CSFF Tour – The Shadow Lamp, Day 3

In Which The Butter Is Stretched Too Thin Over The Toast

Hello again CSFF Tour fans. The monthly focus on Christian speculative fiction is wrapping up on the fourth book of the Bright Empires series, The Shadow Lamp by Stephen Lawhead. Yesterday I did a brief recap of the other three books so far. This link will take you to all of my prior posts on the Bright Empires series. 
Lawhead said this was an ambitious series for him and that he didn’t think he could write something like it earlier in his career. Now he was at a point that he could wrestle it.
Out of four rounds so far, the score card for this fight would be Lawhead 3 to 1. Unfortunately, The Shadow Lamp misses the mark in comparison to the other books. 
It is a major challenge to find a story that can stretch for a trilogy, much less five books. There has to be enough conflict and high enough stakes to carry a reader through to the end.
The Bright Empires series has a significant crisis to solve by the end of book five – the potential destruction of the universe. So that’s something.
The problem with book four is that it became too much of a set up story. There is a lot of shuffling the pieces to get them into the proper position. However, the stakes do not often grab the reader and make them care enough about what happens. 
For instance, Lady Fayth and her loyal manservant Giles separate from the main group of heroes and get lost in an unknown dimension. There are harrowing circumstances, but the reason for their departure and the subsequent trial is nebulous. I shrugged my shoulders. Okay, why did that happen?
There are numerous plot points swirling around from the various players trying to figure out ley travel through dimensions for their own purposes. Some of them explain some background or seem to be moving somewhere, only to fizzle out. Maybe there is more to the story of Douglas, or the pirate attack suffered by the Burleigh men, but the significance was lost to me.
There were also two gatherings where educated people talked. A lot. They set up the huge consequences that happened in the prior book and pointed to the final act, but there wasn’t much action or development within The Shadow Lamp itself.
The writing quality was still well done. Lawhead is so good at description and setting from his research and experience. I’m invested enough in the story that I will see it through to the end. I have faith that the last installment will be worth following this series for five years from when it released to its conclusion next year. But The Shadow Lamp will be the filler episode that is quickly forgotten in the midst of the other books.
One other factor has been discussed elsewhere in the tour, but Lawhead has discussed a little more theology in books 3 and 4 over the first two books. 
I could see the seeds he planted and was excited about the firstfruits revealed in The Spirit Well. But in The Shadow Lamp, he takes the mythology he’s created for the story regarding time and the idea of the multiverse and places it against the nature of God, in my opinion. Basically, if the heroes don’t fix things, the timestream will collapse on itself and destroy everything. 
I don’t have a problem with a big cataclysm in a book – the bigger the stakes the better, usually. Like bacon. You can’t have too much bacon. But I digress.
The issue is when this can happen despite God. That’s what it sounds like could happen. Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe he’ll clarify things in book five. Until then, my opinion was that this particular point is a detraction to the whole.
So, the take-home point? The Shadow Lamp is not a bad book. It’s just not very memorable. It is by no means a deal-breaker in reading the Bright Empires series. My experience with Lawhead is that he can be a streaky writer. Some of his books have been my favorites. And some…not so much. Unfortunately The Shadow Lamp will stay in the shadows of my memory when all is said and done.
If you wonder what others are saying, Becky Miller has the list of all the participants. So I’ll see you on the other side of the ley lines. 

CSFF Tour – The Shadow Lamp, Day 2

In Which The Blogger Gets A Hand Cramp By Trying To Keep It All Straight

Hey, the CSFF Tour is continuing the focus on The Shadow Lamp, the fourth book in the five book Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead.

Lawhead is a prolific fantasy author with 24 books to his name. He’s written about the Crusades to Robin Hood, from Byzantium to a Celtic fantasy land, an Arthur series and kids books. Now he calls Bright Empires his most ambitious work yet.

It’s hard to bring together four different books into three short blog posts. But, that’s my task today.

Here’s a very quick run-down of the previous books.

