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 2

shadow lamp cover

Making Too Much Of A Thing

In “Science And Pseudo-science” I mentioned a writing principle author and writing instructor Orson Scott Card laid out in Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy which Stephan Lawhead ignore in The Shadow Lamp, this month’s CSFF feature.

The principle is this: science fiction writers are to know the rules that make their world work, make sure readers understand these rules exist, then move on with the story. Using starflight to illustrate his point Mr. Card says it this way:

Make your decisions about the rules [of your world] and then make sure your whole story doesn’t violate them. But your reader doesn’t have to go through all that with you. Once you’ve decided that you’re using a difficult, dangerous hyperspace where the emergence points can shift by parsecs without warning, then all you have to do is drop some reference into the story–perhaps a single sentence . . . That’s it. That’s all. No more discussion of starflight. (Emphasis in the original.)

As I read those words before I picked up The Shadow Lamp, I thought of the Bright Empires series and considered that Mr. Lawhead had followed this principle. He’d introduced readers to “ley lines” in the first book The Skin Map, making a point to differentiate between this space/time travel and “regular” time travel. I thought this was Mr. Lawhead’s way of handling the inevitable problems that arise in time travel. The subject seemed to be much the way Mr. Card recommends–a science fiction law that explained the way the world worked so that all kinds of story events could happen.

However, in the middle of The Shadow Lamp there’s an entire chapter devoted to a theory one of the characters has about ley lines. As it turns out, this explanation is also tied to a later theological/scientific discussion-lecture that takes place which establishes the cosmic stakes before the characters.

At that point, ley lines no longer seemrd like a device put in place for the sake of the story but rather, the story seems to be taking place in order to give a platform for the discussion of ley lines and all the attending detail–the multiverse theory, the rapid expansion of the universe, the purpose of Creation, a reinterpretation of time, and more.

In my way of thinking, the device stopped being a device and started to become the essence of the story. Perhaps that’s what Mr. Lawhead intended all along. I was disappointed, however.

The concept of time-reversal (linked to the theory of the expansion of the universe based on the choices people make), while interesting, does have theological ramifications as several blog tour participants have pointed out (see for example this one).

Overall, however, I felt a good story was going on and a couple chapters of exposition explaining the ley line and theological theories a couple of the characters were considering, interrupted the flow. The catastrophic potential which was supposed to be illumined by this theoretical enlightenment simply did not seem like a credible threat. I was much more concerned by what the Burleigh men were doing than by this possible cosmic crisis.

For me, Mr. Lawhead made too much of the rules he established, rules I was happy to go along with until he decided to explain them to me.

But maybe that’s just me.

Full review yet to come.

Be sure to see what the other blog tour participants are saying (see the list and links at the end of the Day 1 post). You might especially be interested in Meagan’s excellent Bright Empires series overview; Christopher Hooper’s ideas on the generational legacy uncovered within the stories (“How we live today affects those who live tomorrow”); and Robert Treskillard’s giveaway.

Science Fiction On Fantasy Friday

I was sort of saving my review of Jill Williamson‘s latest, the science fiction novel Replication (Zondervan) until the CSFF tour I hope we have for the book. But that’s the deal. Our administrators haven’t set which books we’ll feature in the six or so months after April, so it’s presumptuous of me to assume there will be a tour. In the meantime, people need to know about this book!

For as long as I’ve known her (about five years), Jill has said she writes young adult fiction. (For an excellent article discussing the properties of young adult and middle grade fiction, see “Are You Writing MG or YA?” by Sally Apokedak over at Novel Rocket). However Jill’s fantasy series, Blood of Kings, published by Marcher Lord Press, came out as adult fiction. Now with her new release, the focus is again on teens.

The Story. Martyr, to his friends, J:3:3 to those who run experiments at Jason Farms, the underground facility where he lives–the male protagonist understands his purpose. He is making it possible for those on the outside to survive, and when he turns eighteen in two short weeks, he will expire.

Abby Goyer has a different problem. After her mother’s death from cancer, her father moves her to Alaska so he can begin work at a private science lab. Adjusting to the more rural environment and to a new school isn’t easy for Abby, especially when the Big Man On Campus, JD Kane, begins giving her far more attention than she’s comfortable with.

When the unthinkable happens and she’s teamed up with him for a science project, she turns to the one friend she’s made, Kylee Scott, to be a buffer between them during an after-school planning session at her house.

Imagine her surprise when JD turns up in her bedroom moments after her dad sends her school companions away. Or is it JD?

And so the adventure begins — one that involves solving a missing person’s cold case, puts Abby’s life and her father’s life in jeopardy, and forces Martyr to make some hard choices.

