He’s a homeless man living on the streets of Oxford, trying to eat and yearning for the realms thereunder. She’s an Oxford student with a lifetime of lies and an abundance of compulsions – dreading every day the realms thereunder. It’s hard to say which of them has the bigger problem.
As children, Daniel and Freya were trapped in another world. As young adults, they live uneasily in this one. She’s running from the same thing he’s looking for, but as before, the question will be settled by other powers.
From Narnia on down we’ve read stories of people who pass from our humdrum world into a magical one. At first glance, The Realms Thereunder appears to be one of those stories. At second glance, it looks a little different. It reminds me of the old folk tales, where a miller could fall asleep in a cave and wake up to find himself in the fairies’ court. It’s new and dangerous territory, yet you know that it’s not a different world so much as a hidden part of our own. So too with the realms thereunder: It is, secretly, our world.
Ross Lawhead achieves this sense of unity largely by building his underground world with our history and our myths. The repeated – and historically accurate – allusions to King Alfred and the Danes form a strong connection. So, in a stranger way, do the legends Lawhead brings in and makes out to be part of our history – a lost part, as the realms thereunder are a hidden part of our world.
There are other ways in which Ross Lawhead integrates old fairytales into his story. His Elves are less Tolkienesque, more traditional. In this he reminds me of D. Barkley Briggs, the last author we toured. Different as Briggs’ fairies are from Lawhead’s Elves, both are a definite break from Tolkien’s idealized Elves. Both are a return to the ambiguity of the old folk stories. Lawhead employs the old superstition about the Fair People fearing iron and – in an inspired moment – takes his readers to a fairy market.
The construction of Realms Thereunder is unusual in two ways that, I believe, bear mentioning. One is that the book is written from an omniscient viewpoint. The narrator, however, is reserved despite his omniscience; he slips through perspectives but rarely inserts his own. Secondly, the book alternates between telling a story in the present and a story in the past. Stories built like this are more difficult for writers to do well and readers to enjoy, but Lawhead manages it with smooth competence.
I will say that the book could have used a more robust editing process. There were a number of small substantive errors. Early in the book, a character kills an inhuman creature that attacks him, spilling its “black lifeblood”. Then our hero hastily cleans himself up, rubbing the thing’s blood off his skin until only a “thin red film” is left. Black blood leaves a red film?
Or the author simply forgot what he’d already written. My money’s on that one, because a few chapters later the creatures are said to have brown blood.
There were other little things that should have been caught, such as the moment when one character was “constantly rejecting the almost constant impulse”. It may have also been better not to use long or still twice in the same sentence.
In the larger things of the story, Lawhead acquits himself well. He lays a fascinating premise and carries it off satisfyingly. The worlds he creates are vivid – sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible. Daniel and Freya, the protagonists, are realistic and sympathetic. They feel unfinished, but in a good way, one that left me wanting to see how the story will mold and make them. The Realms Thereunder is a good book – and, I trust, the beginning of a good series.
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