CSFF Blog Tour – The First Principle, Day 3

Marissa Shrock with First Principle.image The CSFF Blog Tour wraps up the September jaunt from one participating site to another, all focused on the debut novel by author Marissa Shrock entitled The First Principle. The story is a dystopian fantasy aimed at young adult (twelve to eighteen) readers.

It takes place in a future world after the Great Collapse and the Second Civil War. Because of the unrest in North America, the Council of World Peacekeepers stepped in and created the United Regions of North America, consisting of seven regions which incorporated what had been Canada, the US, and Mexico.

The protagonist is sixteen-year-old Vivica Wilkins, daughter of the governor of the Great Lakes Region.

And now, a closer look at this novel.

A Review

The Story. Vivica is part of the elite class, the ruling class, and as such enjoys privilege. In addition she’s bright, has mad hacking skills which she uses to create a little side business changing student grades, and just recently broke up with her boyfriend, Ben. Not her choice.

She wants to be over him, thinks she is, but can’t help noticing that he’s been hanging with Meredith Alderton—the very girl Officer Martina Ward from Population Management wants to talk to. Meredith refuses to go with her, so Officer Ward publicly accuses her of being pregnant, a crime which mandates termination under the Posterity Protection and Self-Determination Act.

When Meredith tries to run from the room, Officer Ward shoots her with a tranquilizer gun. The incident creates a stir among the students, and they press their history teacher to discuss the termination law, why it came into being, and why it still exists.

Days later, one of the students who protested the law the loudest has disappeared and the teacher has been fired.

Vivica’s mother is in line to be named the next President because the current President is about to retire. Shortly before the Governor’s Ball, Vivica discovers she’s pregnant. She doesn’t immediately tell her mother, and in fact covers up the fact by using her hacker skills when she’s called in for the mandatory pregnancy test.

Vivica, her mother, and their entourage travel to the Capitol where the announcement will be made that Governor Wilkins has been selected to succeed President Hernandez, but as she’s introduced to the crowd, an assassin opens fire. The President is killed and Vivica’s mother, wounded. Vivica herself is not hurt.

The Vice President assumes control of the government and declares the assassination to be the work of rebels—those throughout the United Regions who chafe against laws such as the one which mandates pregnancy vaccines, enforced pregnancy termination, and others which oppress people and keep the poor in their place.

Vivica is convinced that her old boyfriend, Ben, who gave her a copy of the illegal Bible, is a member of the rebels. She wants to warn him, but ends up telling him she is pregnant—and he is the father. He wants her to keep the baby. Vivica struggles to decide what to do. If she leaves and goes into hiding so she can have the baby, she will most likely destroy her mother’s chances of becoming President. And does she want to give up her life just when she might have a chance to influence more young people?

The decision seems to be made for her, however, when her mother calls her into her study and asks her if she’s pregnant. She tries to cover up the truth, but her mother knows somehow. And now Vivica is certain she wants to protect her unborn child.

Can she? That and many other intriguing twists and turns make up the bulk of the story. Telling you any more would certainly be to spoil it.

What Did I Think. The First Principle has much more action and intrigue than I expected. I wasn’t expecting people to die. It is a dystopian story, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Certainly the level of violence increased the stakes.

The world was believably futuristic, though I thought there were some places that could have used a bit more inventiveness. I thought in light of the retina scans, self-propelled vehicles and such, there would be further advances in things like music and make-up and air travel. There was appropriate slang terminology, and nothing distracting. In short, for the most part the world felt as if it was the kind of place our world could become, given the current trends.

Vivica and her friends acted remarkably like sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. The author, Marissa Shrock, is a language arts middle school teacher, and her familiarity with teens shows. At times I would have liked to see the protagonist act out her emotions more. Generally we’re told how she feels. For example, her body guard is killed protecting her mother, but Viv shows very little grief despite the fact that this man was someone she clearly liked and was with every day.

The story was unpredictable and action packed. I didn’t know from one moment to the other what would happen. There was intrigue, romance, danger, betrayal, kindness, faith, courage—all on display through the twists and turns the plot took.

The themes about liberty and protecting new life and faith in Jesus Christ were naturally woven into the fabric of the story. These are powerful and thought-provoking especially in light of the SCOTUS ruling on same sex-marriage and the undercover Planned Parenthood videos.

All in all, The First Principle is a quality book. I’m so glad CSFF featured it this month. It was through their partnership with Kregel Publications that I received a review copy. I’m happy to say, unreservedly and without any agreement to write a review promoting it, I highly recommend this novel to teens and to parents of teens and to any readers who love dystopian stories.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out what the other participants in the tour have said.

