Review: “Byzantium”, by Stephen Lawhead

As I’ve noted in the past, I LOVED Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle and King Raven (Robin Hood) trilogy. I consider Lawhead one of the most superversive writers in the field today, and I find it likely, as admittedly little as I read the genre, that he is the greatest living writer of Christian fiction.

“Byzantium” is one of his higher reviewed books on Amazon. It has near-universal critical acclaim out of over 200 reviews. It is a historical novel about a ninth century monk named Aidan who travels with a group of monks on a pilgrimage to Byzantium, where he has a vision that he will die. Along the way he is kidnapped by vikings, and that is the start of the many adventures that follow on Aidan’s quest to reach the city, find his brother monks, and return home.

So what do I think of it?

This was a really, really good book. It was SO CLOSE to being a great book…but not quite.

First, the good – and the good is REALLY, really good. The best part of “Byzantium” is his parallel of Aidan’s loss of faith with the viking Gunnar’s gain. It’s fascinating to see how in each scene where Aidan sees God’s abandonment, Gunnar sees His presence – and always at the moments of greatest suffering. I want to avoid spoilers here, but I’ll simply say that whenever you see Aidan curse God, you can be sure to parallel it with Gunnar praising Him – and both views seem to make perfect sense! It’s a neat trick.

The prose is pitch-perfect. It’s telling that you get several reviewers talking about how difficult the prose is, followed by reviewers calling it simplistic or pulpy. That’s because it’s neither. Lawhead strikes a balance, making his prose both elevated and eminently readable.

Lawhead also knows how to build suspense. Several scenes are almost unbearable to read, because you’re desperate to see how they’re resolved. The attack by the Vikings at the beginning of the book is as tense and exciting as any scene you’ll read, as is the final battle at the end.

All right. It’s an excellent book…but it could be better. Now the bad:

Lawhead’s timing – or pacing – or whatever you want to call it – is curiously off. The moment when Aidan loses his faith should be a horrible and epic moment, yet it was prompted not by a great loss, but by…not dying? Aidan enters Byzantium, knowing from a vision he will die there, but leaves alive…and the fact that his vision was wrong leads him to conclude God abandoned him.

Huh? That’s like thinking God abandoned you because He decided to change His mind and NOT kill you. It..sort of makes sense? But not quite? It feels kind of cheap. And keep in mind, Aidan decided this BEFORE any great tragedy happened. Not dying WAS the tragedy. Not that long after he leaves, something REALLY horrible happens to Aidan. THIS should have been The Moment, but it’s not. It’s just another data point Aidan uses. His loss of faith doesn’t read like a monk who suffers profoundly and loses hope because of how many bad breaks he got, but like a guy who’s upset God didn’t act exactly the way he expected him to. Aidan is a learned monk. That isn’t what the spark should be.

And then the ending…after undergoing this profound loss of faith, we go through chapter, by chapter, by chapter, where he gets steadily worse. At his very darkest moment, where you think there’ll be a turning point…nope. No turning point. He remains resolute for months, perhaps years, after his greatest departure from his priestly vows.

Okay, fine. Well, surely something amazing and profound happens to turn him around? Or perhaps he slowly builds up his faith over many months, aided by his friends and brother monks?

Nope. He gets worse and worse, to the point he decides to renounce his brother monks forever.

Until he’s just…cured. Like that. In one day. Because of a short conversation with a friend and a really vague vision, one that didn’t even seem particularly helpful. He goes from awful soul-crushing despair to holy man of God within TWO PAGES…and then the book ends.

Aidan suffered to lose his faith; he should gain it back through hardship and effort, not the work of a day talking with a friend and a night of sleep, ONE DAY after he decides to renounce his vows forever.

Lawhead gave him a moment of redemption that he – Lawhead – simply did not do enough to earn.

(Lawhead has a similar, if lesser, issue in the book “Merlin”. At one point Merlin is kidnapped by pagans for years and is taught mystical arts. But his kidnapping apparently had absolutely no psychological effects on him and is barely mentioned again after he is allowed to go, nor do those characters ever appear again. Huh?)

Anyway, those are two VERY big flaws. For a lesser author, it would be enough for a poor review. But Lawhead is too good, and does too good a job comparing and contrasting Aidan and Gunnar’s spiritual journeys, for me to call it anything less than a really excellent book.

Buy the book. Read it. Love it, even. But know in advance its flaws. They’re big, and they’re there. I recommend his King Raven Trilogy and his Pendragon Cycle, particularly “Arthur”, “Pendragon”, and “Grail” (book three of “Arthur” is somewhat rushed for reasons beyond his control but contains perhaps his best writing, and a pitch-perfect ending), if you want truly GREAT Lawhead.

But for fans of his work, or of good adventure stories, or historical fiction, or Christian fiction, this is still an excellent, high quality novel. I unreservedly recommend it. Grumblings aside, it deserves most of its critical acclaim.

  • curtjester

    I read the King Raven and Pendragon cycle this year based on your recommendation. So loved them! Somebody else already recommended Byzantium to me, so on my list.