CSFF Blog Tour – The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead, Day 3


My Review

Reviews are never easy for me and this one, less so. There’s much to like about The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead, but why am I not enthusiastic? I think I’ve figured it out, thanks to a number of posts by my fellow CSFF Blog Tour participants. But let’s start at the beginning.

General Comments. The Realms Thereunder, labeled general fantasy fiction, though published by Thomas Nelson, a Christian publishing house, is perhaps best suited to a young adult audience, though adults may get the most out of it — there’s a lot here to think about. It’s important to note that this is the first in The Ancient Earth Trilogy. Clearly, this book is the beginning of a larger story, though it reads somewhat as a stand-alone. There is a logical end point, though many of the story questions remain unanswered.

The Story. Protagonists Daniel and Freya are on divergent paths, yet they share a unique link from their early teens. While on a school field trip, they “went missing.” For days the world was in a panic looking for them, but they were in a realm beneath, engaged in adventure and the attempt to find the way home.

Switching back to the present off and on, the story follows the adult Daniel as he’s sent into yet another realm — Elfland — then Freya, as she’s duped and deluded, and finally a third person who doesn’t seem to fit into the picture until the end — Alex, the policeman turned mythical-creatures hunter.

Strengths. In my day one and day two posts, I’ve touched on some of the things I consider to be strengths of The Realms Thereunder. Ross has courageously stepped out of the standard linear story structure and told his tale using a change of time perspective as well as a change of the storyline.

In addition, he weaves Anglo-Saxon mythology generously, with a dab of history, into the contemporary story. It’s an interesting mix. Further, he has a section — Daniel in Elfland — that reminded me a great deal of C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. Whether this is intentional or not, I can’t say. But I liked it in Lewis’s work, and I liked it equally so in The Realms Thereunder.

Another positive worth noting, there’s little overt reference to God or religion, but there is much that appears to work as symbolism. As an illustration, three different blog tour participants independently selected the same quote that held spiritual significance for each. For a more detailed look at this aspect of the story see Thomas Clayton Booher‘s day three post.

In short, The Realms Thereunder is a layered story that gives the reader much to think about. It’s also unique and creative in its concept and execution. What’s more, I think all of these innovative things work, and they make the story well worth reading.

Weaknesses. A quick check around the tour, and you’ll find a number of reviews that are positive without being enthusiastic, and a few that point blank say they had high expectations that weren’t met. To balance those are another few that are supportive from start to finish — they liked the prologue, the story structure, the characters, the wrap, all of it.

So why the mixed bag? I have been asking myself this same question because while I read, I continued to put the book down for long stretches and felt no compunction to get back to it. I think various members of the blog tour have helped me put it all together.

1. The omniscient point of view, always more distant than first person or third person limited, did not help me to know the characters well.

In addition, in a section of the story when Freya has been duped and is delusional, the story slips into her point of view, but there’s no clue that this has happened and that the reader should not rely on what she’s experiencing. Hence, I began to cast about, trying to make sense of what was happening. Was the story now entering a third, future, time period? By the time I realized what was happening, I’d been pulled from the story.

The greater issue, however, was that I never felt closely attached to the characters.

2. While the primary characters are unique and believable, they don’t have goals or needs they are trying to meet. In the past portion of the story, Freya has wanted to go home from the moment she arrived in the underworld realm, but she made no plans to achieve this goal. After some time Daniel and Freya have a goal at last, but they seem to wander along with the two knights in a rather haphazard search for something others believe is necessary.

3. In addition to the wandering factor, the personal stakes for Daniel, Freya, and the extraneous Alex — a policeman who also has an apparently unrelated storyline — seem low. The reader already knows that Daniel and Freya survive their teen adventures, or there would be no adult thread, so whatever dangers they encounter carry little or no threat.

And the adult threads don’t seem to have high stakes because in these segments the characters seem to be moving wherever greater forces dictate, as if they have little or no say about where they go.