CSFF Blog Tour – The First Principle, Day 2

united-states-constitution-we-the-peopleThe First Principle by Marissa Shrock, this month’s CSFF feature, is a young adult novel, but its themes are quite adult.

In some ways, this is a warning, and in others it’s a recommendation. Warning: parents would be wise to discuss this book with younger teens. I taught 7th and 8th graders for years, and I know that as a group they are not naive. They’re aware of what’s happening in the world—movies and television almost insure that this is so.

But at the same time, they may not have thought through how their own life or the lives of those they care about might be affected by their choices. They might not have thought about what a loss of freedom of religion and freedom of speech would mean for their own lives. They might not have come to grips with what living under an autocratic government might mean.

In other words, this novel can serve as a wake up call, if parents choose to use it in this way by discussing some of the big issues the book raises. Younger readers would certainly benefit from the help of their parents as they process these themes.

Because the book does deal candidly with things like disobeying governmental laws that are wrong, adults can also benefit by reading this book and applying it to the circumstances in which we live today.

We saw so recently the flood of protest aimed at the Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis for allowing her religious beliefs to affect her compliance to a court order in regard to doing her job. Some Christians lined up with the general public to throw verbal stones at her, saying that the only way she could exercise her freedom of religion was to quit her job.

But The First Principle raises the question about complying with a law mandating abortion. Do people of faith have the freedom of their beliefs to resist such a law? And if those rights are trampled upon by the government, should Christians fight the government or comply?

In the novel, the underground movement, largely involving Christians, determines to lead a revolution. Is this where our religious beliefs should take us?

These are questions adults should think about, not just teens. Here’s a Prager University video entitled “Why We’re Losing Liberty” which gives more food for thought.

Of course, the ultimate arbiter of our actions should be God’s word and His Holy Spirit. In the case of Kim Davis and the court mandate to issue marriage licenses, including to homosexual applicants, Christians on both sides quoted Scripture which seemed to conflict, such as render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, on one hand, and we ought to obey God rather than man, on the other. How is a Christian to resolve what the Bible says when it seems to offer contradictory principles?

Then too, how do we reconcile our religious beliefs with government mandates that contradict those beliefs? In The First Principle, the word of God itself came under attack by the government and the belief that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life became branded as exclusivist and therefore hate speech.

Is this where America is headed? And how are Christians to respond?

Indeed, The First Principle raised issues that adults need to think about.

See what other members of the tour have to say about this book and the ideas it raises. You’ll find the list of participants and links to the articles I’ve read at the end of the Day 1 post.

CSFF Blog Tour – The First Principle, Day 1

cover_TheFirstPrincipleThis month the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring The First Principle by Marissa Shrock, a young adult novel produced by Kregel Publications.

Within the first few pages, it’s apparent that this book is another futuristic dystopian story, but there’s a twist. Instead of being in a group of outsiders, oppressed by the authoritative government, the protagonist, Vivica Wilkins, is the daughter of one of the ruling class. She’s been schooled in The Way Things Work, and knows what to expect. Why, then, is she bothered when Population Management tries to do their job?

This slim book (235 pages) packs a mighty punch, confronting relevant issues of our day. After all, seed for autocratic rule that makes a futuristic dystopian world possible, is sown decades before the fact.

Two things are clear from the start: only a state approved version of sacred texts is allowed, so Christians have to hide their Bibles and worship in secret; and birth is “managed” by the state, either through birth control, or in the event of a “problem,” through abortion.

Clearly, more than the seeds of the kind of state-controlled birth management revealed in the book are in place today. With Planned Parenthood receiving tax dollars to provide health services to women, including abortions, our government is already complicit in the deaths of millions of unborn babies.

Should our government now turn a blind eye to the selling of infant body parts, we will move further down the road of autocratic control, and ultimately of mandated abortion. So, yes, Marissa Shrock has exposed a pivotal and relevant issue, not simply in an imagined future world, but in our society today.

Other CSFF members participating in the blog tour for The First Principle include the following (check marks link to articles I’ve read):

Julie Bihn
Thomas Clayton Booher
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
April Erwin
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Megan @ Hardcover Feedback
Joan Nienhuis
Jalynn Patterson
Chawna Schroeder
Jessica Thomas
Shane Werlinger

CSFF Blog Tour-Storm Siren, Day 3

Mary Weber's web site background pic

Steampunk, classic fantasy, superhero fantasy, a fantasy mash up; a slow start, a terrific plot, a surprising twist, a devastating ending—thoughts and opinions abound when it comes to Storm Siren by Mary Weber. And so they should. This book isn’t your run-of-the-mill fantasy or your ho-hum-been-there-done-that young adult novel.

