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Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: The Kings of Clonmel

Last spring, while I had a second job with the Census Bureau, I ordered a few books from Powell's , and with these I was sent their latest catalog. I noticed that one of the books listed, a novel for young readers, concerned a religious cult, and was curious as to how accurate and informative it might be on the issue of psychological manipulation. So I offered to write a review of it for the International Cultic Studies Association . I've now done so. Here it is:


Ranger’s Apprentice Book 8: The Kings of Clonmel by John Flanagan. New York: Philomel Books, 2010.

John Flanagan is a children’s fiction writer living in Australia, with a background in advertising. The central premise of this book, set in a fictionalized medieval Europe, is that a religious group is rapidly gaining influence and converts by covertly orchestrating acts of destruction and lawlessness, while publicly offering its god’s protection against these threats. The book is intended for young readers, and my interest as an ex-member was in seeing to what extent it provides them with an improved understanding of how cults work and how one can guard against them.

To a limited degree it does so, illustrating some of the ways perceptions and emotions can be shaped by stagecraft, but not the subtler and more psychologically invasive forms of manipulation. Similarly, it treats cultism as a matter only of deception, not self-deception, depicting the cult leader and his inner circle as conscious charlatans who believe in none of what they’re doing. Only the more recent converts are actual believers and, because they’ve been deceived purely by control of information rather than systematic ego destruction, it’s not too hard for the heroes to turn them against the cult once they’re in a position to expose its fraudulent practices.

Of course, when even much of the (real-world) adult population has no understanding of cults whatsoever, most juvenile readers will come away from this book with more understanding than they had before. And perhaps a psychologically deeper treatment would go over the heads of many. The most important lesson taught by The Kings of Clonmel may be that expressed by these words of a sage old woman who hasn’t gone in with the cult: “A god who brings you good and bad in equal amounts doesn’t ask for much. Maybe a prayer or two. Maybe the odd sacrifice of a beast. But a god who promises only good times? A god like that will always want something of you.” In other words, any offer that seems too good to be true not only probably isn’t, but also is likely to end up costing more than one counted on.


It's been accepted for publication and will be appearing in ICSA's magazine, ICSA Today.

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