Book Review: Fire in the Dawn

fire in the dawn cover

Justin Fike contacted me in the summer of 2009. It had been a little while since he’d graduated from Brown University and he was trying to decide whether or not to commit to being a writer. He had a book in process, but the vision was huge. It might end up being a trilogy, he thought, and it seemed like a lot of work. Could he really make it as a writer?

I did five coaching sessions with Justin (he’s given me permission to share that publicly) and he did decide to push on. Some time later, he asked me if I’d write a letter of recommendation for the Master’s in Creative Writing program at Oxford University. I felt a little under-qualified, but I did it. Justin got in, graduated… time went on… he still hadn’t finished that book.

Justin and I have been in touch ever since. In 2016, we met again at a conference in Thailand, and decided to write a series of action-adventure/comedy books called the Stetson Jeff Adventures. Our main character is a cross between any Chuck Norris character (he really only plays one guy, right?) and Forrest Gump, three books have been published and several more are drafted as I write this.

But that story he was working on in 2009 still wasn’t done, until this weekend Justin finally published Fire in the Dawn, the first book in his Twin Skies Trilogy.

I give you all this background just to say that sometimes people with huge ideas and lots of talent can take a LONG time to get that book out. This in itself commands my respect.

I have learned a lot from Justin about story beats: the aspect of writing that involves keeping the reader engaged, tools and techniques to make you want to turn the page. Justin is whiz-bang at this, and I have a feeling that by the time we’re done with 9 Stetson Jeff books and he finishes the rest of his Trilogy, he’s going to be at a level we’d have to call masterful. So here is my review:

Fire in the Dawn is set in a fantasy world similar to Medieval Japan. Justin taps into a deep knowledge and understanding of cultures to construct a world that feels real, with a political landscape that has treachery on every side. There are social and racial themes throughout that keeps you guessing about how his main character will be able to accomplish his goals, and intriguing alliances. Like any good fantasy story, there’s a bit of magic thrown in that refers to the power of qi but some deeper magic too.

All told, if you’re a reader of lots of fantasy lit, you’re going to love what Fike has done with the genre. He’s gotten away from the trolls, orcs, dragons and wizards, and done something exceptional, fresh, and exciting.  And if you’re not into the fantasy genre, that’s okay– Fire in the Dawn has a literary quality that’s appealing to a broader-than-fantasy-readers audience in a way that’s similar to how I experienced George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Justin’s work isn’t as gory and doesn’t have the perverse sexual violence of Martin’s Game of Thrones, nor does it have the same immense complexity of a cast of characters of hundreds you have to track, so it’s definitely lighter reading in several ways. The comparison is being made strictly based on the fact that it’s literary. Fike’s world has plenty of depth and texture to explore, and a certain amount of intrigue. He keeps the action moving, so you never bog down with lengthy explanations of the world. The first few chapters you may find yourself wondering what is going on, and where you are, so it will be helpful to refer to the map!  I’m eager to read the second book in the trilogy.

Also, check out that sweet cover art. Top notch professional work!

Justin’s promoting Fire in the Dawn on Amazon for free at the moment, but the promotion ends today, so get it now!

Also, if you’d like to check out the work that Justin and I have done together, here’s the link to The Stetson Jeff Adventures, Volume 1, which includes “Beatdown in Bangkok”, “Mayhem in Marrakesh”, and “Pandemonium in Paradise” plus a bonus short story, “A Very Stetson Christmas”, available in paperback and as an e-book.


DSC Community in Thailand

Clockwise from upper left: 1) Jerome Y. cries when you ask him powerful questions. 2) Adam F. eating and jet lagged. 3) Ann figuring out her artwork stuff. 4) Glen and Christine help hang the show. 5) DSC leaders meet with Connect leaders. 6) Megan F. 7) Ben teaching. 8) Chris T. 9) Doug McG. 10) Karen Yoder assembles work by Christa Reuel.

Peace (Thailand #4 – ish)

We’ve been working hard to set up an entire room full of artwork. I think the team that has been stressing to overcome jet lag and install the gallery is ready for the conference to begin. I don’t mean that everything is installed yet (and we only have a few hours left) but I mean in the sense that we are ready for the peace of mind that comes with saying “It has begun.” In fact, several of us will be adding to the art or working throughout the conference, but it’s a bit like starting a race. You train and train, you warm up (jogging) but you wait for the starter’s gun just so you can run some more. And then, after the initial adrenaline rush, you settle into a moment of peace. There is serenity in the journey. Somewhere between the preparations and the finish line is that time when you say “we have now begun to really run.” And we are ready for that moment, even if not all the work is quite in place.