Strengths. Jill writes page-turners. That’s the simple truth. Her stories are compelling and push you to keep reading. As a writer, I have asked myself how she manages to do it. The main factor, I think, is her ability to create characters the reader cares about early on.

In the case of Replication, she created two such characters.

Martyr got his nickname from his friends because he sticks up for the weaker members of their group, protecting them from the stronger ones who would bully them. He’s selfless, noble, curious, kind, inquisitive — thoroughly believable, with a voice that is consistent with someone who has had little contact with the outside world.

Abby is also a character who creates a connection with the reader. She lost her mother, has to move away from her friends, struggles with feeling like an outsider, and yet she makes good choices and doesn’t sacrifice her values for peer approval. She’s smart and willing to extend herself for others.

I want to see them both succeed.

This book is also unpredictable. The plot surprises and delights with the unexpected. In addition, it has meaningful themes, especially as Martyr learns for the first time in a very natural, believable way, arising from the story events, who God is and how someone can know Him personally.

Another plus is that this story deals with a hotbed scientific topic which you can easily guess — cloning. It’s a topic Christians need to get ahead of and discuss because of the ethical and moral implications. While Replication is not an issue book, it offers the reader an introduction to the topic and quite naturally questions about the appropriateness of human cloning arise.

Weaknesses.While I thoroughly enjoyed this story, I thought there were some minor plot holes and some questionable actions that seemed a little unrealistic.

The end seemed a little rushed to me, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Jill had a hard time scaling the story down to three hundred pages (her Blood of Kings books run somewhere around six hundred pages each).

Towards the middle, the story seemed to lose a lot of its science fiction feel, and took on an action/adventure air. I, who say I don’t really like science fiction, preferred the parts of the story that were more oriented to the science. (I realize I’m being somewhat circumspect here. I don’t want to give any spoilers. There are surprises that you really need to discover on your own.)

Recommendation. Unequivocally I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a page-turner. It’s not hard science fiction. You might even call it near-near future because the story had a very contemporary feel. In my opinion, that makes it more accessible to all readers, though niche science fictionites might be disappointed that there aren’t loads of details about experiments and DNA and such.

I’d also say the book is not one only teens will enjoy. They will, but adults who have teens or who taught teens or who were teens can enjoy it too. 😀

In short, this is a book readers will want to get a hold of. I suggest you do so ASAP!

Disclaimer posted in compliance with FAA regulations: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Published in: on March 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm  Comments (4)  
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Fantasy Friday – Introducing Jill Williamson

What is it about Alaska? Seems like more and more Christian novelists are from Alaska — Sally Apokedak, Sibella Giorello, and Jill Williamson.

Of course Jill doesn’t really need an introduction. After all, she’s won two Christy Awards for the first two books she published — By Darkness Hid and To Darkness Fled (Marcher Lord Press) — and I suspect her third, From Darkness Won, will be up for nomination next year.

Rarely does a novelist enter the publishing world and find such acclaim so quickly. The only other writer I can think of is another fantasy author — Karen Hancock who won four straight Christys with her first four published novels.

That should tell you what kind of writer Jill is. What readers might not know is that she once had aspirations as a fashion designer.

After graduating from her high school and studying at the University of Alaska, she headed off to the lower forty-eight to attend college in Idaho where she ended up meeting her husband, Brad. Together they trundled to New York so that Jill could test the waters of the fashion industry by attending the Fashion Institute of Technology.

A year later, as planned, they moved to Los Angeles, this time so that Brad could explore his interest in the movie industry. As time passed, however, God changed the direction of their hearts, and they both became increasingly interested in ministry, particularly to young people.

Eventually Brad took a job as a full time youth minister. Jill hoped to develop her own speaking ministry too, and started writing articles for periodicals for teens as a means to that goal. In the process, she discovered fiction and began writing novels.

And she loved it! But what about her ministry goals? How did this little “writing hobby” fit in with what God was calling her to do? Thankfully her wise pastor encouraged her to continue with her writing as a way to connect with the teens she wants to reach.

And what, precisely, does she want to get across to her readers? “That God is the desire of our hearts.”

Now she and Brad — and their son — live in Eastern Oregon. Besides being a gifted writer and faithful wife, Jill is a mom and a speaker. Yes, she reached that speaker goal and does talks for schools and libraries and teaches at writing conferences and clinics for children, teens, and adults.

As far as Jill’s writing is concerned, she’s represented by Amanda Luedeke of the MacGregor Literary Agency and is contracted for a new series with Zondervan. In fact the first book Replication: The Jason Experiment is scheduled to release in December! While her Blood of Kings series could best be described as epic fantasy for all ages, Replication is a teen science fiction/suspense novel.