There’s actually one conversation about this very subject which makes me think there is much happening that will be revealed in the next book, but in this one, their manipulated wanderings didn’t make for compelling reading, I didn’t feel.

4. No one else brought this up, so this just might be me, but I found the prose to be off-putting. Well, that’s too strong. For the most part I knew what was taking place, but there were segments that confused me, others that seemed slow (written in passive voice, for example), and still others that told rather than showed. Here’s an example of the latter: “Swi∂gar pulled his spear back and lunged for another attack, but it was the worst thing he could have done” (p 347, emphasis mine).

Recommendation. So what did I think? I think Ross undertook an ambitious project for his debut novel. I admire him for the effort and am glad I read it for all the thought-provoking material it provided. And the fact is, there are people who loved it and breezed through it. I labored, but it’s not time I regret.

So how do I sum it up? I recommend this one if you love Anglo-Saxon history and/or mythology. That alone will make the book worthwhile. I recommend it for those who enjoy a unique take on fantasy tropes — not a portal to another world, but a passage to another realm in this world, and that realm (those realms?) is beginning to bleed back the other way. Lots of promise for the next two books in the trilogy.

Disclaimer posted in compliance with FAA regulations: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, though quite obviously that fact had no bearing on my review.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead, Day 2



Day one of the CSFF Blog Tour featuring The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead produced some good posts. I recommend, in particular, Keanan Brand‘s where you’ll find the reaction to The Realms Thereunder by Keanan’s teen niece who happens to be in this book’s target audience.

Another post not to miss is new member Rebekah Loper‘s thoughtful comments about the spiritual implications of a particular passage in Ross’s story. I love the way Rebekah made the spiritual connection and I love the way Ross resisted any urge he might have had to connect dots for his readers.

Interestingly, Thomas Clayton Booher, in his day two post, cites the exact same passage Rebekah did and elaborates on the Christian’s responsibility to share the gospel even with those who would rather not “have their bubble burst.”

The fact that both these readers had spiritual insights stemming from the same passage that was not overtly addressing spiritual issues, shows the power of implicit writing, I believe. Too often we writers feel the need to spell out what we want readers to see, but how much better to let the readers discover truth on their own.

Which brings me back to the particulars I wish to discuss about The Realms Thereunder. Ross Lawhead, as you may have guessed, is the son of highly accomplished novelist Stephen Lawhead, and therefore is familiar with the work of a novelist. Tim Hicks, who did some research about Ross for his day one post, points out that Ross c0-authored several books with his father and has had a number of other writing projects. This, however, is his first solo novel. And what an ambitious undertaking. I have to admire Ross simply for his effort.

First, he adopted an advanced story structure, which I mentioned in my day one post.

In addition, Ross does something few others have attempted — he closely weaves mythology (in this case, Anglo-Saxon mythology) into a present-day story. It’s sort of Once Upon A Time (the current ABC TV series) in reverse.

Third, he tells a story that mostly happens underground — not an easy thing to accomplish even for short sections of a story.

Fourth, he writes Christian fiction with a light hand, much the way J. R. R. Tolkien did. Any reader would feel comfortable reading this story, yet as I mentioned above, those alert to spiritual implications will find material with which to work.

Fifth, Ross is telling a story that is larger than just this one book. The Realms Thereunder is the first of The Ancient Earth Trilogy, so his scope is big. Epic, you might say.

Sixth, he is developing his characters backwards. Because of the story structure, he is showing character development in the adult characters that resulted from the portion of the story that happened to the younger versions of those characters.

It’s an interesting aspect of the story, and vital if this past/present back-and-forth was to work. How had the events that took place eight years earlier changed these people? It’s something we may not think about much when we read stories like Narnia.

Stephen Donaldson in his trilogy The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever touched on this aspect of character development, as I recall. And C. S. Lewis hinted at some repercussions of the other-world adventures in Narnia. But Ross is able to do more because he actually tells part of his story from these scarred and changed characters’ point of view.