My Review

The Story

Nym is unique—a female Elemental. Her power is over the weather, except it seems more like it’s over her since she can’t control the storms she calls up or the lightning strikes she detonates.

As a slave she also has no control over who owns her or what they’ll want her to do. Until Adora buys her. Now she has a choice—learn to use her powers to help the country of Faelen in their war against Bron, a nation with superior forces and weapons, or die for her crimes.

Choosing what seems to be the lesser of two evils, Nym enters into training with another Elemental. Soon she’s caught up in court intrigue and discovers those who surround her aren’t what they appear to be.

As her abilities progress, the need for her to use them to save Faelen grows urgent. But the question surfaces—is Faelen worth saving?

Now she has a choice to make again, and it’s complicated because of the feelings she’s developing—and struggling against—for her trainer, Eogan.


I think the greatest strength of Storm Siren is Nym’s voice. She is brash and quirky, a bit unafraid, maybe a little fatalistic, but much of the attitude is a cover up for the fear she feels. Not fear for herself, but of herself. She knows she can wreak havoc and she doesn’t want to kill any more undeserving people.

Imagine her turmoil, then, when she’s bought to do just that to a whole army.

Another strength of this novel is the plot twists, the intrigue, the unexpected. It’s hard to know who to side with, what to hope Nym will do because her path is anything but clear.

Another strength is the way Ms. Weber weaves in the backstory through the use of a minstrel’s song, later repeated and expanded during one of Adora’s parties. I suspect much of the Christian worldview comes through in that song.

“The Monster and the Sea of Elisedd’s Sadness” tells the story of Faelen’s foolish king who made a deal with the devil—well, with a monster. In order secure a peace treaty, he agreed to kill the Elementals. Here’s the key section:

” ‘Twas the night compassion forsoooooook us.” He’s singing, referring to the night an agreement was struck between Faelen’s past king and the great, flesh-eating Draewulf. The price of which had been Faelen’s children. “And the big sea, she roared and spit up her foam at the shape-shifter’s trickery and our fooooooolish king.”

I swallow and feel my amusement over how much he’s enjoying himself catch in my throat at what I know comes next.

“The ocean, she’s begging for our salvation. Begging for blood that will set our children free.”

And for a moment I swear I can feel the sea waves calling, begging my blood to set us all free.

Salvation? Blood? Those are certainly Christian images, but Nym is no Christ figure. So how much of the Christian worldview is in this story? Hard to say. Of course, when I say “story” I mean then series in its entirety. At this point, I see hints and suggestions: a great evil that destroys and lies and possesses, one that has been invited in, not declared the enemy he actually is. A people robbed of their children who ought to be their hope and salvation. And blood needed to set them all free.

That’s pretty much the way the world looks to a Christian, but these elements of the Christian worldview operate in the background of the story—at least this first installment of the story. That’s also a strength, I think.


The opening scene is captivating. Nym is intriguing, sassy—a female protagonist who appears to be strong minded though clearly something troubles her. From that point, however, the story slows down for reasons I addressed in my Day 2 post.

I’d like to see Nym take a more proactive approach to her life and situation. I would have been more emotionally invested in her plight, I think, if I’d seen her make plans and try to better her situation rather than accept whatever was thrown her way.


I cared about Nym, but from a distance. I thought the action and intrigue drove the story. I liked the romance and wanted Nym to learn to trust. I wanted her to learn control, too, and I wanted her to be a hero.

All in all, I think readers who like fantasy, who like superhero type stories, who appreciate a well crafted novel, will be fans of Mary Weber and the series Storm Siren kicks off. They’ll be especially happy to learn that book two, Siren’s Fury, releases in June. Now’s the time to get on board with the first in the series.

You might also be interested in connecting with Mary Weber on Facebook or at her web site where I’m sure you can learn where else she hangs out.

Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 7:06 pm  Comments Off on CSFF Blog Tour-Storm Siren, Day 3  
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CSFF Blog Tour-Storm Siren, Day 2

cover_StormSirenOne good thing about a blog tour is that you get to compare what different readers think about the same book. This includes views about the writing, the story, the issues engendered, the genre, the characters, the pacing—whatever the bloggers wish to discuss.

A good tour also isn’t a rah-rah club. The participants will give genuine, honest reactions, so there will be positives and negatives. The current CSFF tour for Storm Siren by Mary Weber is no different. Here are some of the observations I’ve made half way through the tour.

First, I’d say there’s a consensus that this book is well written. There seems to be a split decision about the ending, however, and an equal mix concerning the level of darkness in the story. A fourth issue many participants in the tour mentioned was a dynamic opening scene followed by a slow section.

