The Realms Thereunder, Day 1: A Review

Book review Christian Fantasy CSFF Blog Tour

The Realms Thereunder cover imageReview

While in an ancient church during a “time between times,” children Daniel Tully and Freya Reynolds find themselves pulled into a dangerous underground realm, where creatures of folklore and myth abound. Freya wishes nothing more than to escape this frightening place, while Daniel responds with excitement over the opportunity to prove himself a hero.

In the telling of The Realms Thereunder, these childhood adventures intersect with adult lives of Daniel and Freya, and we witness how their experiences underground have shaped the course of their futures. Freya now suffers from OCD and an unshakable fascination with folklore while Daniel roams the streets fighting the evil he first confronted in the realms below ground.

Intermingled with the past and present experiences of Daniel and Freya is officer Alex Simpson’s investigation into strange occurrences caused by the mythic realms that are beginning to bleed into the surface realm of Earth at an increased rate.

Perhaps the greatest strength in the story is the complex plot. Intersecting storylines that occur in past and present keep the book moving along at a fast pace and arouse curiosity. The Realms Thereunder is constructed rather like a puzzle, and by the end, we see how the pieces from different times and places all fit together. Occasionally, however, it felt like the switches came too frequently and just as I became engaged in a storyline, Lawhead jumped into another thread of the tale, which distanced me a bit from the story.

In my opinion, the characters faded to the background in a story more driven by plot and the “cool factor” of various mythic creatures, hidden realms, and sleeping knights from days of old. The underground realm, peopled with all sorts of legendary beings, is a fascinating one, and a strong British tone marks both the portions of the story set in the underground realm and in England, thanks in part to the use of Anglo-Saxon folklore.

Given that The Realms Thereunder incorporates legends that many other fantasy novels also borrow from–with trolls, dragons, elves, and more–there are definitely echoes of the familiar here, yet Lawhead manages to put his unique angle on these old tales.

Questions regarding life, death, and the ultimate reality abound, but directly Christian elements are kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, The Realms Thereunder operates from a mostly Biblical framework through which concepts of truth, good and evil, and the unending battle against darkness are explored.

In many ways, this book reads like a prologue for things to come, laying the foundation for an epic conflict against a strong and cunning opponent. For several reasons (primarily related to characterization and writing style), it didn’t me grip me in a way that would make it stick with me afterward or prompt a reread. Despite that, I’ll probably continue a little longer with the series and see if it grows on me as it unfolds.

My recommendation

If you like urban fantasy with undertones of suspense, this one may be for you. For other fantasy fans, it’s mildly recommended.

Similar works

Perhaps it will come as little surprise, but the author I’ve read that most resembles Ross is his father, Stephen Lawhead. Yes, differences exist between their books, but they are both heavily influenced by British mythology (though Stephen typically pulls from Celtic mythology and Ross from Anglo-Saxon) and the way they fuse this lore with the everyday world gives their works a similar feel.

If you’re interested in learning more about the book, I encourage you to visit the other tour stops:

As a member of the CSFF blog tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.


  • Kathleen Smith
    February 20, 2012 - 5:13 pm · Reply

    Great job at analyzing the content in the book and explaining what the concept may be in the context of the entire series.

    “Occasionally, however, it felt like the switches came too frequently and just as I became engaged in a storyline, Lawhead jumped into another thread of the tale, which distanced me a bit from the story.” It’s interesting how most people who have read the book are all on the same page referring to this simple statement and one hopefully the author will correct in future novels to keep his readers engaged.

    Love and Hugs ~ Kat

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 22, 2012 - 12:10 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Kathleen! It does appear that many of the tour members were distracted by the frequency of the switches between storylines, and I’m with you in thinking that’s something I’d like to see adjusted in future books of the series.

      I think he could have maintained a complex plot without such a degree of jumping back and forth at critical movements–but it is a balancing act!

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    February 20, 2012 - 7:54 pm · Reply

    Hahah–I copied the same exact lines as Kat did, but I won’t post them again since she already has them here in the comments section. I would only change “story” to “characters” in that I felt the switches at crucial places when I was finally settling into the story distanced me from the characters.

    In fact, until you mentioned Freya’s OCD, I have to say, I’d almost forgotten that about her. Yet it was one of the things I liked about the book and which someone else on the tour pointed out (Nissa, I think), that their childhood fantasy adventure affected them profoundly and helped form who they became as adults. It’s a great point, and realistic. But I kind of forgot that about her (and Daniel’s somewhat unsatisfying purposeless homeless life) as the story wore on.

    Anyway, good post, Sarah. I always enjoy reading your take on a book.


