In the Beginning …

This (nearly) past year saw the publication of my second novel The Valley of Decision – the culmination of a long process that began six years ago. At that time, I had finished the manuscript that became The Last Heir and I needed a new project. I had never written fantasy, had never planned or even particularly wanted to write fantasy. But there were three influences coming together to lead me there.

First, there was Steven Curtis Chapman’s song “Burn the Ships”, in which he re-told the tale of how Cortes, well, burned his ships. (I should note here I’m listing the influences in reverse order of importance.) What captivated me in this song was the sense of radical commitment, the blazing will to never go back, even if only death lay ahead. This roosted in my imagination for a long while, before coming home in Keiran, the chief character of The Valley of Decision. (The burning of the ships also directly inspired Keiran’s destruction of Dokrait.)

Second, I was in those days repeatedly reading G. K. Chesterton’s poem The Song of the Wheels, whose phrases and lines recurred in my mind like a song. I eventually memorized it, and that was pure efficiency, as I no longer needed to go fishing up the written form. The Song of the Wheels is the song of “the little things” – “only men”, “a gasp is all their breath” – and how they broke free of King Dives and his hives “full of thunder, where the lightning leaps and kills”. I think I understand the poem better now, but I fully felt it even then, the oppression of the weak and the freedom they gained when they finally grew bold enough to choose.

My final inspiration was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I had already read the books years before, but a new thought struck me regarding the story: Why were the Men enslaved to Sauron and Sauraman always enemies – usually to be defeated, occasionally to be pitied, but still only enemies? Why couldn’t they ever be heroes? I thought a rebellion of the slaves against their Dark Lord would have been tremendous. In my imagination, I could see some sort of captain of the slaves making a direct assault on the Dark Lord. While quoting Chesterton’s Song of the Wheels.

With this scene playing in my head, I began to consider writing the story of the slave rebellion against the dark lord. I took up the work of all writers, even writers who tell stories about imaginary people in non-existent worlds: research. I began exploring European folklore, and I grew intrigued by what I found.

The neat divisions of our modern culture – beautiful fairies, benevolent elves, mean goblins, grumpy dwarves – are wholly upended in the old stories. I was impressed, too, by how alien and sinister Faerie was to mankind in old-fashioned fairytales. Tolkien, I came to see, had rather glorified the Elves; certainly, in the old world where the tales of Faerie were first told, no right-thinking mortal was ever off his guard around faeries of any description.

These realizations came to impact deeply The Valley of Decision, which existed then as only the germ of an idea. I hope, in the weeks and months ahead, to explore how. With this post, I open a new series – “Through the Valley (of Decision)”.

CSFF Blog Tour: Post-Script

I don’t have a whole lot to say, but, well, here I am talking anyway.

This is the last day of the last CSFF blog tour for the Bright Empires series, and I wanted to wrap up with a final note – a post-script, if you will. The Bright Empires series would not be enjoyed by everyone; to some extent, it is a specialized taste, an unusual amalgam of historical, fantastical, and science fiction held together by old-fashioned writing. The style of the whole is old-school – slower, fuller, and richer than the modern style. You know that Stephen Lawhead is a successful author because they let him write books like this.

Not in spite of that, but partially because of it, I enjoyed the Bright Empires series first to last. I gave my reasons yesterday: the convincing characters, the skilled writing, the richness of its history and the fascination of its sci-fi and fantasy concepts. It was quite a journey, and I’m glad for it. For that, I owe kudos to Stephen Lawhead …

… and thanks to Becky Miller, who has for years ably run the blog tour that introduced me to the Bright Empires series and to Stephen Lawhead.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Fatal Tree

The universe, they say, is constantly expanding. If it ever stops expanding, it will then begin to contract. Once it begins to contract, it will eventually collapse, and that will be the End of Everything. Everything is a lot, especially in the multiverse.

In The Fatal Tree, the conclusion of Stephen Lawhead’s five-part Bright Empires saga, our heroes face the greatest calamity of all. They must find a way to save the multiverse – to travel back, by way of the fatal tree, to that place where everything was undone.

The Fatal Tree, with its doppelgangers and space observatory chapters, probably has the strongest flavor of sci-fi of any Bright Empires novel. The historical element, by contrast, fades a bit into the background; it maintains a presence, most crucially in the confounding of times and eras, but there is no in-depth plunge to compare with the explorations of The Skin Map.

