Tuesday, March 09, 2010

It all began with the Aurochs

So begins the The Paradise War, the first book in the Song of Albion trilogy by Stephen Lawhead. Cynical Oxford grad student Lewis Gillies is convinced by his roommate Simon to drive to Scotland to investigate the truth behind a tabloid photo of an long extinct type of oxen. Upon arriving, they make several discoveries, including an ancient mound known as a cairn. But before Lewis can stop him, Simon goes into the cairn and disappears. Believing that he has fallen victim to one of Simon's pranks, Lewis returns home. Very quickly however, strange events begin to overwhelm him and Lewis learns that he must find Simon and bring him home before the whole world is threatened. This launches him on an amazing adventure that continues in The Silver Hand and The Endless Knot.

This hidden gem was introduced to me by a friend's wife and has turned out to be among the best fantasy literature I've ever read. Lawhead is an adoring anglophile as evidenced by his other major works, the Pendragon Cycle (his own retelling of the King Arthur legend) and The King Raven Trilogy (a retelling of the Robin Hood legend). Steeped in Celtic mythology, Albion is no different. In fact, Lawhead's expertise is such that it is nearly impossbile to tell where facts and history end, and fantasy begins.

The trilogy is written in first person which has its strengths and weaknesses. Seeing and experiencing everything through the eyes of Lewis really makes you feel a part of the story. However, as time goes on you want to respond to the story in your own way rather than being told. A narrator change in the second book is a nice touch and allows you to experience the world from a new perspective.

The setting is richly told. The plot is well-crafted and full of layers. The prose and dialogue are excellent. But Lawhead's greatest strength is his characters. From heroes to villians and everyone in between, Lawhead peoples his world with distinct, interesting and sincere characters, giving each an opportunity to show they matter.

I was also very impressed by Lawhead's powerful, yet nuanced inclusion of Biblical themes. There is too much to give it justice in this short review, but through the plot, parables, prophecies, character arcs, and imagery, Lawhead explores the corruption and redemption of creation, good vs. evil, providence, and liberation from sin. All of this is done with the right amount of thoughtfulness and subtly.

My only real criticism is with the ending where things seemed a bit rushed and incomplete. All said however, The Song of Albion is an outstanding fantasy series that has found itself among my favorites, and placed Lawhead firmly in the tradition of Tolkien and Lewis.


Nathan said...

Right on, I'll have to check that out. I really enjoyed Lawhead's book, Byzantium, for some of the same reasons that you like Albion. The history really does melt into fantasy unnoticed. Nice blog, Jake!

JUSTIN said...