This pacing problem is one I’d like to address because I think it’s all too common and something I think is fairly easy to fix. Here’s how one CSFF blogger described the problem:

After an intense opening sequence, Storm Siren settled into a long, relatively quiet interval that built up the characters and their world, with all its dangers. The shift surprised me, but it didn’t dismay me. I’m not as hyped for action as some readers are; I like the building and the exploring. I like introspection, I love characters, and more to the point, I liked Mary Weber’s characters.

And yet I reached a point, reading this novel, where I was just waiting for something to change. (Shannon McDermott)

Others mentioned putting the book aside for a time or reaching a point where the pace picked up. The point is, there does seem to be bit of a lull. Some seemed to think this was a necessary aspect of the book—all the world-building and character-introduction pieces needed to be put in place.

I used to think that a natural lull was part of telling a story. After all, readers need to know who is who and where the characters are, what the places are like, and what’s at stake. While we’re learning all these things, it’s hard to keep the story moving forward.

But here’s the crux of the issue and why I believe the fix isn’t all that hard. All the world-building and character introduction can take as long as they need to with one proviso: the main character needs to have a goal to acquire what she needs or to fix the problem at issue. As long as she’s working toward something, readers will be patient as things unfold because they want to know if her plans succeed or not.

In Storm Siren, the story opens with the protagonist, a teenage girl named Nym, on the slave auction block. One thing that pops out is how feisty this girl is, how easily she reads what others are thinking, and even how much she wants to shield those weaker than she.

She’s interesting—a cross between a vulnerable young girl (she is a slave after all, and one who has been sold fourteen times in eleven years) and a strong, even cocky, resilient, nonchalant character who can handle anything, epitomized in this bit of internal monologue:

Eleven years of repeatedly being sold, and it’s sad, really, how familiar I’ve become with this conversation. Today, if Brea has her way, I will meet my fifteenth, which I suppose should actually bother me. But it doesn’t.

So there’s the issue: what is it that bothers Nym? Readers learn there are a few things, most notably her own anger which triggers uncontrollable destruction. But here’s the problem: Nym doesn’t have a plan to change or better her circumstances or to overcome the unfairness or escape. She’s not trying to enlist allies or work to improve her lot. Rather, she pretty much lets things happen. When things are bad, she toughs them out as best she can and when things are good, she proceeds with caution. But she doesn’t make any plan to overcome.

It’s this “go along” attitude, this lack of initiative, that reduces tension and thus slows the pace. As a reader I was not dragged forward by my desire to know if her plan would succeed because she didn’t have a plan and wasn’t working toward anything. Rather, things were, or were not, happening to her, or around her, or to her friends.

I found these things interesting, but I wasn’t emotionally invested until Nym had a goal and seized on something she believed she needed to do. At that point, the pace of the story picked up.

And now, I encourage you to read some of the excellent posts by CSFF Tour participants who are writing about Storm Siren. Steve Trower, who participates in the tour though he can seldom get books across the pond, wrote an especially funny post based on what he found out about the book on the Internet.

Chawna Schroeder, who is often a tough reviewer, wrote part 1 of her analysis and praised the craft by saying, “Storm Siren provides a phenomenal story with a strong driving plot and unpredictable characters.”

Joan Nienhuis looked at the various elements of the story and observed that there is more going on than winning a war between two countries: “The war is somewhat twofold. One aspect of it is for Nymia’s soul. Will she ever be healed of the pain and horror of what she did as a child?”

Good, thought-provoking reactions to Storm Siren. Be sure to see what others had to say in their posts. The list is at the bottom of the Day 1 post.

CSFF Blog Tour-Storm Siren, Day 1

mary-weberThis month the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring Storm Siren by Mary Weber. Although the publisher doesn’t list this book as geared toward a young adult audience, the Library Journal review labeled it as appropriate for grade 8 and up.

I also haven’t seen any genre label other than fantasy. It’s not dystopian or post-apocalyptic, it’s not fairy tale fantasy or urban fantasy, and it’s not really epic fantasy either. It dawned on me somewhere in the middle of the book that it’s more nearly like a superhero story—a fantasy style X-Men, but without the comic book feel.

There are a number of similarities, at least on the surface. Though I’m fairly ignorant of the X-Men stories, I noted that there’s persecution of the “mutants,” there’s a place where these people with superpowers—in Mary Weber’s world, called Elementals—are being trained so they learn how to control their powers, and there’s a powerful Elemental with borderline telepathic ability who can manipulate others to a degree.

