Tuesday, October 23, 2012

CSFF Blog Tour - The Bright Empires series - The Spirit Well by Stephen R. Lawhead

Julie again, for the CSFF Blog Tour!

Book: The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead (Facebook).

Ridiculously simplified summary: 3rd in a series. Several explorers, good and bad, manipulate "ley lines" of energy to travel through space and time. All seek the Skin Map, which outlines these leys, and could even guide a traveler to the Fountain of Youth. Meanwhile, a new face stumbles onto a ley line. Will she embark on the adventure thrust before her?

Content: Characters are still seeking a human-skin map. There's a rather graphic scene of a Egyptian medical procedure fairly early on, and more violence at the end.

Regarding Christianity, it comes into play a lot more, though parts of it seem a bit universalist to me. A major character (new to this book) is called upon to follow what is good and she believes God exists, so that's good, but thus far there was little reference to Christianity. One character, an ex-atheist, notes "so much religious dogma serves only to buttress power and befuddle the masses, it really deserves to be ridiculed. I mean, you hear the so-called revivalists banging on about heaven and hell and what not--do any of them really know about such things? They claim to know what God wants and what he demands...Bosh! ... Anyone who tells you he knows the mind of God is selling something. You can take that to the bank." This same basic group of characters notes a strange rule I've never heard of before, that demons/dark forces can't hear you converse if you're inside a church. (Which makes me wonder why everyone doesn't have all their meetings in churches.) Some good notes on prayer as well, and some other neat ideas I won't spoil here, though again, not necessarily specific as to Christianity proper.

This book touches on the idea of using time-travel to potentially change the past (something which seemed forbidden in The Bone House). It appears each person can perhaps only inhabit one dimension at a time...by that measure, maybe every person in existence is really only one person (not several different versions), which makes the eternal/salvation implications more plausible.


Compelling: 9 out of 10. Honestly, I don't feel like much progress has been made on the macro-end of things, given that none of the heroes knows how to read the piece of Skin Map they acquired, and the titular item only appears through a character telling his story, if I recall correctly. But this book somehow made me want to continue reading. A new character comes up to join our heroes and while I didn't find her to be anything special, I was fascinated by the group she stumbles upon.

My main problem is that I still don't care for some of the characters and have absolutely no interest in their storylines. There are numerous threads to the story, and there are some I just don't care about.

Characters: 6 out of 10. I liked some of the characters, but I didn't feel like the newcomer, Cass, was markedly different from any other characters. However, she served as a bit of a cypher for me once she makes the leap--a character I can observe and project my experiences onto.

I feel like the characters kind of start to bleed together, and as I mentioned before, I feel distanced from them. Some of the descriptions were rather lacking, too...I am still trying to figure out where Brendan is described as being older, until the word "fatherly" is used near the end (though it was implied by the context of his companions earlier). I'd imagined him as handsome and not terribly old from the initial description of "a tall, thin man in a three-piece suit of pale cream linen topped off with a natty white panama hat."

But that said, the book can work without all the characters being compelling.

Writing/editing: 6 out of 10. Readers probably won't notice, but I feel like editing got notably sloppy in the second half or so. The story turns into a fair sea of adverbs and unnecessarily-fancy dialogue tags. On page 243, in the span of 4 paragraphs, we have "he replied pleasantly," "he observed mildly," and "replied Cass lamely." Page 327 uses dialogue tags of "(character) allowed with a shrug," "concluded (character)," and "(character) agreed." Writing teachers and critiquers alike drill it into writers' heads that you should simply tag dialogue with "said" or an action tag. (As in, instead of "he allowed with a shrug," just say "he shrugged.")

In fairness, there are similar tag issues even at the start...it may feel more pronounced near the end because there are a lot of lengthy conversations with no action going on. As a writer, I know tagging dialogue is not always easy. It's just something I expect a publishing house's editor to pick up on. Unless, of course, Lawhead has reached that unfortunate point of popularity where publishers just want to get the work out as quickly as possible and no longer really edit.

Plausibility/believability: 5 out of 5. I'm from Arizona, and the portrayal of Sedona felt like Arizona all over. (Except I think Cass is silly if she wore a headscarf instead of a hat to shield herself from the sun.) I "saw" London (two time periods!), Damascus, and monasteries. Descriptions of places got rather more attention than people, I felt, but that actually meshes all right with my personality.

Positive: 5 out of 5. Some rather graphic evil at the end, but I'm still so fascinated by some of the ideas, I can't help but find it positive. (Also, if you can travel through time, maybe evil can be undone?)

Gut reaction: 5 out of 5. I'll admit this is mostly just me projecting my own ideas onto the book, but some people say that's an important part of the reading process.

