Monday, October 22, 2012

The Spirit Well, Day One of the October 2012 CSFF Blog Tour

The Spirit Well, by Stephen Lawhead
Day One of the October 2012 CSFF Blog Tour

The Spirit Well is the third quest of the Bright Empires series. The saga began in The Skin Map which introduced ley travel and Arthur Flinders-Petrie or The Man Who is Map. It continued in the second quest, The Bone House, where the Well of Souls (The Spirit Well) was briefly encountered in its climax. And now, the third quest which advances the saga further wherein the threads of the first two continue to grow and bifurcate – an expected consequence of a story of ley travel.

Ley travel may be taken as a mistaken synonym for time travel but it is really a journey through space and time together. As such, the ley travelers of our story (and the number is growing) take the entranced reader backwards and forwards in time as well as hither and yon across the globe.

Ley travel reminds me of a rather primitive computer game I wrote for my daughter once (she was twelve then). Written in Commodore Basic for the Commodore 128, it allowed two players to compete by controlling their individual figures (best described as a disc) across a grid-like screen. The goal was to snatch and possess as long as possible a green diamond shaped object. The longer you carried it the more points you scored. If your opponent managed to intersect your object, he gained control of the green diamond and began to rack up the points. This was well and good but was too predictable. It needed some randomness, so I placed holes here and there in the grid; as the game progressed, more holes would appear. If your opponent was hot on your tail and you could make it to a hole in time, you could duck into it and come out at another hole whose location was unpredictable. Sometimes that helped, other times it did not – you might pop out right in the path of your pursuer and lose the diamond. My daughter and I enjoyed it for hours.

The popping into a hole and randomly popping out of another is like the ley jumps of our story. You may be in the United States one moment, and somewhere in the Middle East the next, and very possibly in a different decade or even century. Such was the experience of a new comer to the story. Cassandra Clarke, a paleontologist and hopeful Ph.D. is swept from her dig in Arizona and lands in a vast monochrome plain which has the feel of prehistory. Attempting to return the way she came, she is transported to Damascus where she has ‘the sensation of having wandered onto a movie set of a film about the 1930s.’

The Spirit Well is a cast of many characters, most of them introduced to us in the first two quests. Kit Livingstone, parted from his girlfriend (Wilhelmina) by the trickiness of ley travel, has ended up in the stone ages where he has taken up with primitives who have the uncanny ability to communicate telepathically. One wonders over the significance of that. He’s the one who has had a glimpse of the Well of Souls, transported there by ley travel, having slipped through the solid dirt floor of a house of bones the shape of an igloo. What he saw at the Well is significant and certain to play prominently in the grand quest.

Wilhelmina herself, a fussy and rather colorless personality, has ley traveled to medieval Prague, where she has become an enterprising and charming woman who has taken up a partnership with a likable baker. She introduced the coffe house to history and makes a fortune at it. She befriends some of the court of the mad emperor Rudolph and surreptitiously gains the possession of what she calls a ley lamp – a device that can detect ley activity, much like the gizmos of Ghostbusters which detect the paranormal activity of the spirit world. Through much practice, she learns to come and go as she pleases. In this third quest, she finds Brother Lazarus (aka Father Giambattis Becarra), an astronomer in Spain who himself is a ley traveler, a secret he was able to keep until Mina’s arrival. Mina poses as a nun, and learns much from Brother Lazarus about the mystery of the electromagnetic energies that allow one to pop in and out of space and time. He has a theory that one’s departure point along a ley line determines the time period of a traveler’s destination. Get that down and theoretically, one may travel to any point in history.

Lord Archelaeus Burleigh is a ruthless dealer in antiquities who has gained some expertise in ley travel (he is much the genius behind the device for astral exploration, i.e., Mina’s ley lamp) and thereby has obtained countless treasures by which he has made a fortune.

The fate of Arthur Flinders-Petrie and his son Benedict is revealed. Arthur, the original expert of ley travel, who had discovered something marvelous but kept the secret to himself, mapped his travels and discoveries through tattoos on his skin. This map was removed from Arthur’s body and made into a parchment; the details of how this happened are explained in this quest.

Charles Flinders-Petrie (son of Benedict), whose faults and vices are not to be overlooked, turns out to be a somewhat compassionate and discerning character. He manages to do something with his portion of the Skin Map that keeps it out of the hands of his shady and dangerous son, Douglas – for the time being at any rate. Douglas, a college drop out, has his own interests in the Skin Map and does some terrible things as a result of it.

The swelling tide of the story reaches a high point with the revelation of the Zetetic Society and two of its colorful and charming members, Brendan Hanno and Mrs. Rosemary Peelstick. These take Cassandra into their confidence and reveal the purpose of the society. Cassandra seems to undergo a conversion of sorts and is inducted into the Society, the first in over a hundred years, and now the youngest living member.

The Spirit Well, the Skin Map, the Zetetic Society, Arthur’s secret discovery are what the quest of the Bright Empires series is about. This third book, in all of its byzantine threads, carries the reader through ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, and places of the relatively modern day. The customs, traditions, architecture, medical and business practices, legends and myths of eras past are exquisitely woven together with such vividness and pertinence to the story that one has the feel of being there in the middle of it all – and that is the mark of a great writer.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Spirit Well for review on the October, 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

The Spirit Well 
Stephen Lawhead's Website

Stephen Lawhead on Facebook
CSFF Bloggers for this tour


  1. Great review, Thomas.

    I would disagree, though, that Wilhelmina is colorless. It may seem so from the third novel, but she was quite the focus in the first two, and there you get to know her more.

    Thanks for being part of the the tour!

  2. I winced at the "colorless" term as well (though I complained about the author himself calling Wilhelmina "unlikable" in his writeup in The Bone House!). I think the idea is that before she made it to Prague she was colorless? I didn't read the first book so perhaps I'm wrong.

  3. Thanks Robert and Julie for your comments. I was referring to Wilhelmina as she is portrayed at the very beginning in The Skin Map. For example, here are Kit's internal thoughts on page 29 (of The Skin Map):

    As Kit watched her slouch back to her big blue sofa, which was her habitual nest, he was once more impressed with the idea that he simply had to get a better girlfriend at first opportunity. Dressed in black slacks and a black turtleneck with the horrible, ratty, hand-knitted purple scarf she wore everywhere, with her feet stuffed into flat-heeled, sheepskin boots, she was a dead ringer for the undertaker's anemic daughter. Why, he wondered, did she have to look so austere? Whatever happened to sugar and spice? When enumerating the qualities he desired in a mate, vim and vigor, a zest for life, and a keenness of mind and intellect came quite near the top of the list. Wilhelmina's idea of excitement was an extra scoop of sultanas in the cinnamon buns. Her intellect might have been keen enough--if anyone could ever catch her awake long enough to stimulate her into meaningful conversation.

    Catch my meaning?

    By the way, isn't this an excellent piece of writing? Also, it is quite interesting how all the things that Kit looks for in a mate eventually come out in Wilhelmina.

  4. Interesting thoughts, I think Kit and Mina are well matched in personality at the beginning of The Skin Map. They like each other but are put off by their demeanor. But as the series progresses they become whom they were meant to be. They just needed the stimulus of Ley Travel to awaken them to the possibility of something greater than themselves with which to occupy their mind.

  5. I just want to give extra geek cred for mentioning Commodore Basic in there (although I was always a Sinclair person myself)

  6. thanks for sharing..