But this story is still a fantasy, so the world has a medieval feel, though there’s the introduction of some weapons technology that plays a key part in the plot. In other words, Storm Siren is a unique blend of superhero and fantasy genres.

sirens-fury-coverThe book has been out since August 2014, and during this time it has garnered considerable attention. There are reviews and author interviews all over the web.

Happily, book two in this series, Siren’s Fury, is scheduled for release in June, so the CSFF Blog Tour comes at a great time to draw attention once again to Mary Weber and to her debut novel.

Recently Weber wrote a guest post for Speculative Faith, sharing a little about the inspiration for her characters and a bit more about her life apart from writing.

The tour is well underway, so I invite you to stop by the blogs of these CSFF participants and see what all they have to say about Storm Siren. As usual, a check mark links to a tour post. You might especially be interested in Julie Bihn‘s comments on costumes and the ending of this first installment in the series or Phyllis Wheeler‘s remarks after reading the book a second time.

The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3

thefataltree_coverAnd so, with the turn of the final page of The Fatal Tree, the Bright Empires series, the five-book epic Christian science fantasy by Stephen Lawhead, has come to an end. It’s hard for me to put into words the last installment of such an ambitious project. Part of me wants to give a series review, but I’m inadequate to do so since I read the five books as they released. What details have I forgotten?

And yet, merely reviewing The Fatal Tree feels inadequate. I wouldn’t expect anyone to start with this book, so a review of it as if it were a stand alone seems disingenuous. I think the best way to approach this daunting assignment is for me to give my random thoughts . . . randomly, as opposed to writing a formal review.

With that decided, here goes.

The Fatal Tree continues the story where The Shadow Lamp left off. The ley travelers suspect something serious has happened in the omniverse to upset the way things work. In fact, they believe that in all probability, an anomaly has taken place which has caused the omniverse to slow, leading ultimately to contraction, or the complete destruction of everything.

The main character, Kit, thinks he knows what this anomaly is—an event he witnessed at the Spirit Well. The problem is that a giant yew tree is growing over the place that would give him and his fellow questers access to the Well. Their job is to find a way to the Well and reverse the event in hope that they will also reverse contraction. The yew tree, however, emits huge amounts of energy, enough to kill anyone who touches it.

Some bloggers have mentioned that the quest for the Spirit Well is a shift from the original series quest—to find the Skin Map. The shift took place in book three, however, so from my perspective it would be odd to once again take up the search for the Skin Map. In The Spirit Well the focus becomes the object to which the map led and not the map itself. That Kit found the Well, saw it, and believes he can lead others to it, is a game changer. But problems of one kind or another continue to block him and the others.

Some bloggers also felt as if the high stakes didn’t ring true. I’d have to agree with this thought. The fact that I’m reading a book about the possibility of the end of everything obviously means (were it true and not fiction—a sensation novelists try to create) that the questers were successful which reduces the tension of the story.

Some CSFF tour participants felt the characters weren’t particularly deep or developed. I didn’t think so. Rather, I thought some of the minor characters like Lady Fayth made great changes; others showed their true colors more clearly; several relationships were furthered; but most importantly, an unlikely character changed and an unlikely character took heroic action.

I have to think that Mr. Lawhead’s use of the omniscient point of view may have been the reason some readers didn’t feel the story showed great character development. Without a doubt, it is a writing technique that doesn’t bring readers as close as first person or even close third person.

I was probably more aware of the omniscient voice in The Fatal Tree than I had been in the previous books. With this book wrapping up the many strands of an epic tale, omniscient voice may have been the only way to move from one set of characters in various locations and times to another. Perhaps all the movement drew more attention to the voice, however.

I did wonder from time to time if all the characters and all the movement were necessary. For instance, a good amount of time was spent on one character looking for another. When at last the connection was made, nothing came of it—that is, the encounter ended quickly and badly, and the questers were no closer to finding a way to the Spirit Well.

Along that line, there seemed to be a couple threads for which I saw no purpose. For example, at one point Mina, in trying to reach a certain spot by traveling along the ever less-stable ley lines, landed in a blizzard—with the Burly men’s wild cat. The animal ends up running off, dragging its chain, and nothing is heard about it again. At the same time, Mina sees a pool that doesn’t freeze over, though everything else is ice and snow. She steps into it and is transported to a different place and time.

A pool, I think. And they are looking for the Spirit Well. Might this be connected? A prehistoric version of what they’re looking for? Or a form of it before the yew tree grew? We never visited that pool again, and it didn’t have any apparent connection with the over all quest.

Another subplot had to do with one of Arthur Flinders-Petrie’s descendants, Douglas. He had stolen a book which was supposed to be important in the quest for the Skin Map. The book never factors into the resolution and Douglas has little to do with the main plot line.

