To explain using our human history: the story arc in Green Ember would be the middle and end of World War II. Europe in 1940 was lost. Only Britain remained. Six years of military and political battles later, Hitler was defeated. Any battle is significant based on how it impacted the war. The stories in the Green Ember series is meaningful in the light of the greater war, or greater narrative.
While the other books does a reasonable job of holding our interest in the characters and events, it is a side show or side quest. We care for the rabbits and their fight because we care for the hope that was only established in the first book.
The Mended Wood
Let me quote my favourite part of the entire series. In this scene, young Heather is asking the wise sage about the community. The sage answers, I quote.
This place is full of farmers, artists, carpenters, midwives, cooks, poets, healers, singers, smiths, weavers—workers of all kinds. We’re all doing our part.” “But what good will all that do?” Heather asked. “Shouldn’t everyone fight for the Great Wood—for King Jupiter’s cause?” “Sure we should,” Mrs. Weaver said. “In a sense. Some must bear arms and that is their calling. But this,” she motioned back to the mountain behind her, “this is a place dedicated to the reasons why some must fight. Here we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed. Those painters are seeing what is not yet but we hope will be. They are really seeing, but it’s a different kind of sight. They anticipate the Mended Wood. So do all in this community, in our various ways. “We sing about it. We paint it. We make crutches and soups and have gardens and weddings and babies. This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. We are heralds, you see, my dear, saying what will surely come. And we prepare with all our might, to be ready when once again we are free.”
If I may speak boldly, this is what makes The Green Ember series different. In Narnia, Middle-Earth or Harry Potter, what drives the heroes is the individuals’ sense of good versus evil. In those worlds, the future good they are fighting for is not as clear as the immediate evil they are fighting against.
In contrast, the Green Ember series offers a vision that fills the hearts of, not individuals, but a community. That vision is tasted in the best soup ever served, touched in the freshly cut hedges, seen in the coloured windows and heard in the comforting words, “It will not be so in the Mended Wood.”
In the Harry Potter world, Harry can’t die. In Middle Earth, Frodo and the Fellowship can’t die. In Narnia, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are important but not that important. Narnia lives on whether or not they are in the story. More importantly, Aslan lives on, transcendent.
In the Green Ember, any rabbit can die because it is the Mended Wood that must not die. As the wise sage explains to Heather, “Here we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed”. Anticipate. The rabbits anticipate the hope that is sure to come. And we, the readers, anticipate with them.
Did I spoil anything? I don’t think so. I’m just telling you to pay attention to the Mended Wood, its cooks, painters, hedge-trimmers, story-tellers even as kings and captains fight for it.
Tale-Spinning Story Idea
Which brings me to a story idea, a suggestion for a future book?
I would have liked to the Mended Wood fought through culture. Don’t get me wrong. The boy in me likes the battle tactics and innovations, tales of grand heroism that inspires boys and girls. The political animal in me likes the political manoeuvring amongst nobles and houses, which is a bit light but it is a children’s book. Now the cultural observer in me, thinks there is a missed opportunity to show the battle at the cultural level.
Give us more of the Tale-spinners, the story-telling guild. Give us a conflict of Truth and near-Truth that threatens and corrupts the shared vision of the Mended Wood. Wrench our hearts as we read families and friends come apart as true and false prophecies come about. Can a children’s book tell the story of false prophets and false prophecies? If we can do politicians, surely, we can do prophets.
Anyways, thats my story idea that came about because I just love the Mended Wood of Green Ember.
Predators Eat Their Prey
Next, I want to give a warning to parents of sensitive children. Do you let your children watch nature shows? What do the predators hunt? In air, land and sea, whether it’s hawk, wolf or killer whale, predators hunt the weakest, not the strongest. And the weakest is the old, the injured and the young.
In the Green Ember series, the most shocking expression of evil is the predators systematically preying on the young rabbits. The eating is, thankfully, not graphically described. It’s on the same level as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. If your children watch nature shows or read Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, then Green Ember is safe to read.
And speaking of evil, I’ve been reflecting on whether the nature of evil in Green Ember. The wolves are evil. The birds are evil. They are evil because it’s their nature.
Then I recall Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, the movies. I haven’t read the books. I’m sure Sauron has a backstory. But from the movies, Sauron is evil incarnate who wants to conquer Middle-Earth because what? He lusts for power, he seeks revenge, he is jealous of the Elves good looks? Sauron’s motivation is irrelevant to the wicked violence he brings.
It’s the same in Disney’s recent movie, Raya and the Last Dragon. The evil beings, the Druun, are scary and evil but we don’t know who they are. It’s the same with the face-huggers in Alien. Perhaps not-knowing is a feature that makes the Sauron, Druun and Alien face-huggers mysterious and hence fearsome.
Betrayal and Redemption
Now if the wolves and birds of Natalia are simple in their evil, the rabbit villains are complex.
Early in the series, a soldier warily points out:
“Since our most recent betrayals, it’s hard to trust anyone, regardless of their family connections.”
In another scene, one rabbit assures Heather and Picket:
“I don’t think you’re traitors,” she said. “I call you my friends, and I trust you, even after such a short time. But this community has had to learn the hard way to be cautious with our trust.”
Betrayal. Suspicion. Paranoia. No wonder rabbits are such flighty creatures. Smith brings out betrayal early on and the entire series can be considered a study on betrayal. Who is the traitor? How will it come about? What do we do?
