The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Spirit Well Book Review

The Spirit Well by Stephen Lawhead is the third book in the Bright Empires Series. Having not read the first two books in this series, I relied on previous posts from the CSFF blog tour to catch up. For background information and plot prior to this book, I refer you to my Dad's posts from the CSFF blog tour here and here. For the plot in this story, here is my Dad's post as well.

What I want to focus on is the writing of Lawhead. I do not think I have ever read a work of fiction that utilizes such a wide range of vocabulary. The real genius isn't just using "big" words, but using them skillfully, and I believe Lawhead does so masterfully. Many of the words I admit I was unfamiliar with or knew only vaguely, but he placed them so well that, in context, I could grasp the gist of their meaning. This is how I knew he wasn't just going on and looking up fancy words to make his vocabulary and writing prowess seem better than it is. He is able to describe scenery well with few words, and for me, his description of people, places, and things is part of the story itself. Following Orson Scott Card then, I would argue this is in part a milieu story. I could not write a milieu story, I simply do not have the descriptive skill, vocabulary, and probably the artistic imagination to pull it off and keep readers interested. Besides, I do not think it is my style, nor is it in vogue with readers today. All that means is that Lawhead is excellent at what he does, because his books sell, and they aren't the flavor of the month. I highlighted much in this book just so I could go back and look at how he describes things, or even explains the way in which a character spoke something or gestured with their bodies. These things may seem unimportant, but to be able to paint the picture in the mind of the reader with few words and yet in a variety of ways I think is key to writing a novel that doesn't become stale half way through.

Here are some examples of Lawhead's writing that I thought were incredible:

"She left the wagon outside the Kaffeehaus and went inside. The air was warm and full of the yeasty scent of dough on the rise. Mina drew a breath deep into her lungs. A few patrons idled over their coffee and strudel in an atmosphere of peace and calm. The warm scent of fresh coffee and rising dough mingled in the air. I love this place, she thought. Is there anywhere better than this?"

This may seem to be pretty pedestrian, but when I first read it, I was thinking how I would like to be there, in that atmosphere, with those aromas. So the last sentence, when Mina is saying these very things, isn't Lawhead trying to sell what he couldn't in his description: that the coffee house is a delicious place to be. Notice also the description itself takes up only four short sentences, and yet it is enough to make us, or me at least, want to be there.

As I said earlier, I wouldn't try, at this point in my life, to write a milieu story. Lawhead traveled to the places he wrote about in his book (many of them at least, from my understanding), and he has studied up on the history that is interwoven into the tale. Ley travel became a necessity to tie these places together, so Lawhead could show off all his knowledge and create this masterful tale, yet Ley travel itself is also part of history, so its usage doesn't seem artificial or imposed onto the story but is the perfect, invisible glue that makes what could be a very disjointed story fit perfectly together. This reminds me of The Da Vinci Code or the National Treasure movies, and I mean that as a compliment. I could see these books being films, or perhaps even more fitting, as a T.V. series akin to Fringe.

Another sampling of his writing:

"The balmy air was sweet with the fragrance of jasmine and hibiscus. They strolled the garden lit by the lambent glow of candle-lit lanterns set along the paths around the sacred pool, which seemed radiant with the reflected light of a ripening moon and a bright spray of stars."

Short, but not simple. This is good writing, and Lawhead knows it. In this case, the description is more than just description for the sake of it, more than a "look ma I can write" moment, because the next paragraph draws from the description to advance the plot. One of the characters has a painful memory triggered by the scenery. You would have to do a good enough job of painting the scene in order for the reader to actually believe that the scenery itself could recall such a poignant moment in one's life. And again, it works. I particularly like the description of the moon as "ripening." Lawhead's writing has probably most helped me in my writing in regards to descriptions and thinking in categories that I am not used to thinking.

Here is Lawhead's description of one ley-leaping:

"Within four determined paces, she felt the familiar tingle on her skin. A breeze gusted over the crest of the bank and swirled around her long skirt. Three more steps carried her to the next stone marker. The banks of the Hollow Way grew hazy. The twilight dimmed, and she felt the path fall away beneath her feet. For an instant her ears were filled with the howling screech of the void, and misty rain spattered her face and neck. By now a more experienced ley-leaper, she was ready for the awkward lurch as the trail came up beneath her once more, the ground level slightly higher this time. Taking the jolt in her knees, she managed to remain upright, took two more steps, and stopped to look around." 

It's believable, and it's descriptive. One thing I think Lawhead does well is simply describe things as they are. He doesn't exaggerate to try and get his imagery across. When someone is upset, they don't start ripping their clothes off and crying woe is me like Isaiah before the presence of God. I think bad writing can be like bad acting. You can tell someone is acting in a movie when they are trying too hard, when they are melodramatic and overdue their emotion, enunciation, and so on. True, on Broadway and in most plays this is done, but it has to be done so the live audience can see what is going on. But in writing what you see is what is written, and when books come off like amateur, high school plays, I gag. When I look at my own writing and see the amateurish, over acting of my characters, I gag, because I know I am doing that because I have not written that particular section well enough to just tell it like it is in a brilliant, beautiful way that makes the seemingly ordinary appear as the extraordinary that it actually is.

At this point I want to refer readers to this message given by George Grant for the Reformation Bible College (the college at which I am a student) Fall Conference. It is entitled Inklings of Wonder, that should whet your appetites. The reason I mention this is because Grant brings in a theology behind writing, saying that Tolkien, Lewis, and others like them understood that all of creation reflects God's glory, and they saw the exquisite beauty in the simple things like a bright lit meadow, or a bright starry sky on a cold winter night. Or simply, the woods. They really were able to bring out the wonder of God's creation by describing it as it actually is when one takes the time to absorb the beauty all around them. I think Lawhead is able to do this quite well.

I could give more examples of the writing but I think this post is getting a little long, and I want to briefly mention the theology of this book. I am concerned about the theology. I am not ready, like my Father, to say this smacks of universalism, but it does smack of inclusivism in my opinion. Having said that, there are some emphasis on the One True God, but at this point I am not sure if Lawhead is saying that is a good or bad thing. C.S. Lewis was inclusivistic, and that was seen in his Narnia books, but I still love Lewis and Narnia. So I can still love Lawhead and his writings so long as he believes there is a hell, so long as there is only one true God, the God of the Bible, and so long as sinners are saved from sin and wrath by the atonement of Christ alone.

4.5 out of 5 stars. An excellent work and engaging tale.

 You can purchase The Spirit Well from Amazon here.

As part of the CSFF blog tour, I received a free copy of this book.

CSFF Blog Tour Participation List:

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