All in all, I’m impressed that anyone would tackle so much in a debut novel. Tomorrow, if things go as planned, I’ll give you my reaction to the book and my recommendation. In the meantime, you might be interested in some of the other reviews:

  • Jeff Chapman has an excellent plot summary.
  • Chawna Schroeder questioned the characters’ goals and how that affected the story.
  • Gillian Adams gave her reaction to the innovative story structure.
  • Steve Trower gave the best reason I’ve heard for not having his review ready for the tour.
  • Sarah Sawyer is holding a book-give-away contest.
  • Nissa is cooking up some kind of special scavenger hunt-ish type of thing at her site. No details yet, but she’s “hiding” things along the tour route. ;-)

Lots more to come, so be sure to get in on the fun.

Published in: on February 21, 2012 at 1:37 pm  Comments (5)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead


I’m a writer, so no matter how much I want to look at books the way readers do, and to convey information I think readers care about, I can’t help but notice things like story structure, especially when story structure plays a big part in the reading experience.

Some while ago I read a novel I’d heard many good things about, but no one had warned me about the … creative story structure. It was told from two points of view — nothing special there. The thing was, in following one character, the story was moving forward, from “the beginning” to “the end.” In the other character’s point of view, however, the story was traveling backward, from end to the beginning. Creative, yes, but I felt confused for at least half of the book, and I didn’t care for it in the end (or the beginning … which ever! :roll: )

On the other hand, I read George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon with its story within a story within a story approach, and I loved it. It was innovative and took a little getting used to. For stretches I didn’t know for sure what was happening on the outermost layer of the story, but that was OK. I was sure I would know and in fact kept reading in large part because I wanted to know.

I mention these two experiences to point out that I don’t think innovative story structure is a make or break deal. I don’t hate or love a book based on its structure. That it’s creative in how the scenes fit together doesn’t make a story better or worse to me. I don’t, however, want to be confused — at least not for long stretches.

And why am I starting the CSFF blog tour for Ross Lawhead‘s The Realms Thereunder with a discussion of story structure? Surely you’ve guessed it. This Christian fantasy for young adults and up is not your standard journey-quest story structure. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of his father Stephen’s latest, the Bright Empires series, with its ley lines and travel from one time/dimension to another, Ross tells his story from the front end and the back end, with some realm shifting in between.

Forewarned is forearmed, I figure. It’s undoubtedly better to know going in that the story you’re about to read is going to be a little different than a “Once upon a time … the end” sort of tale. Did it work? Abundantly so, in my opinion.

I’ve never been a fan of large numbers of point of view shifts, and the shifting from story past to story present added a dimension to those shifts, but not in a distracting way. Yes, there was more to keep track of, but all in all, I thought the unique story structure worked in the book’s favor.

Now we’ll have to see what others reading the book as part of the CSFF tour thought.

Here are this month’s participants with the check marks linking to specific Tour articles:

Published in: on February 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm  Comments (8)  
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And The Winner Is …


The title of this post is a little misleading because no one is actually winning anything. However, I did want to share the results of the “It’s All In The Opening” poll since I mentioned it with some frequency last week, either here or at other social media venues. According to those who voted, there was a clear front runner and a solid second place, with the other four books lagging behind.

Not only do I want to give you the results, I want to do the Big Reveal: who wrote each of those excerpts. In other words, who did you all end up voting for based solely on the writing of their first one hundred or so words?

So, after 90 votes and an unknown number of abstentions, here are the books, the authors, and the results in the order in which they appeared in the poll.

- – – – -

Choice A The Opposite Of Art by Athol Dickson (Howard Books, A Division of Simon & Schuster), *9% of the vote.

Sirens called him from his dreams. When the racket stopped, he rose and crossed the little bedroom of his hotel suite to lean out into the night, trusting his life to the freezing wrought iron railing just beyond the window so he could gaze down into the alley where a couple of New York City’s finest had thrown some guy against the bricks. Even from five floors up, even in the dark, Ridler recognized the lust for violence and the fear down there, but that was nothing compared to the play of the police car’s lights on the wall across the alley.