The flip side of betrayal is redemption. Actions have consequences. A careless word leads to death. A moment of weakness leads to a lifetime of regret. Yet, at every moment, redemption is there for the taking. Some refuse it. Some accept. Yet, redemption is possible. And in the stories, it is beautiful.
The Gospel According to the Rabbits?
Have I mentioned that S.D. Smith is a Christian? You probably guessed that because the Mended Wood sounds like the Christian vision of a New Creation, the series has an unambiguous division of Good and Evil, we have Betrayal and Redemption. Oh, and he is probably a Christian because this is Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you.
When I told a friend about this podcast I was starting, the subject of Christian fiction came up. She told me, “To be honest, most of the Christian fiction books I have picked up have been either too preachy or too intent on telling a moral, rather than concentrating on the characters and their motivations and storylines.” I’ve since introduced her to what I hope are good Christian fiction.
Knowing that the writer is a Christian, is the stories Christian? What is Green Ember? Is it a well adorned moral lesson? Berenstain Bears with armed rabbits?
No. It’s not a Christian allegory like the Chronicles of Narnia. Despite C.S. Lewis’ protest that Narnia is not a Christian allegory, I disagree. Once I see them, I cannot unsee the crucifixion, atonement, baptism and judgment day. I can’t do the same with the Green Ember. I cannot map Christian doctrines into the stories. There is no Aslan.
What is Green Ember? It’s a story first. A coming of age story set in a world moving from betrayal to redemption. Children will love the battles won by hard-work and ingenuity, the witty banter among friends and rivals, families lost and found and the adventure. It’s an adventure story of rabbits fighting against wolves and hawks. Can you imagine a more one-sided fight?
A Children’s Book for Young and Old
If you want to give the world of Green Ember a chance, don’t start with the Green Ember Archer or Tales of Old Natalia. Read Book 1 of the Green Ember series, also titled The Green Ember.
Parents if you have an impatient child who likes non-stop action and hates world-building, your child might find Book 1 and 2 slow-going but Book 3 and 4 takes off from all the character and world building and has plenty of high-flying action.
And yes, you might like to read this book for yourself. Many adults have fallen in love with the world of sword-fighting rabbits. In Amazon, all nine books have at least 4.8 stars.
Should adults read children’s fiction? Isn’t it be a better use of time to read books on theology, history, politics, science or something serious. Fiction seems indulgent when Christians are embattled on all fronts. Children’s fiction seems especially indulgent.
In answer to that: Why don’t you pick up R.C. Sproul’s series of children’s book and let me know what you think. I have them all and my children and I love them. Jesus told stories to adults and we retell them to our children. The Parable of the Samaritan Man. The Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Parable of the Sower. The Gospel is narrative. Remember the story of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Peter and Paul.
Stories have a way of disarming the mind, which is why this is the toughest review I have done so far. The ideas are not put up front, unlike Piper’s Providence or Baucham’s Fault Lines. In stories, the ideas are underlying, content to lie there or be dug up. Smith’s Green Ember series does not preach Christianity at you but there is an unmistakable Christian worldview underlying his stories.
When the end of the world comes, and all is revealed, many will be surprised at how stories changed the world. How children’s stories changed the course of history by invoking delight and wonder in the reader. Narnia is one of them. And for many, so is the Green Ember.
Before I end, let me quote Andrew Peterson, from his autobiography, “Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling and the Mystery of Making”. What he writes on song-writing here applies to story-writing or any other creative work.
Since we were made to glorify God, worship happens when someone is doing exactly what he or she was made to do. I ask myself when I feel God’s pleasure, in the Eric Liddell sense, and it happens—seldom, to be sure, but it happens—when I’ve just broken through to a song after hours of effort, days of thinking, months of circling the song like an airplane low on fuel, searching desperately for the runway. Then I feel my own pleasure, too, a runner’s high, a rush of adrenaline. I literally tremble. There is no proper response but gratitude. The spark of the idea was hope; the work that led to the song was faith; the completion of the song leads to worship, because in that startling moment of clarity when the song exists in time and history and takes up narrative space in the story of the world—a space that had been empty, unwritten, unknown by all who are subject to time—then it is obvious (and humbling) that a great mystery is at play.
What he describes as the great mystery of the creative act is what delights me in the Green Ember. The Mended Wood of the future, is anticipated by the present, through the creative acts of the community in the midst of war. That’s the role of the arts in the Church. Stories are not indulgent. Stories adorn the truths we treasure.
In conclusion, get the first book, titled The Green Ember. If you like it, you will probably get the whole collection. I recommend it to children and prescribe it to adults in need of a good dose of imagination.
This is a Reading and Readers’ review of nine books: The four book Green Ember series, The three book Green Ember Archer series and the two books in the Tales of Old Natalia, written by S.D. Smith and illustrated by Zach Franzen.
The next children’s series I will review is Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather series. I asked my son which is better: Green Ember or Wingfeather. He said both are good, it’s difficult to choose. He wants me to drop the books I’m reading now to get into Wingfeather. I will but not so soon. Do you have any children’s books that you would like me to review? Let me know. My contact details are at www.readingandreaders.com. That’s www.readingandreaders.com. Thank you for listening.
The Green Ember by S.D. Smith. Amazon.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Amazon.
Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Amazon.
S.D. Smith’s Amazon Author Page. Amazon.
Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson. Amazon.
Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga. Amazon.