Religion is something that is so integral to a society, that most fantasy author's find themselves confronted with the topic at some point in their story. Some authors I find deal with it on a superficial level- it's there, but not significant. And others really take the time to make it convincing and use it to move the plot forward. It's the authors who really use the idea of faith that interest me. It's not that I am particularly religious, I'm not, but I love to read stories that include religion as a subtext to their story. I feel it gives it more depth and realism. One of my favorite series' that uses religion so well is The Book of Words trilogy by J. V. Jones.
In fact, one of my favorite characters is Tavalisk, the Archbishop of Roan. What makes Tavalisk so great is that he is unrepentantly greedy. He's not a man of religion, but rather someone who has used the church to further his own ambitions.
Maybe I'll go to Hell for enjoying the character so much. But we know from our own history than many church leaders often ignore the rules of the church for their own benefit. For example, Pope Alexander VI had eleven illegitimate children, even going so far as to throw an opulent wedding for one of his daughters at the Vatican Palace.
Tavalisk, in my opinion, is like an open window into the mind of the morally corrupt. What makes the character even more entertaining is that he enjoys his debauchery and Jones seems to have fun with the character.
Jones, like most authors, creates her own church and religion. Some authors really go into detail, outlining a whole pantheon of Gods. David Eddings uses the idea of multiple Gods quite a bit in his novels. His God's often take a direct hand in the affairs of man, kind of like the Greek myths many of us are familiar with.
Lynn Flewelling is another favorite author of mine. She also has a religion that is her own construct in her Nightrunner and Tamir trilogies. Flewelling tends to let the Gods be an abstract part of the story and instead uses religion as the goad it so often is in war. A central point in her story is a prophesy made by an oracle who speaks for a particular God. For the true believers, it's gospel, for non-believers it is fodder for conflict. The story isn't one of religion though; it's more about man's response to it.
Sara Douglass uses religion much more literally in her Crucible series. I have to admit I haven't finished the series though. I found her main character Thomas Neville to be completely insufferable. The story is set in 1377 and Thomas is a Dominican Friar. The character is written as sort of an early Born Again Christian. Once he's discovered God, he's so convinced of his moral superiority that he cannot help but sermonize at every opportunity. I'm sure Douglass intended the character to be as insufferable as I found him to be so that there could be an opportunity to show the character's growth. But it's hard to read a book when you can't identify with the main character.
Douglass does make an interesting choice though. She uses the established Roman Catholic church as her foundation. She does employ fantasy elements by bringing demons and angels into the story as actual characters. These are the kind of plot elements I like and enjoy when authors use them. But I do tend to prefer a more subtle approach to building a character. Usually I like Douglass, but I found Thomas to be a heavy handed personality.
Anne Bishop is an author who really turns religion on its head. In her Black Jewels trilogy, she uses Satan as an actual character in the story, and not an evil one at that. In fact, her books are not particularly religious at all. Mostly she uses names that we are familiar with, such as Lucifer (changed to Luciver) and Hell as a framework for her story. Perhaps her intention is to simply get the reader to think about what the Hell mythos means. Maybe she is suggesting that our whole system of belief is based on real events that were later recast as larger and more meaningful than they really were. Personally, I think she was just inspired by the idea of Hell to create a very imaginative story.
But then, I don't tend to be terribly superstitious.
I don't look at Harry Potter as evil; as I mentioned in an earlier post some do. In fact I think trying to tie Harry Potter to religion is specious at best. Witchcraft and wizardry are not offered as a religion in the Harry Potter books. It is merely presented as an ability.
I think most fantasy authors get that religion can be good and bad depending on how it's perceived by any individual. I like that it's a subject that is constantly explored in fiction (and non-fiction).
I didn't even get into one the biggest and most controversial books dealing with religion in this post, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. But for now I am going to stick with fantasy novels. (Though many might feel Brown's book fits into this category)If there are any books that deal with religion in a way you like, please let me know. I'd like to read them.