- – – – -

Choice B The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead (Thomas Nelson), 10% of the vote.

“And I say that you’re a fool, Addison Fletcher!” the brawny man declared, striking his ale mug against the bare wooden table for emphasis.

“God smite me where I sit if I tell a lie, Coll Dawson!” Addison protested, his eyes flicking heavenward for the briefest of moments.

“Ah, but — did you not say,” declared Coll, cocking an eyebrow and pointing a finger. “Did you not say that you got this account from another –”

“From Rob Fuller,”piped a voice from the end of the table.

“Aye, from Rob Fuller. And who’s to say that a tale told by Rob Fuller is true or false? Swearing oaths upon secondhand tales is not wise.”

- – – – -

Choice C The Monster In The Hollows by Andrew Peterson (Rabbit Room Press), 39% of the vote.

It wasn’t a sound that woke Janner Igiby. It was a silence.

Something was wrong.

He strained into a sitting position, wincing at the pain in his neck, shoulders, and thighs. Every time he moved he was reminded of the claws and teeth that had caused his wounds.

He expected to see the bearer of those claws and teeth asleep in the bunk beside him, but his brother was gone. Sunlight fell through the porthole and slid to and fro across the empty mattress like a pendulum, keeping time with the rocking of the boat. The other bunk’s bedclothes were in a heap on the floor, which was typical; Kalmar never made his bed back in Glipwood, either. What wasn’t typical was his absence.

- – – – -

Choice D The Bone House by Stephen Lawhead (Thomas Nelson), 8% of the vote.

From a snug in the corner of the Museum Tavern, Douglas Flinders-Petrie dipped a sop of bread into the gravy of his steak and kidney pudding and watched the entrance to the British Museum across the street. The great edifice was dark, the building closed to the public for over three hours. The employees had gone home, the charwomen had finished their cleaning, and the high iron gates were locked behind them. The courtyard was empty and, outside the gates, there were fewer people on the street now than an hour ago. He felt no sense of urgency: only keen anticipation, which he savoured as he took another draught of London Pride. He had spent most of the afternoon in the museum, once more marking the doors and exits, the blind spots, the rooms where a person might hide and remain unseen by the night watchmen, of which there were but three to cover the entire acreage of the sprawling institution.

- – – – -

Choice E The Button Girl by Sally Apokedak (unpublished manuscript), 20% of the vote.

The lantern, dangling from Repentance Atwater’s upstretched hand, cast a pool of yellow light around the village midwife, as she stooped beside Joy Springside’s sleeping mat. The rest of the cave lay in darkness.

“Push, now, Joy!” the midwife commanded.

Joy, her face scrunched with the effort, pushed.

The baby came finally, all purple-skinned and slick with blood and screaming his protest at the world.

Screaming his protest.

A boy!

It wasn’t fair! Lantern light splashed up and down the walls as Repentance’s hand shook.

She grimaced, as the babe’s squalling bounced off hard stone walls and bruised her raw nerves. She should never have agreed to this.

- – – – -

Choice F Pattern Of Wounds by J. Mark Bertrand (Bethany House), 12% of the vote.

A uniform named Nguyen is on the tape tonight. The flashing lights bounce off the reflective strips on his slicker. He cocks his head at my ID and gives me a sideways smile.

“Detective March,” he says, adding my name to his log.

“I know you, don’t I? You worked the Thomson scene last year.”

“That was me.”

“Good work, if I remember. You got a line on this one yet?”

“I haven’t even been inside.” He nods at the house over his shoulder. A faux Tuscan villa on Brompton in West University, just a couple of blocks away from the Rice village. “Nice, huh? Not the first place I’d expect to be called out to.”

“You think death cares where you live?”

“I guess not. Answer me one thing: why the monkey suit?”

- – – – -

So what I’m wondering … after seeing the book covers and learning who the authors are, would you change your vote?

Something to think about.

* Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.

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