    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 22, 2012 - 12:16 pm · Reply

      It sounds like most of us are in agreement about the rapid story switches. One of the chief reasons I feel distanced from a story is that I can’t connect with the characters, so I could have substituted characters in my original phrase as well. 🙂

      I know it’s a challenge to juggle a plot with many different storylines in a way that doesn’t cause this disconnect, but I think it can be done, and I hope to see it happen as the series continues.

      I did appreciate the way we get to see how their childhood adventure impacted their adult lives–that tends to be more rare in fantasy, at least in my experience.

  • Kessie
    February 20, 2012 - 9:15 pm · Reply

    Uh oh. The problems you guys are highlighting are also hallmarks of the Song of Albion by Stephen Lawhead. Great start, but after a while, the characters lose focus and you trudge along because you want to see what happens.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 22, 2012 - 12:21 pm · Reply

      It’s funny, but I’ve noticed a number of the same strengths and weaknesses between the work of father and son. I suppose it’s natural that they would gravitate toward a similar style. For me, sooner or later, I have to connect to the characters or the story will lose me.

  • Keanan Brand
    February 21, 2012 - 3:18 pm · Reply

    (cough, ahem) I liked the switches, and didn’t find them too jumpy.

    Actually, I write like this, too, and generally don’t linger too long in one place unless the story requires it. If we compared books to movies or show (anathema, I know!), we’d see how quick cuts in text parallel cuts in movie or television scenes; we follow along with the visual storytelling, so why not with the written?

    Not trying to be argumentative, just adding an alternate viewpoint.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 22, 2012 - 12:26 pm · Reply

      Well, I suppose that illustrates the subjective element of all this–that what is distasteful to one reader may be appreciated by another! I appreciate you sharing your perspective and why this aspect of the story worked for you.

      Interesting thoughts on books and movies. Though both are used to tell a story, I tend to view books and films as very different devices, each with strengths and weaknesses, and different techniques that prove effective. With a book, I want that sense of immersion in a character’s perspective, whereas with a movie, I have the feeling of being an outside spectator watching things unfold, rather than being “in” the story itself. That’s one of the reasons I find rapid-fire cuts in books more distracting than in films.

      All that said, I don’t object to frequent plot switching on principle. If something works for a particular story, even if it bends tradition or the “rules” or isn’t my normally preferred style, I am all in favor of it. All I want is to be pulled into the story. 🙂

  • Jeff Chapman
    February 24, 2012 - 5:33 pm · Reply

    Ross and Stephen Lawhead also write in a similar style. They both switch back and forth between multiple story lines. There were times I wanted to pull their books apart and rearrange the chapters according to the story lines so I could read all about one character before switching.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 27, 2012 - 4:40 pm · Reply

      Jeff, I certainly had the same feeling from time to time. I’ll be interested to see if Ross continues to use the same techniques in his future books.

  • TheQuietPen
    February 26, 2012 - 12:20 am · Reply

    Good thoughts! I actually found the contrast between good and evil a little disorganized. That is, I knew there were two sides, and I could split up most of the major characters, but the actual “good” vs. “evil” part seem a fuzzy. Daniel Tully and Alex Simpson are fighting for good as adults, but Freya? At best, neutral/naive–though she does “pay for it” with her time being entrapped by the…whatever it was (Robin Ploughwright as Dr. Stowe, perhaps?) And Ealdstan seemed fairly blurry about being one of the good guys as well. The “evil” part seems a little tame too. The darkness settling in Reverend Maccanish’s parish seemed tangible enough, but Gad? I didn’t really buy it.

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller
      February 27, 2012 - 12:35 pm · Reply

      Janeen, I agree with you (another thing I was surprised didn’t come out in the tour — but now I guess it has! 😉 ) I’m still not sure of the sides. How do we know that Ealdstan, who genuinely seems … self-absorbed, if nothing else, was the right person to give counsel? And again in Elfland, when Daniel made the decision he made to get back home, how do we know he listened to the right counsel? I can’t help but wonder if Freya might turn out to have done the heroic thing by refraining from acting. But that could be totally wrong. I’m just suspicious that things are not as they seem. 😉


      • Sarah Sawyer
        February 27, 2012 - 4:43 pm · Reply

        Becky, I’m with you and Janeen about remaining unsure of the characters’ alliances with good or evil. I suspect what we believe is true about the nature of several characters and circumstances will change as the series unfolds. At any rate, the thoughts you and Janeen shared have sparked a post today on good and evil in fantasy. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 27, 2012 - 4:42 pm · Reply

      Janeen, great point about the lack of clarity between good and evil and how that influences the reading experience. I think it was an intentional choice of the author to explore this element by keeping things ambiguous at this point.

      As of now, I’m willing to wait and see how things unfold–I don’t think the characters themselves really know where they stand yet. However, if we never gain more clarity and everything remains fuzzy and uncertain throughout the series, I will be dissatisfied.

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