Outlaws of Time is Louis L’Amour’s Lonesome Gods meets Doctor Who told through the voice of a modern Flannery O’Connor for boys – set in the sticky Arizona desert. And just to make it a little more of a tilt-a-whirl, reminiscent of Doctor Who and Flannery O’Connor, every name and every symbol has layered meaning.
How many times have I fallen in love with the Doctor from the new Doctor Who? More than I can count. Every single time Nine, Ten, or Eleven raged against the odds, ignored the plan and decided that “this time everyone lives” I was thrilled to be a Whovian. It is hard to resist a hero who “uses up” his lives to travel through space and time to stop the enemies that would destroy us all while knowing that he is laying out his life for others instead of himself. It is hard not to admire a hero who pushes back against the chaos and evil of a fallen world.
“The man who saved me more times than anyone will ever know just died because of me. Died for me.” (Outlaws of Time)
For several years of my life, Doctor Who filled an important place in my imagination and even a small place in my moral imagination. There was so much about Doctor Who that was courageous, noble, and heroic. So much to love. So many companions who were just normal folks doing extraordinary things and laying down their lives because of their faith in the Doctor and his love for what was right. There was much to feast on.
“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)
Over the seasons, however, the moral complexities and the wacky spiritual content grew and evolved into places I just wasn’t comfortable with. There are entire episodes which are prohibited in my home because of the spiritual darkness they bring with them. I have spent several years time trying to find heroes like the Doctor but without the modern morality that Doctor Who often foists upon us.
“What if I really do have to choose? What if I die saving Millie, and then the Vulture gets to do whatever he wants to millions of people? Is it wrong to want to save my sister more than all those people in Tombstone?” (Outlaws of Time)
ND Wilson’s writing isn’t “safe” in the contemporary Christian sense of the word. It is dark, dangerous, appropriately violent (never gratuitous) and surreal. But it is deeply moral. Spiritually sound. Passionately heroic. Incredibly creative. In fact, ND Wilson’s writing reminds me of the best parts of Doctor Who without compromising any of my values.
“Such rabid dogs must be ended, not toyed with. He could have killed two of us even after you fired. When he aims for hearts, do not aim for fingers… never take a life without need… Grieve when that need comes, but do not hesitate when defending the lives of others.” (Outlaws of Time)
After World War II, Americans tuned their television sets to watch cowboys tame the Wild West, and loved heroes like The Lone Ranger and almost any character John Wayne ever played. Americans were attracted to heroes. Men who wore white hats and who would lay their lives down to make sure that the black hats did not win. At the same time, authors like Ralph Moody and Louis L’Amour wrote moral cowboy stories that reminded Americans of their heroic past.
Over time, however, our culture has set those old black and white westerns aside in favor of things more violent. More graphic. More surreal. Flannery O’Connor understood that in our relative prosperity and peace we were getting soft. We were forgetting the broken bodies that paid for that peace and the blood of the Lamb which paid for our very souls.
“You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.” (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being)
Wilson is not afraid to write like O’Connor. His stories remind us of the fight for good and the rage against evil that is necessary in all times and our time specifically. O’Connor wrote for adults; Wilson writes for boys (and their families). Both shock our culture with the truth of this war and the costs associated with it.
“But every hero needs to be part nightmare. Moses turned a river to blood and called down the Angel of Death. Samson tore a lion open with his bare hands and killed hundreds with a donkey bone…if your will is stronger than the snake’s, if you master her, then she will no longer be wicked. But she will be deadly. And the wicked will learn fear.” (Outlaws of Time)
Infamous American cowboy legends support the plot and remind us that Wilson is an American author who fundamentally understands and appreciates how the wild Western landscape translates perfectly into a hero story. Setting this action packed series starter in the West focuses us in on the epic battles between good and evil that must be wrestled out of lawless land. It also reminds us of the ancient deserts of Egypt and the Israelites who had their own battles of power, law, and submission.
While I read this layered adventure novel, I was deeply reminded of Johannes Verne in The Lonesome Gods. I think that Sam and Johannes share some very similar burdens and challenges. I also think that they respond to those challenges in very similar ways. Having Johannes in the back of my mind while I read helped me to love and understand Sam Miracle better.
“I heal them. Sometimes that means breaking them differently. If a boy’s arms are so damaged and mutilated that he cannot live, a healer may remove the arms to save the life. He makes things worse to make them better.” (Outlaws of Time)
Readers of 100 Cupboards may be wondering about the scariness or the intensity of Outlaws of Time. Our review of 100 Cupboards highlights the spectral and grotesque elements of that series and provides the context to help a reader understand them. Interestingly, Sam Miracles pales in comparison regarding the spookiness. The darkness is equally present (in fact, much more so) but it is manifested in an entirely different way. In Outlaws, we have a long series of life and death chase scenes. It is beautiful, passionate, and free of creepiness. The only really weird bits are obvious from the cover. Sam has snakes in his arms – but the cover is far more unsettling than the actual story.
The intensity and violence of this book is on par with The Hobbit or the final books of Narnia or the last 2 books of The Wingfeather Saga. This is a hero’s coming of age story which requires modern day knight-like behavior and a rudimentary understanding of Just War theory. Our boys need books like these. Our boys need war stories where heroes are heroic, inspiring and self sacrificing. Our culture needs boys who love stories like these.
It is not the intention of this site to provide many negative reviews. In most cases, we will simply not review books that we find objectionable for whatever reason. Instead, we want to highlight the books that we love and show readers why they are worthy.
There are many adrenaline-rich adventure novels for boys on the market today, but we echo the plea of Louisa May Alcott in Eight Cousins: let there be books which are well crafted, wholesome and challenging to inspire our young men to greatness, heroism, and faithful obedience.
“It gives boys such wrong ideas of life and business; shows them so much evil and vulgarity that they need not know about, and makes the one success worth having a fortune, a lord’s daughter, or some worldly honor, often not worth the time it takes to win. It does seem to me that someone might write stories that should be lively, natural, and helpful – tales in which the English should be good, the morals pure, and the characters such that we can love in spite of all the faults that all may have. I can’t bear to see such crowds of eager little fellows at the libraries reading such trash; weak, when it is not wicked, and totally unfit to feed the hungry minds that feast on it for want of something better.” (Louisa May Alcott, Eight Cousins)
Thank you N.D. Wilson! Thank you for giving us a fitting feast for our young men (and their sisters).