The Talented trilogy by Rossano: a theology review

A friend on my Discord was telling me about her favorite book series. “But I’ve only read the first two books,” she said, “because I had to wait for the third one to come out.” I picked up a sample of the first book, liked what I read, and kept reading, all the way through three books.

BTW, if you are the author, click away now.

The three books in the Talented trilogy by Rachel Rossano

Since the summaries of the books are garbage, I refuse to use them and instead have written my own:

In a world based on Europe after the fall of Rome, a very Rome-inspired kingdom has the Talented and the non-Talented. This means that some people are born with psychic and telekinetic powers, and some aren’t. Seventh sons, in particular, have lots of powers, and the seventh son of a seventh son has multiplied powers. This is great unless the seventh child is born a daughter, because girls are only fit for breeding in this universe. The heroine, Zezilia, is seventh born and about to be introduced to society on her 15th birthday, when a talent trainer notices her insane levels of psychic power and takes her off to train her against her father’s wishes.

The highest mage in the land is the Sept Son, and his job is to train other talents and keep them from turning their powers to criminal use. Hadrian is barely old enough to drink and the seventh son of a seventh son, chosen for his crazy levels of power. He has to check Zezilia for powers and sparks fly. Bam, three years go by so now she’s eighteen and legally able to have romance, lol! Her powers are stronger than his. Since everybody in the kingdom wants Hadrian dead for increasingly hazy reasons, Zez becomes his bodyguard, except whoops, he already agreed to marry her sight unseen as the cost of training her. Cue the dramatic tension.


I have a weakness for psychic romance, and I thought it was interesting that the characters pray to the Almighty all the time. So I dove in. The psychic romance is very mild compared to, say, Firebird by Kathy Tyers. Psychic romance is very hot because of the intimacy without any physical contact. This author obviously tried to keep everything to a very mild T-rating. The characters barely kiss even after they’re married, snicker. The action is entertaining and the politics are kind of fun … at first. More on that later.

If you can’t tell, I’m building to a gripe about this trilogy. Surprise, it’s the theology.

I don’t know what denomination this author is, but the Christianity is very constrained, and by the end, I would say it’s very neutered. In book 1, the driving conflict of the plot is that the country nominally worships the Goddess, while the hero, Hadrian, worships the Almighty. And … uh … that’s about all we’re told, even though these characters pray to the Almighty literally on every page. What is the name of the Goddess? How do people worship her? Why are they threatened by Almighty worship? We’re never told. The high priest of the Goddess works very hard to undermine Hadrian and replace him … but why? By book 2, the high priest is randomly killed off and the Goddess thing is a non-issue.

We’re told that the Almighty hates sin and you have to pray to be forgiven and stuff, and the characters lug around battered copies of the holy book, the Revelation. But that’s all there is to the religion. They pray and pray and pray to this Almighty and receive in exchange a vague sense of peace. The Almighty never speaks to them, which is weird in a trilogy about psychic communication. You’d think somebody would get a message, or an emotion, or a picture, or some guidance of any kind. Book 2 has a character pick up the idiot ball and run with it twice because “apparently it’s so hard to figure out the will of the Almighty”.

By book 3, it’s apparent that the high priest of the Goddess had to die because the religion of the Goddess actually had more depth than the Almighty one. Instead, he is replaced by a political insurgent who uses abuse and sex to control people so you know he’s really the evil one. The constant praying to the Almighty slowly loses steam because the author has nothing else to say about him. He’s, uh, good or something. Even though the religion is used like a bludgeon (“You’re depressed? It’s because you don’t BELIEVE hard enough!”). There’s no joy, no reward, no relationship in this religion. The Almighty never intercedes for his followers. He’s just as distant and uncaring as the Goddess is said to be.