The Skin Map – This kicks off the adventure by introducing us to Kit Livingstone, the main character who has inherited his family’s skill of ley travel, the journeying between dimensions of the multiverse. Except he’s not very skilled at it. He loses his girlfriend Mina in 16th century Prague, ends up betrayed and left to die in an Egyptian tomb, only to be rescued by said Mina, who is a quicker study than her boyfriend. It turns out a lot of people are looking for the Skin Map, a map made of the skin of Arthur Flinders-Petrie, a man skilled at ley travel who tattooed directions on his own skin using strange symbols as code. Guess he won’t lose that map…

The Bone House – Now there are more stories bouncing back and forth in time. We learn the origin of the villainous Lord Burleigh, who was the bad guy in the previous book. Arthur is looking for a way to save his wife. Kit and Mina try to dodge Burleigh, and Kit being Kit gets stranded in the Stone Age and ends up in a Bone House. Funny how that worked out…

The Spirit Well – Now Kit stumbles on a way out of the Stone Age and is reunited once again with Mina. A new traveler, Cassandra Clarke, an American paleontologist, has fallen through time and has been found by the Zetetic Society, a group dedicated to ley travel and watching out for good. If everyone could just find the blasted Skin Map, everything would be alright. Of course, there are different folks with their own agendas weaving through time. And one traveler might just have broken the universe…

Whew. There’s a lot to chew on there. Lawhead is a skilled writer and researcher. He travels widely and is very good with the historical detail, so the various locales are very intriguing. He writes in a slightly detached style giving the book a subtle whimsy and British feel. So far, very good. Like he says, the books are unique in the speculative fiction field.

If you want to see all of my posts on the Bright Empires series, here’s the link to all the tags. Fittingly, like the narration in the series the posts don’t necessarily come in order. You can also go to Stephen Lawhead’s Facebook page or author page. Finally, Becky Miller is our tour guide, and she gathers all the posts together here from all of the participants. I’ll have my review of The Shadow Lamp tomorrow.

Of course, if you can figure out time travel, you can read it right now.

CSFF Tour – The Shadow Lamp Day 1

In Which An Old Friend Comes Back To Visit, So To Speak

Welcome back to the CSFF Tour. The best in Christian speculative fiction comes through this great resource. And this month, I had a chance to read the book!

I am excited to participate because we’re featuring the latest in the Bright Empires series, The Shadow Lamp by Stephen Lawhead. This is the fourth book in the series, so we are quite familiar with the comings and goings of the various characters. Well, that might be generous.

The Bright Empires series deals with a peculiar feature – the ability to travel through the multiverse by an intriguing feature known as ley lines.

An Englishman named Kit Livingstone was living a rather uninspired life until his great-grandfather Cosimo introduced him to the family business of traveling to different dimensions.

After trips to 16th century Prague, a Stone Age hunter-gatherer camp, and an escape from an Egyptian tomb, Kit has gathered with some friends. His girlfriend Mina, the Italian priest Gianni, and the American paleotonlogist Cassandra are on the verge of a major discovery. If only they had their shadow lamps to guide them in the treacherous dangers of ley travel.

Because the journey to find the Skin Map, return to the Bone House, and discover the mystery of the Spirit Well has already claimed many lives. Oh, and it might be threatening the fabric of all creation.

For more information, you can go to Stephen Lawhead’s Facebook page or author page. Also, the fine folks below are joining in the discussion, so check them out as well.

Julie Bihn Red Bissell Thomas Clayton Booher Thomas Fletcher Booher Beckie Burnham Jeff Chapman Karri Compton Theresa Dunlap April Erwin Timothy Hicks Christopher Hopper Becky Jesse Becca Johnson Jason Joyner Carol Keen Rebekah Loper Shannon McDermott Meagan @ Blooming with Books Rebecca LuElla Miller Mirriam Neal Writer Rani Nathan Reimer Chawna Schroeder Jojo Sutis Rachel Starr Thomson Robert Treskillard Steve Trower Rachel Wyant Phyllis Wheeler Deborah Wilson

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

CSFF Tour Day 3 – The Spirit Well

In Which The End Game Becomes Visible, If Only For A Moment.

The CSFF Tour is wrapping up our feature of The Spirit Well, the third book in the Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead.

This mind-bending series is a fascinating mash-up of quantum physics, historical mystery, and pre-Starbucks coffee culture with an Indiana Jones twist. Lawhead is a gifted writer and this ambitious five book set challenges his readers with a forth and back approach as the characters wind through multiple dimensions stretching from Macau to ancient Egypt to modern day London and even the Stone Age.