In the same way the secret ley travelers organization, the Zetetic Society, which seemed so important in The Shadow Lamp, fades in importance in The Fatal Tree, receiving only a mention from time to time.

All this to say, I liked this final book of the series better for paring down the cast to the most significant characters. And still there was, what felt like to me, an utterly useless thread with Tony Carter and the scientists back in the US who were trying to corroborate that the omniverse was indeed about to contract. These scenes felt by and large, superfluous to me though I understand some found them of great interest and thought they gave the book a greater science fiction feel.

Well, yes, probably. Since I’m not a big science fiction reader, you can see why I felt those sections could have been left out!

I could go on. There’s so much to say about this book, and I haven’t touched upon the key theme—in fact, I don’t recall any of the tour participants discussing this theme either, which is a little disturbing.

Here’s the end before the Epilogue and the author essay in which this theme comes forward again:

“It looks like we’re just in time,” observed Cass, tapping the pewter carapace [of the Shadow Lamp].

“You know there’s no such thing as coincidence,” Kit replied lightly. “Right?”

“Yeah, right,” said Cass. “Let’s go home.”

No such thing as coincidence is a repeated phrase in this book, and it’s not by coincidence! ;-)

This book also contained the greatest spiritual content of the five, and yet it left me wondering. What I had taken in earlier books to be symbols of new birth or of redemption were not. What they were, I’d like to think about some more. And I’d like to understand better what actually happened in the climax. I’ll be re-reading that chapter, most certainly.

All in all, I highly recommend the Bright Empires series to readers who love epic stories and appreciate the writing style made possible by the omniscient voice—Mr. Lawhead has full command of the language and is able to provide rich description of the varied places and eras about which he writes. This series is a unique blend of speculative and historical fiction. Readers who enjoy either genre or both will be swept up in the expansive tale.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a gratis copy of The Fatal Tree so that I could write my thoughts about the book in this post.

The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2

Bright Empires posterStephen Lawhead aimed big when he began the Bright Empire series, a five-book epic Christian speculative story which concludes with The Fatal Tree, this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature. In fact, you might say the series is cosmic in scope, incorporating omniverse theory, philosophy, and theology into his fascinating tale of ley lines travel.

And still, characters rule—the good and the bad. In Day 1 I took a peek at my favorite character, Mina Klug. Today I want to zero in on my least favorite—Archelaeus Burleigh, Earl of Sutherland and story antagonist.

In Book 4, The Shadow Lamp, Burleigh seems at last to reap what he has sown, and I experienced a sense of justice and a bit of relief that now at last the questers could move freely as they sought to set to right the events that threaten the entire cosmos.

How wrong I was, given the nature of ley line travel. Not only do people using ley lines move from place to place, they move from time to time within those places. Hence, Kit and Mina and Cass can come face to face with Burleigh and his gang of thugs at points before their capture.

More interesting to me than this suspenseful twist in the story, is the unexpected thread in The Fatal Tree expanding on Burleigh himself. While he was free, he operated like a selfish, mean-spirited bully, taking what he wanted, manipulating others for his purposes. He was cruel for his own pleasure, impulsive, scheming—a thoroughly evil villain.

But when he lands in the dungeon, when he’s forced into solitary confinement, he suddenly has more time than he wants for contemplation, and his inner life comes alive. His encounter with the character I most admire in the Bright Empires, the baker Engelbert Stiffelbeam, provides the contrast to his life that ignites reflection.

What fascinates me so much is the similarity between Burleigh’s position and that voiced by a number of atheists I’ve encountered in recent online conversations. Here’s an excerpt from The Fatal Tree revealing the character’s thoughts:

[Burleigh] had an epiphany: Engelbert Stiffelbeam was not the problem—it was his Jesus. Why should this be? Burleigh wondered. What difference did it make to Burleigh what the big oaf believed?

The Grand Imperial’s chief baker might also believe in pink-spotted green leprechauns for all he knew; people believed a multitude of ridiculous things up to and including the existence of mermaids, unicorns, and fire-breathing dragons. But those deluded beliefs did not inspire in him the same visceral disgust. And just like the imaginary unicorns that haunted the dells and hidden glades of folklore, Jesus was merely an irrelevant nonsense. The brutal indifference of the world proved that much beyond doubt; and Jesus, God’s insipid Son, was a phantom, a figment, a myth. In actual fact, the whole of religion everywhere, so far as Burleigh could discern, was a rag-tag bundle of superstition and make-believe: wholesale foolishness concocted by lunatics, peddled by charlatans, and swallowed by the ignorant benighted masses.