When Cass meets the Zetetic Society they appear to be a bunch of loons, and I'm still not sure that they're completely sane, but I was so caught up in the idea of a club of seasoned travelers trying to do good. How amazing would that be? I'm projecting, but it makes me want to go off on an adventure, gamble it all, or at least use my powers for good. A series about these travelers--as opposed to the inadvertent wanderers grasping about for a Skin Map--could be a more fun world to visit than anything at Hogwarts.

Unlike when I finished The Bone House, I'd consider seeking out the next book in the series.

Bonus points: 5 out of 5.

Total Rating: 4.1 out of 5 stars

Here are the other blog tour participants:

Jim Armstrong
Julie Bihn
Red Bissell
Jennifer Bogart
Thomas Clayton Booher
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Brenda Castro
Jeff Chapman
Karri Compton
Theresa Dunlap
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Jeremy Harder
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Janeen Ippolito
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Anna Mittower
Joan Nienhuis
Lyn Perry
Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Dona Watson
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler

*In conjunction with the CSFF blog tour, I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.


  1. Julie, this is your typical thorough review. I love it! I think your ridiculously simplified summary is spot on! I'll be happy if I can write such a cogent overview of this complex story.

    I thought your remarks about the characters were interesting. I had actually thought the opposite. In fact, I so often hate books with multiple point of view characters because I lose track of which person and what their story line is at almost every shift. In The Spirit Well however, I felt more sure of each one, possibly because of the previous two books. At any rate, I thought for such a complex plot and so many shifts in time and place or dimension, I didn't lose track of who the characters were or what they wanted.

    An observation about the dialogue tags--because there are British spellings, I am assuming the Bright Empires is being edited based on UK standards. Scrapping adverbs and recommending the bland verb "said" as the predominant tag is apparently an American thing (see, for example, the Harry Potter books by British author J. K, Rowling).

    I'm with you in thinking that Mr. Lawhead went to a lot of trouble to render each new place in a realistic, believable manner. At times, I thought, Ah, yes, we are dealing with a man who has written historical novels, after all.

    This one is my favorite of the series so far. I'm looking forward to the next one, too.


  2. Thanks for a good, in depth interview. You brought up a lot of points I hadn't noticed. Though I'm a sucker for long, multi-volume epics. :)

  3. Becky, do you have any examples besides Harry Potter? I know JK Rowling got so big that the editors pretty much gave her free rein. Just curious if it's a British thing or more that the British authors that make it over here are so popular, they're allowed to do what they want. :) Or possibly some of each.

    Thanks for the thoughts, all! (Er, both!)

  4. Great review! I agree that it can be hard to keep all the multiple character story-lines straight. I agree that at first I wasn't sure about the introduction of Cass, but over time I became intrigued by her character and I'm eager to see what is in store for Cass next! Great review!

    Jeremy Harder

  5. I like your review system, Julie. It covers so many important facets of the story.

    I also thought the line about how "they can't hear us here" was a little strange. From a spiritual point of view, it didn't strike me as credible.

    It did put me in mind of Frank Peretti, just like the "Omega Point" bit put me in mind of the End Times. Both times I thought: Stephen Lawhead wouldn't go in that direction. Would he?

    I expect it will be fun to find out. Thanks for the review, Julie.

  6. Excellent review and I really like your rating system, although I would recommend keeping the scale consistent (x of 10 or x of 5).

  7. Thanks, Shannon and Nathan!

    Nathan, the review system is explained at http://kinynchronicles.blogspot.com/p/reviews.html ...basically, Maggie and I weigh certain elements more (yes, I really do think it's twice as important for a book to be compelling than to be plausible :) ). Then I total up all the points to come up with a final star rating...50 points turns to X.X/5 stars. Sorry if it's confusing, though. :/

  8. This is am amazingly through and concise review. YOU get five stars in my opinion. Note: I really liked the book too, and decided to overlook the adverbs because I think Lawhead started writing at a time when they were considered fine. Most readers probably don't care anyway.

  9. I also thought that some of the Christianity points seemed universalist, but at this point I'm willing to wait it out and see if Lawhead did that on purpose or not.

    I liked Cass as a character, though, but that may be because I still feel like I'm 25 in my head. Even though I haven't been 25 in a couple years now. Oh well. :D

  10. Thanks, Phyllis and Rebekah! I had a hard time overlooking the adverbs in the end, even if they may have been a purposeful choice. Most readers absolutely don't care, though; you're right, Phyllis.

    Yeah, Rebekah, Cass was fine; I liked her better as the book progressed. She does seem more interesting than Kit so far anyway. :)


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