Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | December 3, 2009

Byzantium – The Book

Finished reading Stephen Lawhead’s “Byzantium”, a book shelved with Science Fiction-Fantasy genre, but aspiring to the historical fiction realm. It’s mostly a page turner and light entertainment. And it manages to do this all the while with more exposition of “churchyness” than you’ll find in most literature… or at least I’ll find in most pop literature I’m willing to pick up. I’d like to say more about the book and the path of the main character as the story unfolds, but it is hard really to detail some of my likes and dislikes without giving away the plot and spoiling a good $8 read. And at $1 per 100 pages… it’s a lot of reading.

Not complicated stuff you have to pay attention to… but stuff. He’s got more twists and turns than you’ll see in most “real literature” I think. And the annoyingly familiar process of winding up this long twisted path and all the characters introduced in the last 50 pages.  I have something of a pet peeve here and appreciate a selective routine here… or at least  an ability to stick to the main thread. Not so sure I’m ready for some of the real post-modernists who discard characters and plots like pages of a newspaper… but there’s seldom a need to find everyone a place.

Anyway, as achingly slowly as it unfolds, the whole becomes more and more unsatisfying until the very, very, very end…. and I don’t think this gives away much… the character’s faith starts out at one place… and journeys long and far along the course laid out in Archimandrite Zacharias’s works… and thus forms a course of evolution from zeal to a broader understanding. This provides more of a revelation of the protagonist’s character than a pattern of it’s development. Development – until the end – is focused mostly on plot. And yes, it kept me reading… but there were times I’d have declared it open season on Lawheads and gladly ripped off a few shots in his direction. But yes… this is maddeningly his intent I think.

The base story concerns the journey of a priest monk from an Ionian monastery, and his fellow monks in taking the Book of Kells to Constantinople as a present to the Emperor. Yes, license abounds… but it is fiction after all, and the author is skilled enough at his trade that you forgive the liberties. And yes, Byzantium provides the usual opening for its meaning in terms of scheming, plotting, and internecine warfare.  But fortunately, no matter how much a plot irritation, characterization or whatever your background may cause in terms of a mismatch with the current setting, the plot keeps moving fast enough so that  no particular objection reins for long. Even meat eating monks, vomiting Vikings, and seductive saracens won’t hold you down for too long.

I tried to learn something about the author but despite having a website and a host of slobbering fans, I didn’t find much. Yes, he moved his family from the States to the UK so he could more readily research and write Celtic historical novels of which this was the first.  And you can find reviewers mention Lawhead’s “faith” in terms that seem to acknowledge it as one of those baggage items forgiven  because he’s still good enough to with the plot to keep it moving. Imagine the old church = boring formula weighs down on many minds… so this is probably intended as reassurance. Funny thing is that in many ways, I find his working of the faith elements of the story a bit cumbersome… so as sympathetic as I expected to be… I can’t say this was its more endearing feature. In fact, the more you know… the higher your expectations, and this accounts for some of my dissatisfaction… and I’m open enough to say that this is probably more my problem than his, a sort of “I-want-it- my-way thing”. I found myself wondering what sort of believer he is… and decided he was probably a protestant… likely an Anglican or Presbyterian… but with a passing (C-) familiarity with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. But again… that’s just me, and I was somewhat frustrated his monks were so inconsistent with my limited understanding of monks… that it seemed to my eyes, a quick couple of details would have vastly improved the authenticity of the novel. Ah… but then he’s the big author right? Right.

Conclusion: A good beach read. Four out of Five Stars. Some won’t ever get past the cheesy cover. If you aren’t the sort who has to have everything perfect to enjoy a story… you’ll have a great time. If you’re the kind of person who read “Dune”, then saw the movie, then re-read the book to get the movie out of your mind…. you’ll not like it. I read it in a weekend and a couple of days. Obviously… aside from being bedridden with the Flu for much of that time… I enjoyed it.


  1. I’ve often wondered how I would enjoy the book now that I have a different understanding of monasticism and the early church. My husband and I found several things in the book that were maddeningly annoying, even for Bible thumping Protestants…but overall enjoyed it very much. I tried to read another of Lawhead’s works (on the Arthurian legend) and was quite disappointed and never finished it.

  2. All I can say is “Yep”. Hence, the “wing’em one for the Gipper” comment. Four out of Five is probably too generous unless you rate things separately. I haven’t seen a scoresheet… but maybe you have in all your book stuff? Here’s a poor attempt:

    Page Speed: 5 of 5 (Glued or Gliding)
    Quality of Read: 2 of 5 (Weighs mostly Art)
    Art of Read 1 of 5 (Not much wordsmithing)
    Technique 4 of 5 (Author knows his genre)
    Enjoyment of Read: 3 of 5 (Force thru…want more)
    Over-all: 3 of 5

    Or you could detail:

    Character: 2 of 5 (Carboard or Flesh)
    Setting: 1 of 5 (Richness of descrip)
    Plot: 4 of 5 (Boring to Burner)
    Prose: 2 of 5 (Blurting vs. Artful tale)
    Credibility 2 of 5 (Believability?)
    Continuity: 2 of 5 (Some things jar)

  3. I read a couple of Lawhead’s Pendragon series and gave up. I couldn’t stand his writing style and his ‘artistic’ license. But then…I am not very creative…and don’t mess with Arthurian legend.

    I might borrow this from the library, so won’t feel so guilty if I return it half read.

  4. I find the Science Fiction shelves now crowded with “Fantasy” and all of these seem to have been polluted with Tolkein rip-offs. I’d include Harry Potter among these… ‘cept I think it’s been “BIG” enough to start it’s own subculture. But the Arthurian, the Robin of Loxley… I mean serious SCI FI is hard to find. And if you do find it, the character that once extrapolated concepts into Didactic fiction… seems increasingly gone. The writers are often better for what it’s worth… but their works seem so derivative you have to wonder why bother?

    Lawhead is very formulaic. I’m not sure I’d bother. What struck me as curious though was that he had put so much into a “christian” novel… or at least a novel in which the church serves as a backdrop and faith a factor.

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