Really?

I’ll admit it — whether I’m writing or reading, I’m a demon for realism. Different rules apply in the case of humor, of course. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are not remotely realistic, and who cares? But when a novel that purports to be serious sails blithely past realistic concerns, I get twitchy.

At the local used book store I picked up a copy of The Paradise War, by Stephen Lawhead. I had never heard of him. It’s book 1 of a trilogy (naturally). For a dollar, why not give it a try?

After reading 160-odd pages, I’m tossing it on the reject pile.

The reluctant lead character, Lewis Gillies, is a grad student at Oxford. Dragged off to Scotland by his roommate, he crawls into a cairn and is plummeted into the Otherworld, a sort of mythic archetypal realm that the ancient Celts knew about.

That’s a perfectly fine fantasy premise. One doesn’t demand realism of a fantasy premise. Only a few minutes later, Lewis finds himself trapped in the middle of a battlefield between two bunches of ancient Celtic warriors. You know the deal — swords, spears, shields, helmets, hacking and slashing, gore galore. He is rescued from being hacked or slashed by his roommate, Simon. Simon disappeared from Oxford mere weeks before (via the same cairn) but has been in the Otherworld for four years. Simon is now a valiant warrior, and speaks the ancient Celtic tongue like a native. Time slippage between our world and the faery world is not a problem. That’s standard fantasy stuff.

The warriors fighting alongside Simon win the battle. They then celebrate by getting drunk and heading home. They march for nine days and eventually reach the fortress compound of their king, where they are welcomed enthusiastically by all of the villagers or peasants or whatever the local folks are called. The king orders up a feast.

All this seems sensible enough, until you notice that Lawhead has written not one solitary word about any of the victorious warriors being killed or even injured. All that hacking and slashing, but nobody was hurt except the enemy? This is flatly unbelievable. Assuming that there were casualties, the problem shifts: Now we have a bunch of peasants who are whooping it up over a victory, and not one of them is in mourning about the loss of a father, a brother, or a son.

And then Simon tells Lewis that because this is the Otherworld, nobody gets old. Again, this is a standard bit of folklore about the world of Faery — as such, it’s not a problem. But it plays out weirdly. Lewis has already been thoroughly enchanted by the beauties of nature in this place, having apparently dismissed from his mind the severed head he was carrying around after the battle. (Don’t ask.) When Simon explains that people here don’t get old, Lewis instantly jumps to the idea that if he stays in this enchanted realm, he can live forever! Here’s the interior monologue: “Think long and hard, Lewis! What would you give to live forever in this shining land? Forever!”

Lewis, sweetie, I hate to break it to you, but you just saw a whole bunch of the local stalwarts being hacked and slashed and stabbed and disemboweled and beheaded. And yet you’re entranced by the thought that if you stay here, you’ll live forever.

Lawhead has sort of skirted the issue, or attempted to, with this bit shortly following the battle. Lewis is washing off the blood and grime in a river. “The horror of the previous day’s battle disappeared with the rusty stain streaming from my limbs; all fear and disgust dissolved in the blessed bath and flowed away. In no time, it seemed as if the carnage of the day before had never happened, as if the slaughter was but a troubled dream that evaporated in the dawn’s clear light.”

Lewis is not a nincompoop, he’s a grad student at Oxford. That being the case, it appears his thinking is being warped because he’s in dreamland. Yet the locals’ failure to react to their loved ones’ deaths is still a big pill for the reader to swallow. If nobody’s death matters in the Otherworld, then who cares whether there’s a battle? The severed heads might as well be pumpkins. Heck, for all we know maybe they are pumpkins. One way or another, it’s pretty clear Lawhead doesn’t give a flying crap one way or another about wholesale slaughter. It’s not real to him, it’s just fantasy furniture, no different from the gold jewelry the king wears.

This is my real objection to the story: It glorifies combat and slaughter. Writers who glorify combat are beneath contempt. Their work should not be read.

Oh, and during that bath in the river, Lewis shaves (with no lather, and using a blade he has never handled before) by watching his reflection in the water. Yeah, right. River water. Flowing river water. With ripples. His reflection. Shaving. Right.

This one is going straight back to the used book store.

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