This is all well and good, but if this is the Christian Sci-Fi and Fantasy tour, where is the Christian part?

There have been praying monks and characters who mention God, but there is also a mysterious well with resurrection-like power and the pesky dimension-hopping that seems to contradict things we know. Why is this series published by a Christian publishing house?

The Spirit Well gives us our first substantial insight into the spiritual underpinnings of the series on pages 304-305. Cassandra Clarke is a young paleontologist who was swept up by this dimensional traveling to 1930’s Damascus and has met up with two strange people from the Zetetic Society. She is being asked to join this group in their quest to encourage the “transformation of the universe.” The society members are afraid that reaching a special landmark called the Omega Point will be thwarted by the enemies of good unless the Society can succeed.

The skeptical scientist points out a fallacy at this:

“So,” concluded Cass, “Almighty God is not strong enough alone to bring about His purpose for the universe. He needs you and your society to make it happen; otherwise it has all been for nothing. Is that what you’re saying?”

That isn’t the end of it. Cassandra voices a reasonable doubt at what she’s being told. Still, her experience of traveling through time and space has changed her paradigm already. The beauty of what has happened so far in the Bright Empires series is brought out by the elderly Mrs. Peelstick in response:

“…God has always worked through the small, the insignificant, the powerless – it seems to be sewn into the very fabric of the universe…

…Over and over again, we see that when anyone willingly gives whatever resources they have to Him – whether it is nothing more than five smooth stones gathered from a dry streambed or five little loaves of bread and two dried sprats – then God’s greater purpose can proceed…

…And one poor, wandering country preacher – homeless, penniless, friendless, and despised by all but a handful of no-account fishermen and a few women – gave himself so fully to God that the combined might of the two most powerful forces in his world – the Roman empire and the religious authorities – could not stop him.”

One simple speech, expertly seated in the mid-point of the series, anchors this tale in the ways of the Almighty God. Stephen Lawhead has been writing at a high level for many years. He didn’t reveal the spiritual underpinnings right away. The wait made it more poignant when it finally came. Patience is a powerful weapon for the author.

We may want to rush to make it known that our work points to Jesus. I think it is better when it is placed in the proper context. After 2.75 of the series, we finally see the glow of the Light of the world. It is not dwelled upon. The characters move on. But the wait is worth it. The impact left me with a highly satisfied feeling, seeing an image in the tapestry pop out after it was just out of view the whole time.

Sure, the dimensional aspect is not in our usual understanding – but this is speculative fiction after all.

There’s something to perseverance, both in writing and in reading. Lawhead stated he’s waited 15 years to write this book, and just now feels he can do it justice. I’m thankful that an enjoyable yarn has such a careful craftsman at the helm.

Does this book sound interesting to you? Leave your thoughts below. Be sure to check out the other blogs posting. Becky Miller keeps a list of the posts for you.

We’ll see you next month. Unless one of us stumbles upon an active ley line first…

CSFF Tour Day 2 – The Spirit Well

In Which The Blogger Brings It All Home In Style.

Welcome back to the CSFF Tour of Stephen Lawhead’s latest book in his Bright Empires series, The Spirit Well.

Yesterday I did a quick overview of the first two books in the series, but if I was really walking in the spirit of this series, I might well do things out of order.

Why is that?

The whole series focuses on the idea of the multiverse (called in the books the Omniverse) – an infinite number of alternate dimensions out there. Imagine a world where the Nazis invaded North America, or one where the wheel wasn’t invented. The characters in this series don’t go in the past per se, they jump to different dimensions. In the first book a ley traveler stops the Great London Fire in the 1600s by waking the baker who inadvertantly started it.

With that as a background, shall we begin?

A detailed synopsis is impossible without giving away fun things from the first two books. The main protagonist Kit is stranded in Stone Age times, which doesn’t seem to bother him all that much. His girlfriend Mina is busy mastering ley traveling and avoiding the machinations of the ruthless Lord Burleigh. A new character, paleontologist Cassandra Clarke, goes from a modern-day dig in the Arizona desert to 1930’s Damascus and becomes a popular woman with a group that looks to play an important role in the rest of the series.

