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.