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 Shadow Lamp by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3


shadow lamp cover

A Review

Having spent some time on a couple aspects of The Shadow Lamp by Stephen Lawhead to which I responded less than favorably, I now want to give a full review of this installment of the Bright Empires series.

The Story. Thankfully Mr. Lawhead provided a succinct, well-written summary of what took place previously in the first three books, as well as a list and brief description of the characters. These helps made it quite easy to pick up the various story threads and follow them. And there are quite a few of these threads now, and the number seems to be expanding right along with the omniverse about which Mr. Lawhead is writing.

The two characters I still think of as the protagonists, Kit and Mina, have been reunited and now, along with a group of lesser characters, are trying to return to the Stone Age where Kit had seen the spirit well. To do this they must acquire new shadow lamps, but the key ingredient which makes them work is something they can’t determine. They need to analyze the little they have of the mysterious ingredient, acquire more, and return to 16th century Prague in order to have the lamps made.

Meanwhile, Lady Haven Fayth and her servant Giles have stumbled into a place and time they didn’t intend to visit, or at least to stay. Lord Burleigh and his mean (as opposed to merry) men decide to force Etzel the baker to reveal Mina’s whereabouts, and Charles Flinders-Petrie decides to defy the will of his father and retrieve the skin map from his grandfather’s tomb.

Of course there are other goings on, even a new player, and chronology is fairly meaningless.

Strengths. Mystery pushes this story along to a degree. There’s a great deal to learn, and an increasing amount of information that can lead to discovery of the ultimate prize, which looks less and less like a treasure.

However, for me, relationships make this book. I am most engaged when Kit and Cass begin to open up to each other, when Etzel proves his faithfulness (though most of the way he seems less important in this book, he proves in the end to be a man made of the stuff of heroes), when Tony is searching for his daughter, even when Lord Burleigh selects and trains his men.

I found the pace of the book to be somewhat leisurely. I took my time meandering through the omniverse with the various characters–which seems to fit since time is more or less a moot point in this space/time travel.

For example, in one scene readers look back to the occasion when Lord Burleigh selects his four henchmen, then takes them on a voyage to China where they are to learn to do as he says and to become the fighters he wants them to be. Before long, however we are again in Prague with the trained foursome stalking Mina and Kit at Lord Burleigh’s command.

Mr. Lawhead is a master of setting his scenes, and I always felt as if he was in control, as if I had enough information to know which character I was following and where we had landed.

Each group seems to have a fairly defined set of motives, too, except perhaps Lady Fayth and Giles. Both of them seem as if they could surprise us readers but also a character or two with an unexpected betrayal or much needed support.

There’s still mystery surrounding Douglas Flinders-Petrie and some gaps with Lord Burleigh as well (how did he get involved in the search for the skin map in the first place?) But Mr. Lawhead’s writing assures me that readers are in good hands. He will deliver the answers to the questions he’s raised and will join the threads he’s unraveled.

The overarching feature, of course, is ley line travel, and this came out as more of a factor than ever with the recovery of the map from the tomb where it had been placed, the question about the energy source for the shadow lamps, and the theorizing about the formation of ley lines and their part in the omniverse.

In short, the writing, the story, the characters, the setting are all stellar.

Weaknesses. My first question is whether or not this five-book series can indeed be wrapped up in five books. I trust Mr. Lawhead as far as believing he has a plan for each of the threads he’s brought to the forefront, but from my perspective, I can’t see how they will all conclude in one more novel.

As a greater concern, I felt this story included too much didactic exposition. There were several large sections–one, an entire chapter–devoted to laying out theory.

One particular theory was intended to raise the stakes and show that the cosmos was at risk. I didn’t find this compelling, perhaps because of my own worldview of the cosmos. In question is the continued existence of creation.

But that raises theological questions. A key chapter draws to an end with this line: “It would be the end of everything.” This statement can’t be true if God is self-existent and not part of creation. Since He is, presumably this “end” would not be the end of God. And since He has promised His people an eternal inheritance, presumably it would not be the end of the place He is preparing. If this cosmic “everything” includes God, it’s heretical, and if it does not include God, it lacks potency.

There’s also the question of God’s sovereignty. There’s the idea that something has gone wrong and will end the cosmos, not at the Omega Point which God planned. I can’t help but wonder how these characters know this cataclysmic end isn’t the aforesaid Omega Point. There’s some suggestion here that they might know more about what’s going on than God does.

Recommendation. The story itself continues to grow, and I will eagerly look forward to the final Bright Empires volume. Mr. Lawhead knows how to artfully present an incredible story, complex without being confusing. This one isn’t my favorite of the books so far, but it moved the story along and certainly is a must read for anyone invested in the series. It’s thought provoking, even if I found some of the conclusions the characters reached, outside the scope of sound theology.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead, Day 3


After discussing several aspects of The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead these past two days as part of the CSFF Blog Tour, I can, at last, give my review.

