Monday, June 29, 2009

Book Review: The Iron Lance

Title The Iron Lance (Book #1 of The Celtic Crusades Series)
Author Stephen R. Lawhead
Genre Science Fiction
Category Historical Fantasy
Rating B+

Summary When Pope Urban sounds the call for all of Christendom to squash the infidels and retake Jerusalem (aka, the start of the First Crusade), a lord of a small land in Scotland and his two oldest sons take up the cross, leaving his teenage son and wife behind to care for their lands. Due to some shady dealings when their lands are seized by a new Norwegian king who takes control of the land, the teenage son (Murdo) must travel to the Holy Lands in search of his father in order to regain the land that is rightfully theirs. Along the way he meets all manner of seamen, monks, and nobles, and might just save the world. (And there's a storyline in Scotland in 1899 that will be fleshed out further in the series about how Murdo's exploits in this book affect the future of the world.)

First Line "My name is of no importance."

Review As I've found with all of Stephen Lawhead's books (my initiation into the world of Celtic mythology and the Fantasy sub-genre), this book was just a little slow on the ramp-up of the book, but, paradoxically, by the end, I couldn't read it fast enough.

The story of Murdo's travels cover a long-forgotten Scotland (with names of places that were entirely unfamiliar to me because this was a Scotland shortly after the turn of the 11th century) all the way across the Mediterranean to the sun-scorched lands of ancient Byzantium and Jerusalem and back. The settings in this book, whether on farms, on boats, in walled citadels, or amongst a military encampment were so evocative that you feel as if you're right there traveling with Murdo and his pals.

Additionally, related to the setting, the description of the battles was really interesting (and hard) to read. Most often Murdo doesn't fight (because of his tender age), but comes through the area after the siege and sees the carnage and the evil that has been played out on the land and its inhabitants, which was a new way to portray war. I actually found it more interesting to read than Lawhead's descriptions of front-line action of fighting that are in some of his other novels. Also, this allowed for some nice philosophising about war and related topics that was interesting to read.

Beyond just describing a place or a feeling well, Lawhead describes people well. From the terror seen on a Turkish woman's face when her baby is being killed by crusading knights, to Murdo's elation at first love, to his crushing grief following his father's death, to the wisdom of Emperor Alexis, every character is meaningful and richly-drawn. The monks who go with Murdo, who are from an off-beat sect of Catholicism (not approved by the church), inspire him to greatness and are an interesting comparison to other monks and clergymen seen in the book (not that all monks and clergymen are money-hungry thieves). I also greatly enjoyed reading about the sea captain, Jon Wing, who gets Murdo safely from Scotland to the Middle East and back. He was so different from both the monks and the noblemen that it made for an interesting character study in contrasts.

The most interesting part for me to read was of the noblemen--I greatly enjoyed their POV--because Lawhead painted the many-numbered lords in various hues, from the down-right silly, to the sage. I haven't read a lot of books that involved a monarchy system, but they're almost always portrayed in literature and film as irrational and brutish, but not all of them in Lawhead's world were like this. It was a different take on a common construct that was worth the read.

There were two things that I didn't like about this book, that resulted in the lowered grade. First, the pacing at the end was problematic. The climax and resolution are the last 10% of the book and, by this point, the book is moving fast and the plot is interesting, you're fully engaged, but Lawhead got a little too purple for my taste. I found myself skimming to get to the dialogue and description of action, I didn't need all the internal monologue at this point; I'd been waiting 400 pages and wanted the goods. It was mostly in the scenes as Murdo is returning to Scotland and trying to find the family he left behind, and I understand that Murdo was equally frustrated at having to wait, and it might have just been a writing device so the reader connects with Murdo's feelings, but the writing came across as unnecessarily over-wraught. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, if your reader is skimming, it means you haven't edited as well as you should have.

The other thing that bothered me, only slightly so, was that the bit of story about how Murdo's actions will affect the future of the world were thrown in at the beginning of each section of the book, but we don't know how they relate. The only evidence in the prose is that the stuff going on in 1899 Scotland is told via someone who is part of the same sect as Murdo's monk friends. Further, the epilogue did not reveal anything more than someone ranting about the Day of Judgment approaching soon. This is likely true, but it doesn't help us understand the connection to the two time periods in the book. I'm sure more will come out in future books, connecting 1100 Scotland to 1900 Scotland, but I feel this should have been edited differently.

Watch for more reviews of the other two books in this series and Lawhead's Pendragon series in the future on this blog.


ibeeeg said...

{{slow on the ramp-up ... by the end, I couldn't read it fast enough}}
Golly, when I read that I hit the nail on the head. That is exactly how I feel about Stephen Lawhead books. I really enjoy his books but they are slow on the ramp-up.

I look forward to your review on the Pendragon books. Those books are on my list to be read in the very near future...august/sept.

Jenny Girl said...

I end up dropping books that are slow. Sorry but you need to catch my interest early. Kudos to you for sticking out though. Great review.