Offhand I’d guess we have about nine to twelve people exhibiting some visual work, (several of whom are not attending, and so we have a team of people installing for them via instructions), and a musical team of seven (I count sound guys) and lots of other creativity beginning to flow. Megan leaned over to me and said, “This is becoming an arts conference. But I guess that is the point.” Well, not entirely. But the arts are becoming more and more a part of how we live and breath in a world where we work cross-culturally. Languages lose something in translation, but image can gain communicativeness, as can melody.

Thailand is a great place to be at peace. This sovereign nation resisted colonialism due to a strong monarchy, and there is room for rest here. We are already feeling it, and yet in some ways we still wait for that to be wholly unleashed.

It takes some work to be at peace with being an artist. The value of the arts is much discussed during this time, but becoming established if still elusive.

It turns out I’ll be painting. I’m going to primarily use words, and I don’t have to worry much about color. Thematically there’s a lot of black and white work here, with reds. I can paint that way. I’m content to have a 4×8 panel to work on, and ran my concepts by Megan. There are things I wish I was doing; for example I love to sing but have not done it with a team for so long that it’s not on anyone’s radar. But with blogging, photojournalism, and now a painting to execute plus lots of opportunities to listen to people quietly and ask them questions, I’m at peace with my role. You can’t do everything, and I’m doing a lot. I like to DO stuff, but to be at peace, BEING is the key.

I’m bringing that edge to my painting, as you’ll see.

I’ll start with something that looks pretty abstract. Letters.

Want to join in? Okay, here’s what goes at the top of my canvas:



Just letters? We shall see.

There’s more, but all shall be revealed in due time. The starter’s gun is about to bang, and then, we’re off. We’ll settle in, we’ll be at peace, we’ll rest together.

Kinshasa Symphony

I got my yellow fever vaccination boosted on July 6, and have been preparing documentation to apply for a Visa. There are five or six Congo Reflections posts in the archives now, and you may want to take a look at those.

I went to my local public library where I like to pick up films out of the foreign section, and as I was on my way to look for a movie, perhaps in French to brush up on listening to that language, I was walking past the documentary section, glanced down, and this title jumped off the shelf at me. “Kinshasa Symphony.”

So I watched it. Twice. This 2010 film follows a group of Congolese through the slums as they perform everyday duties; one woman works as a wedding decorator (can that be a steady job?) while some of the men run pharmacies and barbershops; then, in the evening they gather to rehearse for the biggest symphonic performance that the Congo has perhaps ever seen.

Sometimes my friends ask “what is the purpose of art?” Why not do something productive?

The people in this documentary answer that question in the simplest of language. Find a copy of it. I highly recommend it.

Congo Reflections Part 4: Coasting In Silence

David Law flew me back to Wembo Nyama. I was 14 and had spent four weeks away from my family. I needed a break from them, and everyone knew it.

The last straw was the night I smacked my little sister with a steel bowl, right on top of her head. At five, she was prone to running about naked, which embarrassed me, especially since we lived in a fish bowl. I mean that, at night, in one of the few houses with electric lights, it was not unusual to realize that neighborhood children’s eyes were peering in the windows. They were only naturally curious, wondering what these whites did at night in their closed-door, brick and tin-roof house, without a grasp of any social taboo of going to see for themselves. Seeing my sister, the nudist, in all her blonde Caucasian glory. As if we needed more reason for people to gawk. I was angry, peerless and alone, culture-shocked, stressed, dealing with my sister’s exhibitionism so my concern about the “paparazzi” was too much to bear, and I thumped her with a bowl and it sounded like a gong. And of course she cried quite a bit.

So they sent me to stay with the Laws for a while. A half-hour flight or so, in a single-prop Cessna to a different mission station. Take a break. Grow up a bit. Get some perspective. Stop fighting with dad. Socialize with some other Westerners.  Go for hour-long runs on the savanna where I could focus on my breathing and watch the occasional dung-beetle who also had to deal with his crap every day as he rolled his treasures across the same dry plateau; it was a chance to think only about as much as the beetle was thinking. I fell in love with running. It was one foot in front of the other, thoughtfulness without the need for a specific idea. You got your second wind, found your pace, and coasted along the dirt track in silence and slid back into the house unnoticed, sweating out my toxic anxieties in the process.

Before I went to stay with the Laws, I was going a little bit crazy, maybe a bit beyond the tolerances of normal adolescence. ‘Maybe’, I say, because even in retrospect, I realize that I only grew up once, and it happened to be in the middle of Zaire. So how would I know for sure if I was beyond my own ability to cope with being 14 in any way worse than it might have been in Illinois, on a strawberry farm where I knew the difference between fruit and weeds? But I’m pretty sure the added stress meant I was not coping as well as I might have in the States.