Under miscellaneous, I just have to add, Jill has very good taste in books and television shows — we have a number of the same ones listed in our interests at Facebook, which by the way is a great way to keep up with her. You might also want to follow her on Twitter.

For fans of her fiction, you can subscribe to her Podcast to hear her first novel and soon, a serialization of the second. One way or the other, I suggest you make room for the work of this talented writer. I might even suggest that her books, available at Marcher Lord Press, would make great Christmas presents for that reader in your family.

Fantasy Friday: Imaginative Is Not Weird

Grendel, the monster Beowulf faced

Over and over I’ve heard the description: speculative fiction is that weird niche of fiction that appeals to a small group of people who see things differently from almost everyone else. Some notable people working with Christian speculative fiction promote that perspective.

I’m calling a halt to this line of thinking. Weird does not describe good speculative literature — either that, or the whole world is weird.

Exhibit A — Harry Potter. Not only did millions buy the seven hefty tomes, millions more have been flocking to see the movies.

Exhibit B — The Lord of the Rings. Not only did the movies earn renown, they also brought a resurgence to the popularity of the books, which had already won over a generation in the mid-twentieth century.

Exhibit C — Speculative movies. The titles featuring speculative elements dominate the list of highest grossing movies. Of the top thirty, only Titanic is without some form of speculative elements. If you look at the numbers adjusted for inflation, nineteen of the top thirty are still speculative (and that’s if you count The Ten Commandments as not speculative).

Exhibit D — Television. From Topper in the 50s, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched in the 60s to Star Trek, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Lost, V, and the flood of speculative shows out today, clearly the fascination with the speculative is part of the culture at large.

"Double, double toil and trouble" - Macbeth

Exhibit E — Classic literature. Starting with works like Beowulf, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and moving to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, on to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Edgar Allen Poe’s various short stories and even poetry, and many others, speculative elements are a part of the fabric of the stories that literature students continue to study.

What’s my point? Imagination carries all of us beyond the confines of contemporary reality. It is not weird to imagine. Those who write imaginative fiction are not weird. Those who read or watch imaginative stories are not weird. Speculative fiction that is done well has a broad appeal and has had that appeal since the beginning of literature.

Why some today think they are doing the genre a service to call it weird and to define it as a narrow niche that only a few not-normals will like, is beyond me.

Certainly some speculative fiction is more “hard core” than others. The harder the core, I suppose, the smaller the audience.

And yet books like The Hunger Games and movies like The Matrix which some might consider hard core were widely popular.

I believe we can account for the popularity of speculative fiction simply because it is imaginative. God made us with an imagination. As a result readers and viewers love to be transported to new places they’ve never seen. Stories of a place or time that is different from the here and now create wonder and intrigue and spark a sense of adventure.

Is speculative fiction a “‘weird’ kind of fiction” as one professional says? Are writers and readers of speculative fiction “not normal” as a speculative writer says? I counter that the evidence shows speculative fiction is in the mainstream and has been for a very, very long time.

The problem, as I see it, is that we Christians have yet to write a “break out” story that will catch the eye of all those speculative fans. Rather than settling for a niche market of hard core speculative readers who will devour anything in the genre regardless of quality, I think we should commit ourselves to learning what makes imaginative stories work. And stop calling what we do and what we like weird!

CSFF Blog Tour – The Skin Map, Day 1

The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series, is the latest release by vaunted fantasy/historical fiction writer Stephen Lawhead. The author himself describes the series as the most challenging he’s ever undertaken, largely because of the complexities. The work is a unique cross between science and fantasy.

Above all, Mr. Lawhead remains one of the great storytellers of our day. He knows how to create interesting characters, build tension, generate suspense.

Because The Skin Map is such a unique undertaking, the book trailer might be the best way to introduce the premise.

And now a bite of the actual writing for you to chew on:

The main room of the inn was bustling with a brisk trade, but they found a table and ordered three jars of the best. When the ale came, the publican brought a bowl of roasted and salted cobnuts. Sir Henry raised a toast, and they all quaffed down the sweet ale. “As soon as we’ve finished here,” Cosimo announced, “we’re off to fetch the map.”

“And then?” wondered Kit.

“Then we shall determine the best course of action from several that are open to us,” answered Cosimo. “If my hunch is correct, we’ll be heading off to one of the nearer leys—the Cotswolds are full of them, and there are several within striking distance.”

They drank in silence for a while, then Kit said, “Tell me, is it always the past we visit? I mean do you ever travel to the future?”

“The absolute future?” His great-grandfather shook his head of wavy white hair. “No. Never. At least I’ve never heard that it was possible. Now, the relative future—well, that’s something else altogether.”