This really bothered me, because I’ve been writing very vivid relationships between my characters and the Divine. Since God, himself, is hard to fit into the human brain, I’ve been experimenting with metaphors, like Fith in After Atlantis, who is basically an elemental of fire and righteousness. He is present. He is terrible. He is good. And he shows up to chat whenever the heroes need him, usually with hard advice and lavish kindness combined. I was hoping that with this Christian psychic book, with intricate worldbuilding, would find a unique way to portray the believer’s relationship with God.

Turns out, I was wrong. I got to the end and was like, okay, so, what’s the deal with the Almighty? You could cut him and the Goddess out of the books and it would make literally no difference. If you made the hero black and the bad guys white, it would be the exact same conflict, and have the exact same depth. And by the end, it’s some kind of class warfare struggle anyway, because … apparently that was actually a deeper conflict to build a plot on than anything religious.

I finished the trilogy happy for the ending the characters got, but frustrated with the shallowness of the theology. I expected deep moral issues, and any kind of a portrayal of God. What I got was some kind of tract. You’re taught how to join this religion, but the religion itself is nothing I’d want to be part of. It was dead and awful. And I’m sorry to say it. As a Christian, myself, I’m deeply disappointed in this portrayal. It misrepresents everything about true faith and how God’s will actually works.

Anyway, this was a lot of space to rant about a book trilogy that I nominally enjoyed. Here is the Book a Minute of the trilogy:

Zez: I have powerful powers.

Hadrian: I am cruelly overworked.

Zez: Let’s kiss.

SOMEONE TRIES TO KILL HADRIAN

Hadrian: Sorry about that. Let’s kiss.

SOMEONE TRIES TO KILL HADRIAN

Zez: That sucked. Let’s kiss.

SOMEONE TRIES TO KILL HADRIAN

REPEAT 1000X MORE

THE END

Repost: The strangely Christian meta-narrative of the Destiny games

I wrote this post back in 2018, back before a lot of the storyline had been revealed. It’s only proved my point even more. I thought it was time to repost this and update it a bit.


Hold on to your hats, folks, I’m going all literary analysis on you today.

So I’ve been getting into the games Destiny and Destiny 2. These are multiplayer online shooters where you shoot aliens and collect loot. Pretty straightforward and pretty fun (and often, just downright pretty.)

Bungie Destiny 2, Nessus: Landscape painting of a forest with red trees with human figure looking at waterfall.
Destiny 2 concept art: Nessus

But the game also hints at a deeper backstory that it doesn’t explain super well, unless you’re willing to spend hours piecing together tidbits scattered throughout the games. So I’ve been watching lore videos on YouTube, where other people take all those tidbits and string them together into a cohesive story.

I’ve been increasingly delighted with the meta-narrative of Destiny.

Like most science fiction, the story operates from a humanist worldview: mankind can become gods if we just put aside our differences and work hard enough. But then the metaplot comes into play, and it’s decidedly not humanist. In fact, it swings decidedly Christian. I wonder if the writers at Bungie realize what they hath wrought and its significance.

The big picture story goes like this. There is this alien-machine god-thing called the Traveler that looks like a small white moon. It’s power is called Light. It shows up in our solar system, grants humans the Light, and terraforms the inner planets and the various moons of the gas giants. Humans go live on these planets. Humans also develop longer lives, better tech, etc, and go into a Golden Age.

Bungie Destiny 2: Man in armor stands at railing, looking at thunderstorm over cityscape with Traveler in the distance
Destiny concept art

This doesn’t last, of course. There’s an evil force called the Darkness that chases the Traveler from place to place. Its weapons are four alien races that serve it, but all who crave the Light–or hate it. They stomp humanity, destroy their colonies, and ruin Earth.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Traveler actually battles the Darkness one on one. The game is very vague about this point, and the lore videos have multiple theories about what exactly happened. Point is, the Traveler won, but it was wounded and stopped terraforming and things.

Instead, it sent out these tiny robots made of Light called Ghosts. Each Ghost resurrects a single person, basically a zombie (or revenant, since they have their soul) powered by Light. They became known as Guardians. If one of these guardians is killed, they can be resurrected so long as their Ghost is unharmed. If their Ghost dies, no more resurrections for them, it’s lights out.

