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.

Advertisements

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.