The centerpiece of the books are the Skin Map, the tattooed skin of one Arthur Flinders-Petrie. This gentleman was the leading expert in ley travel and kept a unique code on his chest to help him navagate the complicated waters. The Spirit Well delves into the unpleasant business of how Arthur became separated from his map, while other characters both fair and foul seek the Skin Map for their own purposes.

Lawhead has attempted a complicated story, a tale only a master at his craft could accomplish. Thankfully, the author is such a master. The book gives a handy list of important characters followed by a short recap of the events so far. He then introduces the new character Cassandra to be his launch point into book 3.

One must pay attention and hang on tight, as the book does not proceed in a truly linear fashion. If you’re dealing with the multiverse, why should you? It weaves back and forth through many characters and locales in pushing the plot forward (for the most part). For readers of the series, there are points that explain questions from the first two books, which just whets the appetite for more.

There is action and excitement at times, but other moments are chances to admire Lawhead’s gift for bringing the reader into the varied settings. He is a world traveler and excellent researcher, so the details are expressive and inviting. I want to visit Damascus after reading the book (though perhaps not right now).

The story winds its journey like a lazy river. There are moments of rapids and white water, other times with beautiful scenery to enjoy, and occasions where it seems to wind back on itself. Still, the tale flows toward an ending that looks to be a revelation.

I really enjoyed the first book, but felt the second book had a slight letdown. The Spirit Well wins deeper affection from me. I am frustrated that I’ll be waiting another two years for the final resolution, but the Bright Empires journey is quite worth it.

So this is one man’s opinion. Becky Miller keeps a list of all of the tour participants, and there is more information there. Jim Armstrong picked up the book fresh without reading the others, and shares his thoughts on a complicated book viewed with new eyes.

I’ll be talking more about the faith element of the book tomorrow – this is a Christian tour after all. How can a book of multiple dimensions be considered Christian fiction?

Oh, I did receive a free copy in exchange for a fair review – nothing else.

CSFF Tour Day 1 – The Spirit Well

In Which We Jump Back To Move Ahead.
Welcome to the October 2012 CSFF Tour, featuring the best Christian Sci-fi and Fantasy reads available.
This month is a treat because we get to feature one of the greatest speculative fiction writers out there: Stephen Lawhead. His prolific work has been published and re-released and he keeps on stretching his boundaries and using new concepts to fuel his latest work, the Bright Empires series and the third in the five volume tale, The Spirit Well.
The enjoyable part of following a series on the tour is getting to read each one and not losing track of them. The difficulty becomes remembering all that happens and writing about it coherently, but I shall persevere and attept to set the record straight.
In the first book, The Skin Map, a rather ordinary Brit named Kit Livingstone got an unexpected visit from an older chap – who happened to be his great-grandfather. The man was quite spry for someone who should be dead.

It turns out that Kit’s family has the ability to travel via ley lines, special energy forces that were marked by primitive populations through mounds, lines, and other features that have long baffled modern research. These portals open to alternate dimensions, into the very Omniverse. Pretty handy overall.

The Skin Map introduces the quest for, you guessed it, the skin map, a series of tattoos on the skin of the most prolific ley traveler that could show the way to the fabled Spirit Well. Kit chases it and his girlfriend Mina (whom he accidentally lost while ley leaping, but ended up landing on her feet anyway). As any good quest should, he has a villian after him in the form of the evil Lord Burleigh, who has a group of thugs called Burley men trailing the hapless Kit.

In the second book The Bone House the adventure continues as Kit escapes death thanks to his resourceful Mina, the man behind the Skin Map (literally) plots the rescue of his beloved wife, and more is revealed about the origin of Lord Burleigh. Through twists and turns in time and space, we end up with Kit at the very edge of the mysterious Spirit Well.

Thus begins book three, which continues the tale. And this blog will continue to discuss tomorrow. If you’re waiting for more, please check out my fellow travelers below as we explore the labyrinthine Skin Map and see if we can do better than Kit. Or you can check out my prior posts on The Skin Map and The Bone House to get more in-depth on the previous books.

Jim Armstrong
 Julie Bihn
Red Bissell
Jennifer Bogart
Thomas Clayton Booher
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Brenda Castro
Jeff Chapman
Christine
Karri Compton
Theresa Dunlap
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Jeremy Harder