In Which We Tie It All Together With A Pretty Little Bow, With Questions…
Okay fellow travelers – we have reached the End of Everything. Well, at least the end of the Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead, with the fifth and final book The Fatal Tree.
On 12/15 I tried to give some semblance of a recap of the first four books, which is really difficult considering the books deal with dimension hopping that has people doing things in book 5 before they happen in book 1.
On 12/16 I discussed a couple of the big ideas: the grandeur of Creation and the question of what if you could go back and change something.
But how does the rubber meet the road? How is The Fatal Tree? And how is the full five book series? Is it worth investing in now that we’ve reached the end?
Out of all the books individually, I enjoyed The Skin Map (#1) and The Spirit Well (#3) the most. The Bone House (#2) was close behind, but it had a little slower pace than the first two. The Shadow Lamp (#4) was fine, but it felt too much like a set-up for the finish. Instead of being a strong stand-alone book, it seemed like it was needed to put all the pieces in place for the finale. Which makes sense, but it could’ve used a little more kick and less exposition to set the stage for The Fatal Tree.
Throughout all of the books, Lawhead’s mastery of research into historical settings and talent for putting the reader in these varied places from ancient Egypt to 1600’s Prague and Middle Ages Byzantium is stellar. Perhaps The Fatal Tree does this a little less as it races toward the grand conclusion.
And it is a grand conclusion, since the various characters like Kit, Mina, Cass, Gianni, and even the villainous Lord Burleigh have their roles to play in trying to prevent the End of Everything, where the Omniverse collapses. Weird things like temporal displacements (Napoleon’s troops in 1930’s Damascus) are just the beginning of the strains in the world.
The trials the main characters have to go through tend to leave their further characterization in the background. We don’t see much change from folks like Mina or Cass, though a very nice loose end gets tied up midway through the book. Otherwise most of the main cast has to do something.
The exception is Lord Burleigh, and his predicament from the end of The Shadow Lamp carries over and is the heart of the book. The way that he is challenged, grows, yet still struggles is exemplary. If people wondered where the Christian content was in this Christian speculative fiction book, this is where the payoff is.
Enough with the technical stuff now. How was the book?
When I first finished, I honestly was a little disappointed. The fun characters from earlier in the series turned into chess pieces. We knew where people needed to end up, so it was inevitable when they got there, and not terribly suspenseful. Still, there were twists at the end that I didn’t see coming, and I wanted to finish after investing into four books at this point.
I wondered: did the series fizzle out? Was the Bright Empires not worth it?
But after I’ve pondered the book for a week, I realize how skillfully Lawhead maneuvered things together in the whole series. A seemingly pointless thread from The Shadow Lamp became the capstone to the series. There was redemption, but not full redemption for certain characters. Their journey would continue on outside of the book. Lawhead gave hints for how things would end up, without giving everyone the spelled out, neatly tied up ending that a beginning author would probably do.
Yes, the series suffered a little in The Shadow Lamp. The characters for the most part didn’t grow or change much in The Fatal Tree. Those that did made up for it.
If The Fatal Tree were a stand alone book, I would judge it differently. But since it is relying on the work done in the previous four books, the characterization is fine. As a series, Stephen Lawhead attempted a very ambitious work that twisted back on itself as characters jumped to different times and dimensions. Some books were stellar, and the others were all fine works. Together, I feel after reflection that it is an intriguing series that overall is a great read.
I would recommend the Bright Empires series to speculative fiction fans who like big ideas and thoughtful literature. It’s not a fluff piece by any means. Some thought is required. Bravo, Mr. Lawhead.
For more of our fellow blog tour travelers, see this post for all of the discussion on The Fatal Tree.