The first half of the book is less urgent in confronting the End of Everything than I would have expected. Lawhead spends a couple chapters wrapping up storylines from the previous books, and he also pursues another storyline whose importance to the ultimate resolution is not immediately obvious. The people who are trying to avert the catastrophe don’t get very far, or go around in circles, or mostly make scientific measurements of the coming end.

The conclusion of the book was far more focused and urgent than the opening. Still, in one important respect I would have changed it. [By the way: SPOILERS!] I would have had Arthur Flinders-Petrie choose not to save his wife, rather than simply be prevented from doing so. It would have been more satisfying, and more emotional; it would even have made the protagonists’ victory more definite. I also felt that, in a way, Lawhead owed it to Arthur, as an important and good (as in, heroic) character, to give him that moment. I even felt Lawhead owed that moment to us as readers: Weren’t we invested in Arthur and his story? [SPOILERS OFF]

Finally – I’m just going to park all my complaints about the story right here – I was unpleasantly surprised by the sudden cursing in this book. It was a little odd to have a main protagonist start cursing at the end of a five-book series, though I would rather have him curse only in the last book than in all of them.

Yet and all, I enjoyed The Fatal Tree. I enjoyed it more than The Shadow Lamp, and probably even The Spirit Well. One reason for that is, I’ll admit straight off, the sidelining of the Zetetic Society, who had in earlier books contributed pages and pages of vague yet disagreeable philosophizing. I was always suspicious of them and now, at the end of the series, when they have still done nothing wrong … I’m still suspicious.

More importantly, I admired what Lawhead did with Burleigh, his villain. I always enjoyed Burleigh as a villain, and the journey Lawhead charted for him was marvelous. I have rarely seen an author who could, with so much credibility, draw so much out of one character.

I also liked the confusion of times and even of the multiverse; it was very interesting and appropriately sinister. As a sci-fi fan, I liked the ‘cosmic loop’ as well.

Now, having criticized one element of the ending, I must praise the whole. It was magnificent, brilliantly imagined and shot through with powerful emotions. Kit’s vision of God had a sense of mystery and of awe, and so a certain glory. I appreciated, too, the happy endings, so well-painted, and the nod to the first book at the very end of the last book.

At the end of this series, I commend The Fatal Tree – and the entire Bright Empires series – as a work of complex characters, fascinating concepts, rich historical milieus, masterful writing, and fantastic imagination.

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

CSFF Blog Tour: Intrepid Explorers, Intrepid Bloggers

It was four years ago that Thomas Nelson published The Skin Map, by Stephen Lawhead, and so began the Bright Empires series. Every fall since then, a new Bright Empires book has come out: The Bone House, The Spirit Well, The Shadow Lamp. We of the CSFF blog tour reviewed every one, boldly following the intrepid explorers of the multiverse in their travels through time and space, tracing the cosmic snarls with vim and mental acuity and carefully made charts.

The Fatal Tree, the newest Bright Empires novel, came out in October, bang on time. Now the CSFF is touring it – continuing, and concluding, the tradition, for with The Fatal Tree, the Bright Empires series finally comes home.

So come and join us for the last tour. The publisher offered temporary tattoos to the tourers, supposed to resemble the tattoos worn by Arthur Flinders-Petrie, the Man Who Was The Map (long story). The tourers who accepted will be posting pictures of themselves, or someone they know, sporting the tattoos; Julie Bihn has done so already.

I personally will not be sporting any tattoos, but let the record show that I am typing this up wearing glittery nail polish. And now, for the links …

The Fatal Tree on Amazon;

Stephen Lawhead’s website;

Stephen Lawhead’s Facebook page;

and the (occasionally tattooed) tourers:

Julie Bihn
Thomas Clayton Booher
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Karri Compton
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Jason Joyner
Janeen Ippolito
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller

Jalynn Patterson
Writer Rani

Nathan Reimer
Audrey Sauble
Jojo Sutis
Rachel Starr Thomson

Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler

Movie Review: Arthur Christmas

Arthur’s heart was in the right place; it was his feet that usually weren’t. He wasn’t quite harmless – certainly not to the elves he routinely tripped over, whose home he once accidentally melted.

But he meant well.

Arthur Christmas is a story of Santa, his wife, his father, and his two sons. If you ever wondered how Santa Claus could visit every child in the world in one night, here’s your answer. If you ever wanted to see the intersection of a military operation, a mega-corporation, and a fairy tale, here’s your chance.

