Monday, December 15, 2014

November/December 2014, CSFF Blog Tour - The Fatal Tree, by Stephen Lawhead

Stephen Lawhead brings his Bright Empires series to a close in the fifth installment, The Fatal Tree. A lot was going on in the first four books and if asked if everything came to a satisfying conclusion, I would say, 'Mmmmm, I guess so.' The End of Everything is reversed, the cast of characters more or less have settled into a happy state of affairs, even as some of those have taken an unexpected turn.

Foremost in mind is Lord Archelaus Burleigh, fiend par excellence who has been converted. Converted? Can we say that he was actually converted? I guess we can; that is, after all, the language used in the tale. And indeed there is a change with Burleigh, a very radical one at that. Since change is at the heart of conversion of any kind, I guess we can agree that such a word can be applied to the character.

However, I do have some serious questions about Burleigh's change of heart. The context of the conversion is the backdrop of the exemplary behavior of Etzel (the business partner and friend of Mina) who is a devout Catholic with a seemingly genuine sense of what it is to imitate Christ, and it is that relentless behavior that wore on Burleigh breaking down all barriers. As a side note, I want to give Etzel the benefit of the doubt, that his character and behavior are based on real New Testament conversion through faith in Christ alone as Lord and Savior without the need for meritorious works (in which case, he is a New Testament convert in spite of his Catholic doctrine which holds to conversion/justification through faith plus works). As a Calvinist, I must make the point, seeing that our theology cannot help but color our story-making, and we all hope our story is good because our theology is good. If not, I wonder how we can still call our writing at its very heart, Christian writing.

Given that context, Burleigh seemed to have undergone some deep seated conviction. His eyes were opened to his nefarious state, and he is so overwhelmed him that his only recourse (as he saw it) was to change and seek whatever means to undo all the wrong he had done. That does lead to a near disastrous miscue on his part that came out of intentions that were noble (I think), and that seemed to be enough for Kit to suddenly have some pity for the man (p 324).

My complaint is a Calvinistic one. Conversion is a work of God in the heart in which God produces a conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). Without such conviction there is no true repentance toward God and faith toward Christ (Acts 20:21). Burleigh's remorse is over his behavior of the past and the despicable results of that behavior, but it does not come across that he sees himself as a sinner in need of a Savior from that sin. He feels the need to make up for his wrongdoings rather than recognize there is nothing he can do to make up for them and that another must atone for them if he is to have any hope of forgiveness and cleansing.

I know, The Fatal Tree is a work of fantasy, but it is advertised as a Christian work of fantasy. Where is the gospel - the real gospel that you find in Paul whose desire was to boast in nothing but the cross of Christ by whom the world was crucified to him, and him to the world? Who insisted that it is not through keeping the law that one is justified before God (Rom 3:20), but through faith in Christ (Rom 3:22), and that law keeping is a result of salvation rather than the basis of it (Eph 2:10)? Burleigh's behavior does not look like repentance and faith as much as his seeking to fix things for the mess he has made.

The usual objection to this kind of inclusion of the gospel in a novel is that the story will become preachy or soppy or pedantic or confined. It's audience will be limited, and its prospect for publication by a respectable publishing house severely limited. 

Well, I would grant the latter although Thomas Nelson is no mean publishing house, and if the gospel were present in the Bright Empires series as I would like to see it, such a publishing house would not for that reason alone turn Lawhead away provided he applied his fabulous writing with a view to work out the gospel at the appropriate places (such as the conversion of Burleigh).

I must say this, that Mr. Lawhead's development of the inner struggle of Burleigh over Etzel's kindness was brilliant. There was nothing artificial in it, or soppy, or preachy, or pedantic. It was simply a magnificent portrait. My point is the same can be done with the gospel where sin, repentance, and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior can come through explicitly, genuinely, and naturally. I think that often the offense taken with Christian fiction (such as you see in Amazon reviews) has as much to do (if not more so) with the writing as with the message.

This was the final book in the saga. Did it have a satisfying conclusion? Did it draw all the strands together and bring a closure to the tale? Yes and no. We see what the end of the story is for all of the main characters, but I am a little bewildered. Foremost in my mind is Lady Fayth and Giles who are stranded in a time and place from which there will be no way out. They have only each other and there is the happy conclusion of their discovery of mutual love and resulting marriage. If these two meant anything to the reader, the reader began to root for their romance at some point in an earlier book in the series. But if you were like me, you also expected them to have a significant involvement in the final resolution of things. That they did not was disappointing to me.

I would not hesitate to recommend the Bright Empires series to anyone but would caution that the tale is quite convoluted. Nevertheless, if one bears with it, the complexity actually adds to the quality rather than detracts, and provides ample opportunity for the imagination to romp like a child in an amusement park.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. 

The Fatal Tree (Amazon)
Steven Lawhead's Website
Steven Lawhead's Facebook page


  1. Dude! Ever heard of *SPOILER ALERT* or 'This contains spoilers' ?? You totally give away the beginning, middle, and ending. Not cool.

    BTW - You slam Lawhead for not agreeing with your narrow Calvinist theology views? Whoa, man. Get a grip. You got to get out more.

  2. Your statement: " I think that often the offense taken with Christian fiction (such as you see in Amazon reviews) has as much to do (if not more so) with the writing as with the message." I agree!

    My take on Burleigh's conversion was that it was only partial, and was only meant to be seen as partial. He's been "converted" from his total commitment to living a self-focused, evil life, but he's not yet found anything that could really be called "salvation." Hence his attempt to remake himself, and the conversation with Gianni--which we only get a hint of at the end of the book--pointing him toward God.

  3. Great review! I was about to talk about Burleigh's conversion, but found Rachel had said most of the same that was on my mind. We see God drawing Burleigh, first through repentance, then through a desire for change, etc. If he had come to a complete understanding the ending as Lawhead wrote it would not have happened, so I think we find the man conflicted even as he is turning to God. The scene at the end with Gianni tells all, I think, as Rachel said.

    And even though it is not a full picture of conversion, it is a well written beginning which God could use to turn someone to himself. May it be.

    Thanks, Thomas!

  4. Interesting insights - I actually found the Burleigh/Etzel interactions interesting. I think the fact Burleigh's prison period wass over an extended period of time Etzel's influence on him can be believable, especially as he was "forgotten" by everyone else.

  5. As Rachel points out, Burleigh comes to see from Etzel's example that he had been on the wrong path but has nothing to replace it with. He grasps at the Spirit Well as a way to right his previous wrongs. I think this makes his change all the more believable.

  6. Agreed, Jeff.

    Meagan, I thought the same about Burleigh's prison time. A snap change I never would have believed, but all those months alone? Yeah, that would at least open the door.

  7. Thanks for the review of the conclusion to this series!