“The Paladin of Panama” starts where the first book in “The Guardians of Zion” series leaves off, so I recommend you read that book first, or you’re not going to understand Thomas, his desires, or the quest he’s on. In this tale, Thomas is trying to make sense of the newly appointed mission he has been given by a saint in a kind of waking dream. Only to be given another gift (or burden) by another saint in a dream, who explains that Thomas must assemble his super friends, and present the one true user with the Armor of God, making them a Paladin. It feels a little like classic King Arthur tales in that regard, but trust me, there is no sword in a stone in this book, at least, not yet. Who knows, maybe Chrobak is saving that for book three?
Ok so, first things first, if you are NOT a fan of Christian novels, or religious based fiction, this book isn’t going to be for you. That should really go without saying if you’ve read the previous book in the series, still, while the fantasy elements finally make their appearance and take up a bit more of the book, the Catholic faith is still front and center. Because of that, there’s really no mature content in the book, either. Despite Thomas and friends being college age, there is very little swearing, no romance (at least not in the way you think of in most young-adult books), and the violence that’s present is not gory, and more magical based then anything else. That makes this book appropriate for middle-schoolers and up I’d say, but given the religious aspects, I think it’s best for kids who are going through the Confirmation process. Also, I happen to know the author personally, but that in no way impacts my review, even though he’s a genuinely great guy.
I enjoy Chrobak’s faith centered books, and his emotional analysis of what it means to be faithful, but I have some mixed feelings about this story. Given how the first book ended, I was expecting “The Paladin of Panama” to come out swinging, I was ready for Thomas to dive headlong into this quest (which, frankly I have trouble understanding still as to why Thomas is chosen, and for what, exactly. I mean, is it just to fight the Devil? Why him and not archangels? Anyway, I digress), I’m expecting there to be some serious tension as Thomas rushes to find the rest of The Guardians of Zion as fast as he can to prevent the Devil from unleashing the darkness on more people. Instead, we follow along in the slow and steady tempo from the first book. It’s a slow burn as Thomas tries to get a handle on his own powers and come to terms with the things he has to do. On the way, we see him develop new friendships, figure out what they want in relationships and what they mean by wanting to live a chaste life, and generally joke around with one another as they head to Panama to build a school all while discussing the Christian faith. That right there is a good 75% of the book. The reader is told what’s at stake, what Thomas needs to do, and how he needs to be vigilant. We are told that there is danger lurking in Panama, so you’ll know what the central conflict is and what Thomas has to do. But the tension is absent until about that 75% mark, when all the bad things start happening and the book speeds along.
Now slow-burn reads aren’t bad, I like them as it usually means the pay-out at the end will be that much sweeter. However, for as much as I enjoyed learning more about Thomas and his friend’s morals, the ending was too much of a cliffhanger. I can’t, and won’t say more than that because of spoilers, but the book spends a lot of time showing us Thomas’s powers and his strengthening beliefs, that not nearly enough time is spent on the action, the fantasy, and making the ending feel like a bit more was accomplished. There’s this big moment, and instead of rushing to save people, the main characters go off on a bit of what I’d consider a side mission that then turns into the “main battle” but isn’t, because the outcome doesn’t change that a bunch of people are still in peril! It made me rather frustrated to say the least...
Normally, that can be a good thing. Authors want their readers to be frustrated with their characters when they are flawed human beings and aren’t seeing the obvious, or doing what we want them to, but this wasn’t that. The book just ended, it ended on a high note sure, but it didn’t leave me believing that the remaining companions truly appreciated the trouble they’re all still in.
Chrobak has undertaken a monumental task of blending Christian fiction with fantasy, as those two are generally at odds with one another (there is a reason why books like Harry Potter occasionally get banned—for sorcery and witchcraft), and Chrobak does a delightful job of being true to his faith, and letting his imagination soar with some truly fantastic fantasy elements. I did come across a few typos, grammar errors, and the odd phrase, but it wasn’t enough to really be all that distracting, the only thing that honestly still trips me up is the ending. It felt too much like what you’d expect from the first book in a series, not the second. See? Still upset by that one even though I finished the book yesterday! Guess I’ll just have to read book three to find out what happens, darn (that’s sarcasm, by the way, I definitely can’t wait for the third book)! Still, I can’t give this book five stars, and I must say, I enjoyed the emotional turmoil in the first book more than “The Paladin of Panama”, but both are good in different ways, so I’m giving it the same rating as the first book, 4 stars!