The Shadow Lamp by Stephen R. Lawhead (Thomas Nelson, 2013)
I'd been looking forward to the next installment of Lawhead's Bright Empires series since I finished #3, The Spirit Well. (#1 is The Skin Map and #2 The Bone House.) Fortunately, our library is generally quite responsive to suggestions for new books to acquire, and I recently finished #4, The Shadow Lamp. Glad to return to the adventures of the characters and to Lawhead's captivating, if disorienting, world, I was alas somewhat disappointed by this installment. The first three books I found increasingly interesting and well-written, but this one did not hold together as well. There are so many characters now that even 371 pages provide only snapshots where I was hoping for a movie.
What's more, as the story nears its climax, its Christian foundations have become more explicit. This is hard to articulate, as it's more an impression than something rational, but I found it more effective in the background. Unlike many Christian writers, certainly most modern ones, Lawhead does a good job of making it integral to the story rather than preachy. But that sort of thing is so very hard to do well. It's akin to the problem of portraying a truly good person; it was C.S. Lewis who expressed the problem best when he acclaimed George MacDonald all but unique as a writer whose good characters are believable and his villains "stagey," instead of the other way around (preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology). What Lewis called the "Kappa element" in a story (very roughly, the atmosphere, flavor, or tone that infuses the tale) is what makes it convincing for me, as in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which is shot through from beginning to end with Christian truth that never comes explicitly to the foreground. The Shadow Lamp loses something by making it so obvious.
All that aside, it was good to become reacquainted with the characters and a truly fascinating and imaginative story, and I'm hoping for better in the final book, The Fatal Tree, due to be released in September. If you're interested in the stories, by the way, and haven't yet begun the series, I recommend waiting for the last book to be released, so as to be able to read them in quick succession. It's too complicated a tale to let many months go by between books.