One of the many powers of fantasy fiction is that it helps the reader walk a balance between cognitive rest and restlessness: while graciously pausing the pressure of the ‘real world,’ fantasy fiction also tends to question conventional modes of thinking. This is certainly the case for our friend Russ Masterson’s book, Adao’s Dance, which chronicles the story of sixteen-year-old Adao who, after receiving a cryptic dream one night, undertakes the task of climbing a deadly, near-impassible mountain called The Dragon. What follows is a series of adventures that challenge his friendships, his worldview, and ultimately his life.

Adao includes plenty of fantastical thrills but also, surprisingly, serves as a substantial meditation on law and gospel, and grace and forgiveness. Adao and his friend, Jadon, speak almost purely in philosophical terms, adding an esoteric layer on top of the man-eating birds and beasts. A voice on the wind propels and guides Adao throughout.

This is a book that doesn’t shy away from grit and gore. As in the Christian story, blood plays an essential role. The voice on the wind explains, “Adao, you arrived into the world in the outpouring of blood between your mother’s legs, and you will leave this world in the outpouring of your blood into the world. The heart runs wild at both joy and fear. You cannot know life without understanding the red that runs through all of life.” In this way, Masterson levels the story with an engaging fictional narrative and astute real-world truths.

Paintings by Albert Bierstadt

Adao’s Dance is a more mature story, too, than most fantasy adventures of this breed, because the conflict doesn’t end on the mountaintop. Masterson addresses the what-next question, and adequately so. Debates develop between Adao and Jadon about self-actualization–even if they could finish the mountain climb, then what? What is true greatness?

Like most heroes, Adao’s identity develops along the journey, and he learns plenty about himself and his motivations. But unlike most heroes, Adao’s main conflict remains internal. Regardless of what he does, he cannot escape himself, and his ultimate challenge is his own identity. Scorned as a child and a budding thief, Adao grows up in an every-man-for-himself environment and, like all human beings, he is attracted to the law, grateful for any apparent opportunity to earn righteousness, as if to make up for his previous transgressions. On his journey, he passes through a number of villages and becomes entranced with one in particular that embraces a pharisaical kind of rule. Progressing further, Adao unmasks in himself a desire to earn universal acclaim, but begins to find out what happens after you get the thing you think will give you everything.

Towards the end, back in the village, Jadon confronts Adao, who is hunkered down in bed: “They think of you as a hero. And here you are, under the covers.” There is a widening gap between who Adao wants to be–as well as who others want him to be–and who he actually is. His humanity then becomes the conflict. Why can’t he be more like a typical hero, bathing in glory, happily ever after? We begin to see that the real journey is just beginning. Adao discovers that the hero cannot complete the journey alone–he needs help.

As we follow Adao’s exciting chase sequences and beautiful relationships, his dance takes us back to a crucial message that never fails to bring us home–like Adao, we cannot finish the journey alone.

[Paintings by Albert Bierstadt.]