Burleigh had always held that organized religion amounted to a kind of madness, a collective insanity embraced by the weak and powerless because it allowed them some small degree of comfort, a grain of solace in the face of the harsh reality that their lives were meaningless, existence had no purpose, and there was no good, wise, all-knowing God looking out for them. The naked truth was that existence had no significance beyond the random shuttling of mindless forces that had produced a blob of sentient matter that was here one day and gone the next. (p 147, emphasis added)

Burleigh voices the same attitudes as ones I’ve encountered from contemporary atheists:
* Jesus is a myth
* religion is a form of superstition
* morons came up with the idea of religion
* frauds and deceivers push religion on people
* the masses swallow religion because they’re stupid
* the truth is, life is meaningless
* there is no kind, all-knowing God
* life came about by chance
* a person is here today, and gone tomorrow, the end

I can’t help but wonder if atheists today were to have an encounter with someone like Engelbert Stiffelbeam, who forgave because Jesus had forgiven him, who gave because Jesus had given to him, and if those atheists would reflect on their lives as Burleigh was forced to do, would they re-evaluate their position?

There’s no formula for a person changing their belief system, certainly. God has used far less than the acts of kindness Engelbert Stiffelbeam performed for his enemy, and such acts do not insure a positive change of heart, as Burleigh proves.

But what if? Isn’t it the Christian’s place to be Engelbert Stiffelbeam to the Burleigh in our lives?

And now, see what others on the CSFF Blog Tour are saying about The Fatal Tree by clicking on the links provided in the Day 1 post.

You might especially be interested in seeing Julie Bihn sporting Skin Map-like tats as the Illustrated Woman, or in reading a review by Audrey Sauble or Rachel Starr Thomson or Rebekah Loper. Then there is the always thoughtful Calvinist perspective offered by Thomas Clayton Booher.

The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1

thefataltree_cover The Fatal Tree, this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, brings to a close Stephen Lawhead‘s intriguing Bright Empires series, a science fantasy centered on ley line travel—similar to, but not the same as, time travel.

The series is a cosmic undertaking with cosmic implications. And still, I’m struck by how important character is, especially to my interest in the story.

My favorite character—though not the one I most admire—is Wilhelmina Klug, most often known by her nickname, Mina. In book one of the series, The Skin Map, she started as my least favorite. She seemed mean-spirited, needy, demanding, a bit cynical. As it turned out, she didn’t thrive in her own time period, but given a change of circumstances, her innate abilities began to surface.

As The Fatal Tree opens, Mina is capable, resourceful, take-charge, clever—the definition of a strong heroine. Her change during the four previous books, enforced on her by her circumstances, is believable and even inspiring.

It also raises a question: can someone be born in the wrong era? Of course, I don’t really believe this because that would suggest God made a mistake. He doesn’t. But perhaps our temperament might be better suited to a situation different from the one in which we live.

For example, I think of a young woman named Katie Davis who was living in Tennessee, attending high school and doing typical high school things—she was homecoming queen, went shopping at the mall with her friends on the weekend, had a boyfriend. But when she took a three week mission trip to an orphanage in Uganda, she found her niche.

In the next seven years she moved to Uganda, adopted thirteen girls, and started her own mission organization, Amazima Ministries. Apparently she “belongs” to a different place and time from the one in which she was born.

Mina is like that. In contemporary London, where she was working, where she and Kit Livingstone, the other protagonist of the Bright Empires series, had a serious relationship, she was stifled. Transported to nineteenth century Prague, she thrives.

And still, she’s not the character I most admire. But I’ll save that for another day. Now I suggest you jump over to Meagan @ Blooming with Books’ first tour post to read a wonderful, concise summary of the previous books.

Afterward start the tour! Check out what the other CSFF tour participants have to say about The Fatal Tree and the Bright Empires series. Keep your eyes open for Skin Map-like tattoos which may abound. Stop back here and report any you happen to spot.

Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


Rebels by Jill Williamson – The Review

Of necessity the following will contain some spoilers, though I will make every effort to keep them to a minimum.

Also, in conjunction with CSFF, I received a free review copy of Rebels from the publisher. This review is in no way influenced by that fact.

The Story. At the end of Outcasts, brothers Mason and Omar have been captured after their rescue operation. They’ve been slated for liberation, whatever that is. No one seems to know.

The rest of the Glenrock community under Levi’s leadership is now free—free to live underground with the Kindred, a group of people who have built a separate culture apart from the rebels and from the Safe Landers and who want nothing to do with outsiders. At least that’s the attitude of some, including the Kindred’s matriarch.