Unlike many books, the hardest part of this review is summarizing the story. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to talk about this one without referring to the previous two of the five-book Bright Empires series.

And secondly, the story is … not linear. I may as well give a SPOILER ALERT now. I don’t know how to do this review without referring to plot details, some critical.

The Story. Kit Livingston, having transported inadvertently along a ley line to the Stone Age at the end of The Bone House, is adapting and learning, not just about survival, but about community.

Mina, his former significant other who has found herself as a small business owner in medieval Prague, realizes she is in danger from Lord Archibald Burleigh who wants the Skin Map–a coded mapping of the ley lines that shows where the Spirit Well is located–and will stop at nothing to find all its segmented parts. Consequently, Mina decides to go into hiding, setting off a lengthy flashback recalling how she became a student of the ley lines which allow travelers to move from one dimension to the other.

Cassandra, a PhD candidate working on an archaeological dig in Arizona, inadvertently stumbles upon a powerful ley line. In an effort to replicate and document the experience, she becomes lost in twentieth century Syria. When she discovers a society of fellow or former travelers, she becomes a member and accepts their first assignment: to find Kit and his great-grandfather.

The story ends with Kit and Mina, still the character in her flashback, reunited but back in the Stone Age all because Kit stumbled upon what everyone is actually looking for: the Spirit Well. He believes he can return there, but there’s a problem. His access point that opened to the Spirit Well dimension is blocked.

Strengths. I may have lost some of you with that last paragraph. Mina, on her way to hide, thinks back over her years of learning how to travel the ley lines and the help she received and the events that occurred. One of those events was connecting with Kit of story-time present.

I almost missed this, thinking I’d read carelessly and overlooked where the flashback ended. But at one point Kit speaks of Mina rescuing him in Egypt, an event that occurred in The Skin Map, but Mina informed him that for her, in her current dimension, that event hadn’t happened yet.

How is this a strength? It illustrates to me how brilliantly Stephen Lawhead is handling the multiple strands of this plot–past and present and their intersection.

The thing that impressed me the most was that I never felt lost. Once or twice I had to remind myself who some of the minor characters were, but whenever a chapter (frequently) began with a different point of view character, I quite easily fell right into their plight and setting, just as eager to learn more as when Mr. Lawhead took us away from them.

This is a major accomplishment, I think, because I generally complain about books with shifting point of view characters and back-and-forth story threads. The thing that was different in The Spirit Well, as I saw it, was that the story itself called for this format. This was not a whimsical approach, an author showing off his cleverness for the sake of impressing his readership. No. This story is better, or perhaps, requires, this interweaving of characters and places and times. Mr. Lawhead does it brilliantly.

In addition, in The Spirit Well the characters come alive, largely because they grow and change.

Thirdly, the spiritual ramifications of all that’s happening come closer to the surface. There’s much here to explore in the next two books, but God is not hiding, and the characters are more aware of Him than they have been in the previous two books.

One more. The settings are rich. Mr. Lawhead did a remarkable job bringing these various places, and times, alive. All his talents as a historical novelist are on display.

Weaknesses. I don’t have anything. Some people on the tour mentioned the slow pace. I never found it so. Kit is thrust from the Stone Age and is in immediate danger, Mina must flee her home in Prague or be captured, Cass follows her scholarly curiosity and becomes lost in another dimension with no way of knowing how to get home. Meanwhile, Arthur, the man who tattooed the ley line locations to his body, is killed, the map created, and divided. There’s betrayal and manipulation, suspicion and death. There’s also hope and help and healing. It’s an incredible story, masterfully told.

Recommendation. I’ve liked the previous Stephen Lawhead books CSFF has toured. This one is a cut above the others. In addition, this feels important–like Mr. Lawhead is showing in his story great spiritual truths. Some worry that these “truths” may turn out to be falsehoods. I have no reason to believe that to be so. I could be wrong, but at this point, I think the direction of the Bright Empires series is up.

It’s a mystery inside a science fantasy, with characters who are developing into people I care about. This is a must read for Stephen Lawhead fans and for those interested in time travel stories or multidimensional stories. I highly recommend it to people who enjoy historical fiction or fantasy. It’s the kind of book anyone who considers themselves a reader would enjoy. But my recommendation is to start with The Skin Map and read them all. This is a series you won’t want to miss. Also be sure to tell your friends. (They might be ticked off if they find out you were sitting on this one without telling them. 😉 )

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher which in no way colored my review.