There is not much unique in the premise or themes of Arthur Christmas. We’ve all seen the modernistic re-take on old cultural standbys, from Santa to superheroes to the monsters beneath our childhood beds. We’ve seen many stories of Santa, stories of misfits at the North Pole, stories about saving Christmas and learning its spirit.

But the ideas are still good, and at any rate Christmas is not the best playing field for originality. God wrote the Christmas story, and our own stories are meant to catch echoes of His – even if only in a dim note of hope or good cheer.

As expected as the ideas of Arthur Christmas are, there is some freshness in the execution. The Claus family passing down the position of Santa from one generation to the next is new, and the movie draws a lot from it. In many ways Arthur Christmas is a film about family. There’s a fine-edged realness to the portrayal; we see their love, and the complexity of hurt and longing that too often grows up around love.

Arthur Christmas also makes a striking variation to the saving-Christmas theme. Here Christmas Eve came off with brisk efficiency … except for one small glitch. Out of a billion or so gifts, one was missed. One child was missed. Arthur’s urgent, flailing effort was for one child.

And by exchanging the generalization of children for the reality of a child, Arthur Christmas adds power to the story. Arthur’s mission is that much more poignant, his heart that much bigger. Anyone at the North Pole would have moved heaven and earth for all the children of the world. But Arthur, like the shepherd leaving his ninety-nine to search for the one lost, did it for one child, whose name he knew.

Arthur Christmas is a lighthearted story, most of it fun and funny. But it had its moments of tenderness and seriousness, enough to give another depth to the film. If you, like me, keep a list of Christmas viewing, Arthur Christmas deserves to be added.

Review: Big Hero 6

If you really want to get the bad guy, it’s logical to conclude you need a hero. You might further conclude, especially if you’re fourteen, that you need a superhero.

But to go from there to creating a superhero? For that, you need adolescent logic combined with genius-level skill. So enter, stage-right, Hiro Hamada, the protagonist of Disney’s just-released Big Hero 6.

I’ve never had much interest in superheroes; I don’t know why, although I suspect it’s related to why I never cared for comic books. But I knew I wanted to see Big Hero 6, due in large part to my memories of The Incredibles and Frozen. (This makes sense. Frozen was a Disney computer-animated movie, and it was very good; The Incredibles was a computer-animated superhero movie, and it was excellent; Big Hero 6 is a Disney computer-animated superhero movie. See? It follows.)

From the very beginning, Big Hero 6 exhibits its blended nature. It’s a superhero film, yes, but beneath the flash and action is an essentially sci-fi framework. The city of San Fransokyo – a delicious mesh of Tokyo and San Francisco – and elements such as bot-fighting create a world that is near to ours and yet misses it entirely. This may be the future, and it may be an alternate universe, but either way, it’s sci-fi. The story brings even “harder” sci-fi concepts into play, anchoring deeper into science fiction and eventually leading to one of the film’s most imaginatively beautiful moments.

The characters are likable (especially Tadashi) and often quirky (especially Wasabi and, uh, Fred). As in Frozen, a sibling relationship is the linchpin of the story. But here the relationship is less complex and far more positive. It’s also brother/brother, which I mention to bring up something I’ve long wondered about: Why, on those unusual occasions when sibling relationships really are important in a story, are they almost always brother/brother, or sister/sister, and not sister/brother?

There’s a dose of tragedy in Big Hero 6 – nothing new in that, even for a so-called “family movie”, but the movie digs deeper and darker than normal. It deals strongly, though with a light hand, in themes of revenge. The movie also raises the old comfort that “He lives on in our hearts” – a standard consolation when people want to provide some assurance of continuing life but don’t want to bring up heaven. But Big Hero 6 breaks form to portray dissatisfaction with the comfort: “He’s gone” – a simple counterpoint, simply expressed, but true and right at the heart of the matter.

Not that the movie seeks comfort in heaven, or that dissatisfaction is disbelief. All truths can seem like platitudes in the face of death, and to believe is not always to be comforted. But it was a sad moment and an honest one, and it felt almost subversive.

More than anything else, Big Hero 6 is a movie of enormous creativity. From the futuristic (or AU) world of San Fransokyo to a glimpse of what I can only imagine to be some sort of fourth dimension; from the robots and other tech to the incredible CGI that brought them to full glory – the cleverness of this movie is wonderful.

And so, for that matter, is its heart. As Big Hero 6 follows Tangled and Frozen, I think we’re on the wave of the third Disney Renaissance.