At the end of my retreat, as we flew back into Wembo, David said over the noise of the engine, “Check this out. I can cut the engine and we can glide the last two miles to the strip. Nobody will hear us coming.” Usually the arrival of an airplane was a major deal. Hundreds of people would show up at the strip to gawk at the plane, welcome strangers or say goodbye, help out with luggage somehow, hoping for a tip. To surprise my parents by walking in the door without anyone in town noticing, I liked this idea very much.

He cut the engine and turned the Cessna into a hang glider. The wings would bear us up just long enough to reach the strip and coast to the end. We began to lose altitude. I might have been afraid we’d crash, but my pilot was confident. The air rushed by, our velocity kept us moving forward, and all was still. A half-dozen noticed us coming, but there wasn’t the usual dozen-times-a-dozen spectators as we rolled down the last bit of clay airstrip, touching down like an ace at Wimbledon in that hush of the serve, just before the audience erupts in applause.

It’s significant for a person like me, who likes the bright lights of a stage, to have that desire to walk unnoticed. Coasting in silence on the outskirts of Wembo taught me that the ability to be at peace, and, at the same time, to be unnoticed while falling out of the sky, is a valuable art. That’s what I like about the riskiness of coaching someone – I can turn off the engine that drives my own decision-making process and let the wings of listening interact with the air of my client’s living and breathing and let them land on their own runway — or take off for jungles and oceans, all successes unknown.

Congo Reflections Part 3: Faith in (removing/ replacing) the Mask

A jungle pins its own topsoil to the ground. Leave a slash-and-burn farming plot to its own devices for some time, just a year, and it will be overgrown. Things grow so easily but “improvements” are difficult to maintain.

There are stories from Congo about “improvements” such as railway lines and electrical lines that did not survive the building period– by the time a crew finished the line from A to B, the middle was choked with weeds, or the steel torn up, appropriated for other uses by those who live nearby -appropriated for something with a more immediate and concrete use. Of course the concept of ownership is different: land, or even steel, if not in obvious and apparent use, might be used by any passerby or neighbor. I cannot say that I know deeply or intimately the details of cultural differences here, but I can say that the differences are there, and I know the concept of intellectual property is tribal. Look at artwork: tribes co-create, with variations on a theme that may last hundreds of years.

But the written word: so devalued now in the West that we expect to buy your next book for $0.99 or even get a free download, the written word is still a rare and important gift.

Charles and I talked about how we determine which coach training materials ought to be translated into French. This isn’t easy. I’m concerned that any “coaching question” may become rote rather than a flexible framework.

I wonder if there’s a way to mesh the coaching idea with the tribal approach to intellectual property — the idea that we create variations on a theme. Can the questions be developed as a mask is developed? (Not a mask as we think of wearing at Halloween.) I’m talking about a mask as something passed through initiation rites, an entire persona, costume and spirit together, something fluid from generation to the next, adaptable as new materials become available, but rooted in a tradition of authenticity and vulnerability rather than the traditions of secret societies? And in that sense, there is some rote, certain steps to the dance, but room for creativity as well, like when an old costume is worn out and needs to be replaced, that suddenly the new one has Coke bottle caps attached.

As I consider this, I begin again to have faith that in Congo an approach to leadership, to coaching, and even to Christianity itself, can be contextualized by those who know themselves — by the Congolese. A mix of tradition, rote learning, dance steps that stay the same, building a framework for love, for authentic relationship, can emerge.

We want to bear faith to Congo that we believe the Congolese can integrate and contextualize coaching to help them take off masks that need to be removed, but that the idea of a mask-like conversational dance can be useful and transformational. This idea is very fresh for me as of the writing on June 3. More reflections to come.

How to Act (React) on Stage

Act I: Theater directors and acting coaches say that you should react to what other characters are saying, rather than just acting.

I think it ought to be said that you should think about whether or not your character is listening carefully to the other characters, or not.

This impacts how you react. Characters who respond in an inappropriate way (in the script) probably are doing so because they aren’t listening.

People generally aren’t good at it. Off-stage most reactions come from not listening very well to others. If you’re good at listening deeply, you’ll be able to act as though you aren’t, but the inverse is not true. If you can’t listen deeply offstage you won’t know how to portray it. Call it method acting if you will, but you can’t fake true listening. The audience will smell you out. Your reaction won’t ring true.

Act II: if you’re writing dialogue and the people in your dialogue understand each other perfectly, all the time, then you’re not writing multiple voices or characters at all. Interesting dialogue reflects reality — where people sometimes aren’t listening. That’s why a life coaching session transcript would make an awful script for the stage. But it can be fascinating to watch a live demonstration of life coaching as it unfolds. It’s more like watching sports, because it’s unscripted and anything could happen — and probably will. And when the coach is a good coach, the coachee is going to perform like an all-star.