Lillian Stewart Carl, Lucifer's Crown (Five Stars, 2003)

There is something about the Arthurian legends that kindles the imagination in many. The very Matter of Britain holds a fascination larger than the content of the stories themselves. Likewise, the Isle of Great Britain also kindles the imagination of many Americans, becoming more than the sum of its parts. The two combined — the Matter of Britain and Britain itself — have the potential to make a mythically powerful story. I'm glad to report that Lillian Stewart Carl's latest fantasy novel, Lucifer's Crown, effectively combines Arthurian legend, Grail myth, and British folkways to create a powerful novel.

Maggie Sinclair, a lecturer at Southern Methodist University in Texas, is visiting Britain with three of her students in a study abroad program. Their itinerary takes them to Glastonbury Tor and its associated abbey. While there, one of Maggie's students comes across a body spread across the ruined abbey's altar stone. As the police investigation digs deeper into what happened, Maggie quickly learns that there is more going on than just what is Seen, for the Unseen (Carl's name for the supernatural) is hard at work to bring about the end of the world.

One of the instructors in England, Thomas London, turns out to be Thomas à Becket, who never really died in the cathedral eight hundred years ago, but was cursed with immortality. He is also the guardian of one of the three symbolic relics of England: the Holy Grail.

Standing in opposition to Thomas is the evil Robin Fitzroy, who is also Robin the Devil, father of William the Conqueror. He is attempting to obtain for himself the three relics so that he can bring about the end of the world. In pursuit of this, he has gathered to himself a band of followers who believe that he is God incarnate. In contrast to him are Thomas and Maggie and her students, plus Mick Dewar, who is the unwitting guardian of one of the relics.

As the novel progresses, Robin's body count increases and the forces of evil slowly begin to win their way toward armageddon, leading up to a climactic ending.

The highest praise I can give this novel is that it reminds me strongly of Charles Williams, but it succeeds where Williams always failed: it has believable characters. Not at first, however. It takes Ms. Carl about fifty to seventy-five pages to get into her stride with this story. Until then, the characters feel stiff and wooden and contrived. There are even moments in those early pages where the prose becomes every hue of purple one can imagine. But once the story has rightfully taken off, the characters come into their own and blossom, becoming well-rounded and believable.

Also much like Williams is the theological and philosophical subtext. Ms. Carl takes the ideas of good vs. evil quite seriously and probes deeply into the idea of redemption. She does not, however, take her themes lightly, instead giving them a vigorous shaking down before she's done, resulting in a gripping spiritual thriller. One could easily call this 'in the tradition of Charles Williams' — which it certainly is — but it more importantly moves beyond that master of the spiritual thriller.

[Matthew Scott Winslow]