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! πŸ˜‰

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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Shadow Lamp by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1


shadow lamp coverThis month the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring The Shadow Lamp, fourth of Stephen Lawhead‘s Bright Empires series. I’ve been a fan of these novels, moving from tepid to hot over the first three, and I’m no less a fan after having read this fourth installment. Lawhead has me hooked. But I have to admit, this one took a step back from the awesomeness I’d predicted for the series.

Today I’ll address what I consider the hard part. Better to get it over with, I think.

Science And Pseudo-science

Of the four Bright Empires books I’ve read, this is the only one that has what I consider didactic sections. Interestingly the “preachiness” has less to do with God than it does science. Coming in book four as it does, this caught me off guard. (Orson Scott Card has a rule for science fiction that pretty much says, establish the rules and move on). I had accepted the premise that the multiverse exists (in these stories), that travel along ley lines took the characters from one place and time to another, similar to but not the same as time travel.

How this supposedly works was not one of the burning questions on my mind, but apparently it was one on Mr. Lawhead’s mind. How much he believes of what he had his characters explain is impossible to know. I expected some illumination because he included an essay at the end. He did not expound further on multiverse theory, however, but considered the role of Christianity as it has related to science.

Towards the end he included this paragraph:

When a loudly outspoken evolutionary biologist declares absolutely that religion is a mental delusion . . . or a prize-winning physicist claims to have proven there is no God . . . we might take a step back and reflect that these men are simply repeating Galileo’s mistake: pontificating on matters outside their field and beyond their understanding. And when religious fundamentalists refuse to consider evidence that challenges the likelihood of a preposterously young universe . . . or ignore perfectly credible fossil evidence . . . we might pause to consider that creating pseudo-science to support dogmatic beliefs does give violence not only to realities that are ultimately beyond time and space, but also to any reasonable ability we might ever have to comprehend them (pp 377-378).

While Mr. Lawhead seems fairly charitable toward scientists speaking against God, stating simply that they are out of their realm, he seems peculiarly strident in his remarks about “religious fundamentalists” who scientifically support a young earth theory. They refuse to consider some evidence and ignore a body of archeological findings. Their theory is preposterous and they use pseudo-science to support their dogmatic position.

Certainly I’m aware that there are Christians who have a dogmatic position about creation. Whether that makes them “religious fundamentalists,” I can’t say since I don’t know what Mr. Lawhead meant by that term. There is an evangelical denomination which includes the term “fundamentalist” in their name. Is that who he’s talking about? If that were the case, then he’s speaking about something I don’t have knowledge about–I am not schooled regarding that denomination’s views on creation.

The people I know who hold to a young earth position are hardly dogmatic. They are also not scientists, but I dare say they have heard what various scientists have said, as I have, and believe that there is a body of evidence pointing to a different conclusion from the currently favored evolutionary theory.

Is this “pseudo-science”? What makes science “real” and what makes it “pseudo”? Is it real if it agrees with an old earth view and pseudo if it supports a young earth theory?

There’s an astrophysicist, for example, named Dr. Hugh Ross who was part of a panel that looked at recent scientific discoveries which “buttress the case for a biblical creator while continuing to erode the foundation for the evolutionary paradigm.” Am I to assume that this astrophysicist is pushing pseudo-science simply because of the conclusions he’s drawing?

Unfortunately Mr. Lawhead doesn’t elaborate on his comments any further except to say that the Roman Catholic Church has “continually pursued a policy of active involvement in scientific inquiry and advancement, quite notably through the Vatican Observatory” (p 38).

I’ll likely have more to say on this subject since the science of this science fantasy pushed its way to the forefront in The Shadow Lamp.

Take time to see what the other tourists have to say about this thought-provoking book. As usual, check marks link to tour articles.

Books Make Good Gifts


Just have to point out the rare occurrence: today is 12-12-12. We won’t see that month, day, year number being the same … well, ever, unless you live a really, really long time. πŸ˜‰

– – –

I’m assuming that there are people like me who haven’t finished up their Christmas shopping. (I’m sorry, but half the fun is hunting down the right present at the last minute. It gets the adrenaline pumping. πŸ˜‰ ) Might I make a suggestion? Think, BOOKS.

I’d even suggest narrowing that down. Think, Christian fantasy.

There are four books that I think come in at the top of their category, and I can happily and whole-heartedly recommend them to you.

Angel-Eyes-Cover1First in the category of young adult novels for girls, I suggest Angel Eyes by Shannon Dittemore. Amazon reviewers have given it, on average, four stars, but they lie. Well, OK, not lie so much as disagree with me. πŸ™‚

Interestingly, in the reviews that lowered the average, there were two main complaints I saw.

First, some people didn’t like the “Christian themes that have gone overboard.” (I’m not sure what that person expected from a novel about angels.)