Bungie Destiny warlock: human figure in armor looks at Ghost robot
Destiny warlock by TDSpiral

See the metaphor going on, here? It’s super interesting. Almost a Holy Ghost thing.

Now, it’s not a perfect metaphor. In real life, the God is the source of all Light, and He was not only before the Darkness, he already defeated it. The Darkness itself has a name and a face. Once known as the Light Bearer, he has become the Enemy, and his sin was pride. “I will become like the Most High!”

Jesus battled the Darkness and overcame it, being wounded on our behalf. In Destiny terms, the Last City in the shadow of the Traveler might as well be built at the foot of the Cross, because the symbolism is so similar.

Now, it’s really too bad that Destiny clings to its humanist philosophy. In its lore, the Traveler gives Light without making any demands of humanity. No devotion to righteousness, no forsaking sin and Darkness. In real life, there are two sides, and we have to pick one. If that was the case in Destiny, then the battle between Light and Darkness would go beyond meta-narrative and become the personal struggle of every Guardian. The story of the Warlords–guardians who abused their power–would become even more vile.

Bungie Destiny 2 concept art by Jeremy Fenske: human figure stands before ring-shaped Vex portal
Destiny 2 concept art by Jeremy Fenske

If such a choosing of sides was possible, then redemption would also be possible for the four alien races who serve the Darkness, however unwittingly. It would be possible for them to abandon Darkness and serve the Light, too, thus becoming very interesting allies.

But Destiny keeps things very Tao, with Light and Darkness equally matched and no ultimate victory is possible. Mankind doesn’t have to seek righteousness and abandon sin in order to receive power. (Which, the more you think about it, is so strange. Why aren’t Guardians forced to pick sides? There are in-game stories of Guardians who joined the Darkness, so maybe, in a way, that choice is still there, just buried out of sight.)

So, that’s Destiny’s meta-narrative, a lot of Christian ideas underlying a humanist story. And it’s funny, because if you make the game more humanist (the Light is ours because humanity is awesome), then the battle between Light and Darkness falls apart, with no real difference between them. If you make the game more Christian, with the Light actually having conditions and everyone being forced to pick sides, then the story becomes much more profound.

Note from 2021: The storyline of Uldren/Crow has brought home this point even harder. Uldren was the prince of the Awoken (think space elves), and he was a pretty miserable, increasingly depressed guy with mommy issues. When the queen died, he went off the deep end and started murdering his own people and doing a lot of other bad stuff. Eventually, he killed a main character, and our player character hunted him down and executed him. He doesn’t even put up a fight, and it’s very unsatisfying.

Well, later on in the game, a Ghost finds Uldren’s corpse and resurrects him. He takes the name Crow, and has no memory of his past. He winds up being extremely kind and merciful to the alien races, particularly the Fallen, who once had the Traveler’s blessing. He has this wonderful redemption arc that has been as satisfying as his death was unsatisfying.

Top: Crow is offered friendship. Bottom: Uldren shoots Cayde-6
Top: Crow being offered friendship by the hero leader. Bottom: Uldren executing the best friend of the hero leader.

Maybe that’s one reason the story is intentionally left vague, scattered throughout the game in hints and tidbits. Breadcrumbs for those to see who can. I’m continually shocked at the Christian terminology these lore gamers use to describe these concepts.

I think it’s a good lesson for us Christian writers. Tell a good story and don’t be afraid to pull in delicious metaphor about the struggle between good and evil. It rings true for everyone.

Bungie Destiny 2 concept art: landscape under storm clouds with Shard of the Traveler
Destiny 2 concept art: shard of the Traveler

Have you noticed any other religious points I ought to touch on? I know I’d like to dig into the Hive, evil aliens who take Gnosticism to its logical conclusion. There’s also the story of Thorn and the Last Word, which is a parable about moral relativism vs. moral absolutes. This game is packed with brain candy.