Levi’s next goal is to free the women of Jack’s Peak, their neighboring village, being held in the Safe Land harem where they are to act as surrogates. Once all the people from the villages are together, he wants to find a way out of the Safe Lands.

Meanwhile, Omar and Mason go through the liberation procedure and end up in the Lowlands with all the other liberated people—strikers, who received three x’s for crimes they committed, and everyone over forty, including the older citizens of Glenrock and Jack’s Peak.

Here everyone is assigned to heavy tasks which produce all the food and drugs and other commerce for those in the Highlands and Midlands. In essence they are in a penal colony.

Mason and Omar must first survive in the brutal prison environment, but they are as determined as ever to find a way to reunite their people and leave. But how? There is no way to communicate with the others to let them know they are alive.

Strengths. The list here is long. The series as a unit had incredible coherence—what was true in one book was true in the next and the next. A bit of backstory in one book becomes the central motivation of a character in the final book.

The parts all fit. This was especially impressive to me because I had so many questions at the end of Outcasts and saw no way they would all be answered in one more volume: who were the hooded, secret guild members, what was liberation, what would happen between Omar and Shaylinn, between Mason and Ciddah, would Mason find a cure for the thin plague, would Omar stay in the Safe Lands if everyone else found a way out? Questions, questions, questions. How could all these moving parts fit together and be resolved in one more book? Jill did a remarkable job to make it happen.

Further, the characters continued to develop and grow—even Levi. More than one CSFF tour participant has commented on how much they didn’t like Levi.

I never felt animosity toward him. He was the one who had to deal with the dead bodies of the men who had cared for him and mentored him and served as examples for him. Besides, Jemma loved him.

True, at first he didn’t do well as the elder of his people. He brought the same bullying tactics to the job as his father had used, but he learned. His change is most clearly shown by his agreeing to act as the Owl in Omar’s absence and his admission later to Omar himself that the subversive, secret message bearer of truth was a good idea.

Omar, of course, changed the most, but Shay grew up and learned to accept herself, even stand up for herself when she needed to.

Mason grew too, most clearly seen in his admission that he’d been arrogant to think he could find a cure for the plague on his own. In many respects, the Safe Lands were good for Mason because he finally got to use the abilities he had and to live the way he thought was right. He still had challenges, though, and found himself more dependent on God’s mercy at times than he ever had been before.

In short, all the characters grew and changed. But what’s more, they each seemed so real. As tour participant Meagan said, “I will miss them all and hope that at some point in the future we may revisit this land as they recreate what they once had.”

That’s one of the highest compliments an author can get, I think, because truly these characters became so real, they seem to be out there somewhere, living their lives, and it would be great to be able to “catch up.”

The story itself was full of intrigue and conflict and danger and suspense. But one thing I noticed. Through it all, there were partial successes and reasons for joy—the liberation of the Jack’s Peak women, the birth of Shaylinn’s babies, Mason getting to task in the medical facility, and the brothers finding their mom. The moments of hope offered a counterbalance to all the fear and loss and oppression, so the story had a great rhythm, not a monochromatic note of despair until the end.

I also thought the story shouted through the action and events which worldview is strongest and best, though clearly there wasn’t a black and white choice (how’s that for a bit of confusion—can’t say more without giving too much away). In the process, some of the hardest issues teens face today were addressed—suicide, drug addiction, illicit sex, friendship and betrayal, forgiveness, lust, guilt, and more.

But adults weren’t left alone either. The truth reveals that Levi’s dad abused his wife, and Levi’s bullying and Jordan’s anger are clearly shown as counter-productive. As Levi changes, another legalistic figure moves to the forefront—Tovah, matriarch of the Kindred. Except, as much as it’s tempting to hate her for how she treats the outsiders and how she tries to fence in her boys, she’s the one who steps in to help Shaylinn when she needs it most.

In short, no one is a caricature, not even Lawton, who does much of the evil he does out of a sense of self-preservation.

Weaknesses. The book isn’t perfect—I don’t think too many are. ;-) But the minor things I might quibble over aren’t worth detracting from the high quality of this story. OK, here’s an example. As Levi made his plans to escape the Safe Lands and return to Glenrock, I wanted to shake him—don’t you realize, they’ll just come and get you again? You couldn’t stop them the first time. What makes you think you can ever go back to your village and continue to live in such close proximity of the Safe Lands again?

See? Not a real issue because . . . well, because of what happened instead. :-D

Recommendation. The Safe Lands series is a must read for teens, for adults with teens, for Christian writers who want to see how to write believable fiction with a subtle Christian message that isn’t preachy, and for readers who enjoy a good story. (Yes, I’m a fan!)


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