A lot of what I might say about this book has already been said in my review/rave of the first volume in this trilogy, Acts and Omissions, and its sequel Unseen Things Above, so you should check those out. Some of the things I mentioned in that first review — the intrusive omniscient narrator, the minutiae of life in a Church of England cathedral community — will put some readers off, but I love everything about these books (despite my extreme non-Anglicanness). Having read the first two volumes in 2015, I was following Catherine Fox’s blog as she posted the chapters of Realms of Glory week by week on her blog last year.
While the two earlier volumes were also self-published in this way before appearing as complete books, there was something uniquely appropriate about the fact that Realms of Glory was the book I got to read in installations, in the much the same way nineteenth-century novelists serialized their stories in the papers of the time (Fox consciously casts herself as a modern-day Trollope). While the first two books did make occasional reference to events happening in the wider world that paralleled the fictional world of the story, Realms of Glory is the volume of the trilogy in which outside events seemed to have the most impact on the clergy and people of Lindchester. For people of certain ages, interests, and political affiliations, 2016 was a year of one body blow after another, and as the chapters of this novel unfolded on Fox’s blog, she addressed each celebrity death, each terrorist attack, the Brexit vote, the US election outcome, in real time as it happened, her characters reacting just as so many of us did to these events.
Having watched the story unfold week by week on the author’s blog, I looked forward to reading it all at once in book form, and was delighted when Fox’s publisher approached me to ask would I like a free copy of the book in return for an honest review. Needless to say I snapped up that offer, and took the opportunity to re-read the whole trilogy back to back.
As good as these books were reading them individually, reading all three together is a better, more complete experience. I originally felt that the first book, Acts and Omissions, had the tightest and most compelling plot of the three, but reading them all together I can see how the plot arcs and character development stretch over all three books and how beautifully many things are resolved (while some, as in real life, must be left without a satisfying resolution — yet even this is well handled). Yes, the reread of Realms of Glory did make me feel a bit like I was reliving the worst of 2016 over again — but coloured by Fox’s relentless insistence on mercy, grace, and redemption even in the darkest of times. “Love love love,” one character texts when he thinks the plane he’s on may crash, and the recipient of the text reflects that it would be hard to top that as a final message. Through the terrorist attacks and the horrible elections and the bigotry and the petty church politics and the dying celebrities of our youth: Love love love. Divine and human love. What else do we have?
As I said in my original review of Acts and Omissions, you don’t have to understand the inner workings of an Anglican cathedral to appreciate these books (though I’m sure if you do, there are layers of nuance, especially of Fox’s wickedly funny humour, that you will appreciate better). If that’s not your world, you can regard these as the colourful details of setting that introduce you, as good books should, to a world outside your own. What is universal is the human condition, so richly detailed in these books. Especially if you are a person of faith who loves stories of grace and redemption yet finds most “Christian fiction” to be too squeaky-clean and insipid — you should try Catherine Fox’s books. And if you do, I hope you’ll love this trilogy as much as I do.
In my review of Unseen Things Above I expressed my fervent hope that Fox would not limit herself to a trilogy but would keep coming back to the rich world of Lindchester she has created in these novels, as I think there are enough great characters and plots here to sustain many, many books. However, Realms of Glory is quite clearly written as a final volume, with several characters’ storylines brought to a decisive point where the author wants to leave them. While I still think there’s more than enough material in Lindchester for, say, a follow-up trilogy in a few years, I’ll also be interested to read whatever she writes next.