The second complaint was that it was too much like Twilight because it was about teen romance. So … no book from now on can be about teenage romance without being compared to Twilight? See why I disagree with those reviewers? You can read my much more accurate and truthful review to counterbalance these scurrilous attacks deviant claims contrasting ideas.

dragons-of-the-watch-coverMy second recommendation is Donita Paul‘s excellent cozy fantasy for all ages, Dragons of the Watch. This is the last in the delightful Dragons of Chiril series, and I rate it as the best of all Ms. Paul’s novels. Of course, technically this book ought not be rated with the others in my list because it came out in October of last year (see my review here). Still, I don’t think it’s received the attention it’s due. Perhaps people are scared off by the fact that it’s part of a series. Of all the stories I’ve read of Ms. Paul’s dragon books, this one reads most like a stand-alone. It’s also a good introduction to this series and to the DragonKeeper Chronicles.

new-recruit-coverRecommendation number three is The New Recruit, a young adult boy book by Jill Williamson, winner of two Christy Awards. This novel, published by Marcher Lord Press, is perfect for the reader who wants a fast-pace, soft fantasy. The supernatural elements are minimal. The fantasy really comes largely from the premise–the existence of a Christian spy organization. It’s unique, it’s fun, it’s contemporary, it’s action packed, it’s so very typically teen. Wonderful story. (Here’s my review).

cover_thspiritwellLastly I recommend the adult science fantasy, The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead. To be honest, though, this is one that is best read after the first two in the series–The Skin Map and The Bone House. Personally I think this Bright Empires series has the potential to become a classic, so I suggest getting in on the fun now. There’s wonderful character development (something I don’t always find in Mr. Lawhead’s books), intrigue, historical settings, time-ish travel (you have to read the books to understand precisely what I mean there). For a closer look, here’s the review I wrote for this one.

Undoubtedly I’ve left out other good titles. What Christian speculative fiction would you recommend for Christmas?

CSFF Tour Wrap – The Spirit Well


This week thirty-five members of the CSFF Blog Tour spent time discussing The Spirit Well, book three of the Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead. We had a creative interview of one of the antagonists by Robert Treskillard, a discussion about why some people refer to speculative literature as “weird” by Shannon McDermott, a look at how The Spirit Well stacks up and fits in with the other books in the series by Janeen Ippolito, and much more.

In all, we were treated to fifty-eight articles, with two yet pending. What’s more, there was near universal acclaim for this book. Though some participants found the pace slower than is common today, most agreed that this book moved the story forward and was a great addition to the series.

The only way, of course, to know if what we said is true would be to read the books for yourselves. πŸ˜€

Here are the participants, having posted all three days of the tour, who are eligible for this month’s Top Tour Blogger Award. The check marks provide direct links to each article.

You’ll have until midnight (Pacific time) Monday, November 5 to scan the articles and vote for the blogger you think was creative, thought-provoking, interesting, or made you laugh the most. You get to decide what criteria to use and who meets them.

You might also wish to vote in a poll about genre choice.

Published in: on October 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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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. πŸ˜‰ )

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.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead, Day 2


Is it Christian enough?

Inevitably when a group of bloggers begin to discuss a book by a Christian author, labeled Christian fiction–such as those participating in the current blog tour for The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead–some form of this question surfaces.

As a matter of fact, the spiritual themes have indeed begun to surface, but I can’t help wondering if we aren’t asking the wrong question, especially of a book that is the middle of a five-book series.

First, the story is ongoing. It’s pretty hard to determine what exactly the entire weaving will reveal about the world when we’re at the half way point.

Second, to a large extent the idea of “Christian enough” is suspect. Does every Christian novel need to lay out the plan of salvation if it is to be Christian enough? Or take a character from new birth to a mature life in Christ? Must it be overt rather than symbolic or subtle?

Most Christians don’t apply the “lay out the plan of salvation” standard to their pastor’s sermons, so why should we find a need to include this pivotal event in every Christian novel? Yes, pivotal. A person coming to belief in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ is pivotal. But must we continue to show the pivot over and over rather than showing the result of the pivot or the need for the pivot?

I’d rather ask a different question about a novel: is this true? I don’t mean is the story factual. It’s a story and hence, largely the facts are made up. Nevertheless, stories should be true.

For example, according to God’s Word, mankind is to love his neighbor as himself. So a story that portrays friendship as dangerous, self-reliance as preferable to community, and sacrificing for others as weak, would be a story that is not true.

It can be interesting, even entertaining, but as Christians, our standard should not be determined by whether or not a story made us laugh or cry. It should also be based on more than whether or not the way of salvation is clear.

Honestly, in real life, I love to hear how people came to Christ. I think the power of God is evident when we share how God works in each life.

But coming to Christ is birth. Stories about birth are fine, but I have to think there are also good stories about life after birth. What does a community of believers living in a culture of unbelievers look like?

As I see it, Stephen Lawhead has given us a glimpse of just such a situation in The Spirit Well. Is a “glimpse” enough to make this book Christian?

I go back to the question I prefer to ask–is it true?

As I see it, the further we journey along Mr. Lawhead’s ley lines, the truer the story becomes. Perhaps the greatest truth that shines out of The Spirit Well is that there are no coincidences. Or accidents, hence no big bang as some evolutionists would have us believe.

In Mr. Lawhead’s multiverse, clearly, no coincidences suggests design and order, created by a Designer who must be omniscient and powerful. The author doesn’t have to spell it out for that truth to be evident. Even in a “what-if” make-believe.

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For a lighthearted, creative “interview” with the Bright Empires antagonist, see Robert Treskillard’s Day Two post. For a thorough and thoughtful review, check out Julie Bihn’s Day Two article.