The Song of Albion
(Nota bene: These were some of the first fantasy books to capture my imagination, and three readings later, they’re still some of my very favorites. Proceed at your own risk. 🙂 )
Stephen Lawhead’s writing is in general quite satisfactory, but these books stand above all his others as a triumph in modern fantasy literature. The plot is original and very well researched, and the writing is excellent, with well-drawn characters and vivid depictions of place and mood. From the first pages, the books pull the reader into a vibrant world where beauty and joy, sorrow and suffering, are woven together into a stunning, glorious tapestry.
These three books (The Paradise War, The Silver Hand, and The Endless Knot) tell one tale — the story of Lewis, an American grad student at Oxford who finds himself pulled into the Otherworld of Celtic mythology. Lewis’ characterization is one of the marvels of the work — he progresses from an obnoxious cynic to a much more agreeable character, while never losing his individual personality. The first and third books are written from Lewis’ point of view, and the second from that of his good friend, the bard Tegid Tathal, allowing Lawhead to develop two characters from both the inside and the outside. (N.B.: Have all three books on hand before you start to read. You won’t want to stop!)
The Otherworld in these books is much like bronze-age Britain, but with a supernatural element. Lawhead takes many plot components, characters, motifs, and creatures from Celtic myth and legend, skillfully weaving them together into an original and enthralling story. The books capture very well, to my mind, the beauty, emotion, and vibrancy of the Celtic culture. (As a fan of most things Celtic, this pleases me greatly.) They are powerfully mythic. Many moments in the books are so brilliant that, to me anyway, they could rightly be called eucatastrophic.
These books never preach in the least, and never refer specifically to the Christian God except subtly at the very end, but Lawhead’s Christian worldview is evident throughout. Within the fantasy setting of the Otherworld, a God is worshiped and followed; his aspects are consistent with the Christian God. (Indeed, there are several beautiful prayers addressed to him which I find inspiring.) The themes of the books include faith and providence, nobility and redemptive self-sacrifice, with this last very central Christian concept portrayed especially powerfully at the trilogy’s conclusion. Lawhead also explores interesting ideas about kingship and sovereignty, friendship, and destiny, while never losing momentum in his incredible story.
Content warning: these books contain some fairly graphic violence, as well as other disturbing images (of demonic creatures, dead bodies, and the like). There are a couple sexual scenes — they take place within the context of marriage and are not overly descriptive, but it’s clear what’s going on. There is also some mild bad language.