Book review: The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead


Before we go any further, I can’t stress enough that this review is going to be of no use unless you’ve read the previous books in the series. So to that end, you should go now and visit my reviews of The Skin Map, The Bone House, The Spirit Well and The Shadow Lamp. Oh, and then read the books, if you feel that way inclined. I recommend them all (that was the abridged review).

So, since Thomas Nelson were kind enough to ship a copy across the Atlantic for me as part of the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour (which I am obliged to tell you), it seems only fair that I hold up my end of the bargain and review the fifth and final book in the series, The Fatal Tree.

The Bright Empires series has been an epic adventure through time, space, and possibly some sort of other dimension. The Fatal Tree brings that journey to a head with our heroes’ quest hampered by the sudden appearance of a tree with the apparent power of life and death, Archelaeus Burleigh released from prison – oh, and the small matter of the universe unravelling around them. Yep, Stephen Lawhead goes wibbly wobbly timey wimey in a big way here. Our questors are split up as the Zetetics’ home dimension, 1930s Damascus, is invaded by… well, spoilers aside, it’s invaded and they take off, like the Jedi at the end of Episode III. But that is just the start, and while there is a little bit of hiding out in a cave, there is more, you know, saving the universe.

All of the elements of the story so far turn up for the big showdown – the Bone House, the Shadow Lamps and the Spirit Well are all brought back and bring their own threads to a close. Only the Skin Map itself was somewhat lacking in any significant role, but I suppose its role was to get the whole quest business started for Kit and Mina.

Kit and Mina, incidentally, seem to have made the most of their never-mentioned break-up, and for some reason (possibly involving Cass, possibly more to do with the impending doom of the Omniverse) Kit doesn’t seem that bothered that his ex is far less annoying now than she was before becoming his ex. But people change in a story this epic, it’s all good.

Most of the loose ends from the series – including ‘what the heck was all that meandering about in the stone age for, anyway?’ – are resolved in this book, so anyone who has made it this far is not going to want to miss out. With that in mind, therefore, I will now proceed to the spoilery section of the review. Please feel free to go and read the book now if you haven’t done so already.

As enjoyable a ride as this book was, a few things did bother me. Like, quantum entanglement: I’m no expert, but I’m not entirely sure Mr Lawhead used the term correctly, or that he needed to use it at all. It didn’t interrupt my enjoyment of the story sufficiently to look up Quantum Physicists in the Yellow Pages, but there is a nagging doubt there. The same with the business of ‘human will altering atomic interactions’ – seems like maybe scientific terms are being seconded into the realms of fantasy?

And what was the point in sending Giles and Lady Fayth off into their own sub-plot with no bearing on the fate of the universe? Their story just seemed to fade away into an epilogue added long after really had been restored, which all seemed a bit of a waste really.

The ending was a bit Space Odyssey too, wasn’t it?

With those niggles out of the way, there was a lot I liked in this book. The involvement of NASA in a present day end of the world type scenario helped to anchor all the timey wimey stuff in something like reality. The faith of various characters shows just enough to make the reader think – speaking as one who likes Christian fiction to have something of an overt message, this book has shown how sometimes less really is more, such as when a throwaway comment is made to Tony Clarke to ppray this nightmare is really over’, following which he notes that ‘We do seem to forget that we’re not in this alone’.

You’re going to need a bigger Shadow Lamp.

There was much more about faith, Christianity and so on throughout this book than any of the previous volumes; the Fatal Tree itself is likened the tree in the Garden of Eden – the one that brought death into the human realm in the first place.

And of course, as I’m sure one or more of my fellow tourists will have mentioned (I’ll do the rounds later!) there is the (obligatory?) redemption story, which could have been oh so cheesy and Christian fiction-y, but the author manages to complete subvert the trope in ways that ticked boxes for story telling but also for leaving a message for the reader. I suspect there are many messages to be taken from that particular sub-plot depending on a reader’s stage in their personal journey of redemption, and that’s probably what makes it such a poignant story in itself – and probably, along with the epic span of the five book arc, makes the whole thing worthy of at least a second look now it’s completed.

There, I said it, and that is probably the best place to end this review: Bright Empires is a series I can see myself returning to in a few years time.

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3 Responses to Book review: The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead

  1. Pingback: The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1 | A Christian Worldview of Fiction

  2. I found a few niggles too, but over all really enjoyed this book and the series. So glad you were able to get a copy. I already know I need to re-read the last chapter. So much happened and some of what I’ve read on the tour make me wonder if I missed something. 😉


  3. Love this review, Steve! This made me laugh: “The Bright Empires series has been an epic adventure through time, space, and possibly some sort of other dimension.” I never could quite wrap my brain around the dimensional, “alternate universe” stuff.

    I’m pretty sure human will really does alter atomic interactions, though. Or something very close to that. Let me know if you find out otherwise :).

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