“Come again?” asked Kit.

“See here,” Cosimo said, “the relative future is what Sir Henry would visit if he were to travel to London in, say, 1920.”

“The past for us, but the future for him. It’s relative to where you started from. I get it.”

“Precisely,” agreed his great-grandfather. “But no one—not Sir Henry, myself, you, or anone else—can go beyond the present time of the Home World. That’s the absolute future, and no one can travel there.”

“Why not?”

Cosimo glanced at Sir Henry, who frowned. “We don’t know,” he confessed. “We’ve tried, but it does not seem at all possible. We don’t know why.” He paused, then added, “It is a question that has been troubling me for years.”

“We have theories,” prompted Sir Henry.

“Yes, and the simplest explanation is that the future hasn’t happened yet.”

“Which is why they call it the future, I suppose.”

(from The Skin Map, pp. 150-151)

Be sure to visit the other blogs participating in the tour (a check mark links to an article that has already been posted). Note in particular that you can win an autographed copy of The Skin Map from Robert Treskillard.

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

Fantasy Friday – New Releases

I’m pretty excited about the direction Christian fantasy is going. First, I’ve discovered general market Christian fantasy authors like R. J. Anderson and Australian author D.M. Cornish, published by Putnam.

Then I learned at Mount Hermon that Books and Such agented a fantasy author, selling the trilogy to Bethany House. Also, AMG (Dragons in Our Midst) has branched out and is now publishing adult fantasy.

Of course WaterBrook continues to lead the way with traditional publishers when it comes to speculative fiction. This month they released Raven’s Ladder (a CSFF feature later this month), Book 3 of the Auralia Thread series by Jeffrey Overstreet. In May The Last Christian a science fiction thriller by David Gregory will hit bookstore shelves. Publisher’s Weekly has this to say about the latter:

The plotting is intricate and imaginative, and the religious elements go beyond formula, though the political intrigue plot thread is less convincing. Gregory’s approach is fresh, and he’s produced a page-turner.

The big news is that Marcher Lord Press just released its new set of books: To Darkness Fled by Jill Williamson, The Superlative Stream by Kerry Nietz, and The Word Unleashed by Steve Rzasa. The last two are science fiction.

Last month Publisher’s Weekly carried a short blurb about To Darkness Fled in their “Books in Brief” section. Here’s the opening line:

“Christian fantasy is the wee niche in which this fat book fits, and here’s hoping its quality helps enlarge the niche.”

The only thing I didn’t like in the PW blurb was the characterization of Christian fantasy as a “wee niche,” but that probably describes the number of available titles rather than the number of writers or would-be-if-they-only-knew readers.

In other encouraging news, the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference featured a Major Morning Track, eight hours of instruction, focused on speculative fiction. Also, three of the eight award winners there were speculative fiction writers.

Slowly but surely, the genre is coming of age.

Christianity Today Weighs In on Science Fiction

ct-lghomeThanks to an email group I’m a member of, I found an incredible article in Christianity Today entitled “Sci-Fi’s Brave New World”.

The essence of the article is that science fiction is a central component of pop culture and as such has played a much larger part in forming religious attitudes than most of us are aware. The following quote from the fine article written by James A. Herrick (Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs , InterVarsity Press, 2008 ) gives you the essential thrust:

But we must be clear: Arguments against Christianity and in support of rival worldviews now arrive daily as embedded components of visual and written fiction. Pop-culture fiction, not academic nonfiction, is now the cutting edge of public discourse on spirituality.

The thing I like best is Dr. Herrick’s call to action. What should be the church’s response? That’s a question I think that is overdue. Interestingly, the first point in his suggestions is a diligent exercise of discernment. Regular readers here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction know that I’m doing a standing ovation with that one. 😀

Next Dr. Herrick suggests we need to give an answer—form an apologetic, if I understand his point. And finally we need to

attend more diligently to the presentation of her true myth in public settings.

His closing line says that we need to adhere to the one and only true myth (a term he uses as C.S. Lewis did), that is God’s Story.

Good, good stuff. I encourage you to read the entire article.

But my question is, What place does fiction have in the response to this infusion of errant thinking into our society through pop culture?

As you would expect, I think it should play a big part. People love stories. Why, then, don’t we Christians tell stories infused with truth? Stories that pose the science fiction questions. Or fantasies that reveal who Good is.

Stories have been forming our culture for a long, long time. It’s not good enough for Christians to be reactionary and give a Christian version of Twilight or a Christian version of the Matrix or a Christian version of Heroes. We need to be visionary. We need to write the Next Great Thing, infused with truth. That’s the apologetic that everyday people will hear. That’s the greatest response we can give.