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 Bone House by Stephen Lawhead, Day 3


The Bone House, Book 2 of the Bright Empires series, a science-fantasy for adults by Stephen Lawhead (Thomas Nelson), is the CSFF Blog Tour October feature. Today I have the privilege of giving my review.

First, a number of participants have already reviewed and discussed aspects of Mr. Lawhead’s latest. One post of special note is Jeff Chapman‘s excellent look at the historical underpinnings of this novel. I’d also highly recommend Shannon McDermott‘s look at Christian elements in the story. Finally, stop by new member Katie McCurdy‘s site and read her take on The Bone House.

And now my review.

The Story. I sort of want to say, Your guess is as good as mine. The Bright Empires series is an epic story, and each of the books builds on the previous one without wrapping anything up at its end. Consequently, the wisest move a reader could make would be to begin at the beginning with The Skin Map.

Without missing a beat, The Bone House picks up the story where the first volume left off — with the exception that new characters are now inserted. How exactly they fit into the over all plot is somewhat of a mystery. But a couple things seem to unify all the various characters — they have knowledge of the ley lines, areas of magnetic energy, which allow them to move across time and space into alternate realities, and they are concerned with the map, once tatooed onto the torso of an Arthur Flinders-Petrie, that apparently brings order to the space-time dimensional chaos.

In the simplest terms, the main character is Kit Livingston who has determined to complete the mission his grandfather started — to find the Skin Map. For reasons not yet clear, Lord Archelaeus Burleigh also wants the map and will take whatever ruthless action he needs to in order to procure it.

The story, however, is anything but simple, because Arthur himself appears in an earlier time, with his wife and then his son. In fact his grandson, or perhaps his great grandson, Douglas is the first point-of-view character, and he maintains a thread throughout.

In addition, Kit’s greatest ally, his one-time fiance Mina, plays the most heroic role of all, but Kit finds help from any number of others — some by design like Dr. Thomas Young, and some by apparent happenstance like Big Hunter.

In the end, however, Kit ends up virtually alone and lost, except he’s found what everyone is looking for, what the Skin Map was supposed to show them. So what’s he to do now?

Strengths. Mr. Lawhead writes such deft prose. He paints pictures with his words and in so doing creates worlds and history and fully realized characters. He’s also impressively weaving a story with an unbelievable number of threads in a way that seems utterly believable.

Just out of reach is the Greater Meaning. After all, the story is about the universe — or more accurately, the multiverse — and man’s interplay with alternate realities. It’s also about Life and immortality and Providence, about spiritual consciousness, relationship with the “eternal, ever-living Creator,” and the “language of angels.” These things aren’t fully developed, and some have only been introduced, but the story has the feel of something Bigger.

My Guesses. [Spoiler Alert] Instead of picking at the story to find something to fault, I’d rather give my thoughts on what might be coming or what it all might mean. The Bright Empires series is, in part, a mystery, after all. And part of the fun of mysteries is to try to make educated guesses, then see how close you came to the way things actually are, story wise. So here are my guesses, for those of you who have read The Bone House.

I am postulating that En-Ul, the Ancient One, is Arthur Flinders-Petrie. I don’t know how that could be except that Kit ended up at the Well of Souls where he encountered Arthur because En-Ul apparently sent him there.

Another possibility is that En-Ul is a type of God, the Creator, or God in earthly flesh. I assumed he had gone to the Bone House to die, that this was the caveman equivalent to the Egyptian pyramid. But then it proved to be built on a ley line — or maybe The Ley Line — and Kit traveled or jumped to the Well. What happened to En-Ul? (And why could he and Kit communicate telepathically?)

The bigger issue, though, is Providence or God’s sovereignty. If Man has free will and can choose to act in any number of ways that influence others and alter history, how is God still sovereign? The concept of a multiverse cosmos could give an answer. No matter what Man chooses, God works to bring about His Grand Plan. So the alternate existences all have the same characters doing the same things with the same motives, but in one they might choose to act in one way, whereas in a second they might choose to act with some variation. In the end those differences are turned by corresponding acts so that the One Grand Design is still fulfilled.

So those are my two guesses. [End spoiler alert.]

Recommendation. The Bone House is part of what is shaping up to be a masterful epic science fantasy. It is complex, mysterious, though-provoking, intricate, and beautifully written. It isn’t particularly “character driven,” though the main character does grow and change. But the story seems less about him and more about the way the world works, though I could be wrong about that.

This one is a must read for Stephen Lawhead fans. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys time travel (though ley jumping is distinctly different, it has a feel of time travel) or alternate reality stories. It’s also dealing with cosmic reality, so anyone who has a bent toward the philosophical may enjoy this one too.

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