Justin Newland’s The Abdication is a complex, layered, philosophical novel. Like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it explores the concept of free will against obedience to an authoritarian higher power: the protagonist, Tula, is seeking the guidance of the angels of the town of Unity in her quest for a spiritual life. To reach Unity, across the forbidden Via Angelica bridge, she must first pass through the human town of Topeth, ruled by avarice and corrupt religious leaders.
The Abdication is deceptively simple, seen through the eyes of a young woman on a journey to understand the visions she has and the voices she hears. The town – Topeth – she believes a haven is instead a place of terror and corruption, turned away from its founder’s vision of a community where human free will can be allowed to grow and develop. The proper expression of free will, she learns, is hard; it is easier to obey a set of rules, even when they are the rules of a vindictive, false religion in league with a destructive, profit-driven elite.
Newland has created a world that feels both familiar and strange. Tula inhabits a world that seems to be ours: there are references to ancient Earth cultures; the flora and fauna are real. The mythology of Unity and Topeth is based, in my limited recognition and understanding, on Abrahamic teachings – pre-Christian interpretations of both gods and angels and the powers of both.
Aspects of The Abdication reminded me of two books from my childhood: a youth’s version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: the former for the allegorical obstacles the protagonist must overcome on the journey to the city of their desire and enlightenment; the latter for the motif of the shedding of skins on the way to becoming the purest self. Throughout the book, the image of winged beings, both helpful and threatening, repeats, reinforcing and reflecting the idea of angels as many people imagine them, and perhaps also suggesting the revelations of the ending.
If I have one niggle with The Abdication, it is the almost non-stop action of the last chapters. For a book asking hard questions about the balance – in a world where gods and angels are real and powerful – between blind obedience and the exercise of free will, there was little time for the reader to contemplate what Tula has learned and the choices she makes. It felt a little like the last chapters of a thriller, where, as the protagonists reach the climax of the plot, rapid reversals leave the reader barely able to draw breath.
Overall, The Abdication is an intriguing book, leaving me with the feeling that if my understanding of the religious underpinnings of its world-and-mythology building was better, I would have found it even more captivating. Even without that, its questions about what free will means and the choices made in its pursuit made it both challenging and compelling.
Justin Newland was born in Essex, England, three days before the end of 1953. He lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, England.
Justin gives author talks in libraries and does books signings in Waterstones, WH Smiths and indie bookshops. He has appeared at literary festivals and regularly gives media interviews.
He writes secret histories in which real events and historical personages are guided and motivated by numinous and supernatural forces – that’s history with a supernatural twist.
One thought on “The Abdication, by Justin Newland: A Review”
Hi Marian, Thank you for your thoughtful and considered review of my novel, The Abdication. And your constructive criticism about the last chapter. I’ll bear it in mind for future novels. Though the last chapter of any book I’m sure has the most re-writes, since you’re weaving together and culminating all the major and minor plot threads. Anyhow, In the novel, I set out to explore the mechanism for human evolution; in other words, what’s the human deal, how does it work, how do we evolve, what is human purpose? So I’m glad you enjoyed my musings in the shape of Tula’s journey. Justin.
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