The Bone House is something of a rarity, not just in itself as a piece of literature, but also in its conception. More and more, recently, I’ve read SF/F books which were just a hair’s breadth and a typeface change from being a screenplay. When Hollywood comes calling, they bring a lot of money to the table, and with popular interests taking more and more tentative steps into the literary Fantasy world (Lord of the Rings, The Narnia Chronicles Eragon, A Game of Thrones, Inkheart, to mention only a few of a dozen mid-high earning successes) it’s becoming less common for a writer not to produce a book without at least one eye to the west, much less to outrightly defy Big Screen adaptability.
The BRIGHT EMPIRES pentalogy is just such a defiant series, if ever there was one. While I can pretty well guarantee that it wasn’t written as a deliberate snub of the growing number of screenplay-esque manuscripts that get covered and bound, it’s very hard to think of what else could be added to make it so. There is a clockwork-like complexity and rhythm to the narrative that completely staggers expectation. Minor characters are suddenly found to be integral to larger events around them. Major characters appear and then pass out abruptly, carried away on their own larger courses.
Which bridges to the second aspect of its rarity, which is that it is not the normal course for career writers to become more inventive and more risky as their careers progress, especially entering their third professional decade. The obvious exceptions to this are, of course, the great giants of the genre. My dad’s career started in pure fantasy with the DRAGON KING TRILOGY. After a few Speculative Fiction works, he walked along the Fantasy/Historical lines, sometimes dipping more into one (the SONG OF ALBION series) and sometimes more into the other (BYZANTIUM and the CELTIC CRUSADES), and sometimes mixing them both into what should rightly be termed Historical Fantasy (the PENDRAGON CYCLE and KING RAVEN). This, his latest series however, is, almost literally, worlds away from his previous works in what I think should be called Science Fantasy. Ursula Le Guinn once said that the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction was that Fantasy is based on the impossible, while SF is based on the possible. And the ideas that my dad explores this latest book — alternate timelines and shared social consciousness are foremost in mind — are all concepts currently being very seriously discussed by very serious men in some seriously serious universities.
What is striking most to me in the work — and is reflected in the many piles of research material at my parent’s house that contain books that have ‘quantum’, ‘dimensions’, and ‘universes’ in the titles — is the bleeding-edge theoretical physics that’s been very deftly mixed into the story which strengthens but never overpowers the plot. Just how important and how as-to-now underplayed this framework is will become apparent in the next three volumes. Alternate history tales are not unknown, but it is rare that they do not come across as gimicky, and even rarer to be presented with so many different alternate histories in one story.
The history angle itself is something new to be appreciated for Stephen Lawhead fans. While he has made a good name for himself in the historical fiction trade, two of the eras he has chosen to dip into in this work — 1600s Europe, and Ancient Egypt — are among the hardest to write about simply because so much has been written about them already. Where time periods edging closer and closer to the prehistoric are fairly easy to write about, time periods where there is quite a lot already known (especially with the C17th very much in the public consciousness with TV shows like The Tudors on) are a mind-breaking minefield of historical detail. And yet dad manages to saunter effortlessly back and forth between them in the most carefree, almost absent-minded manner, and with nary a lace ruff or sandal strap out of place.
If the Bone House, and the ANCIENT EMPIRES as a whole, has a criticism, it’s that its plot trajectory and pacing doesn’t fall into the lulled cadence of typically monotonous popular fiction, and so its irregular tempo can be very jarring to the generally soporous reader. It feels arrhythmic. Atonal. But that’s only if you try to make sense of its rises and falls according to the common current conventions. If only you sit back and enjoy the experience of a new tale told in an original and unconventional way, then you will almost instantly be swept away by its magnificence.