The Realms Thereunder
by Ross Lawhead
Reviewed by Adria Laycraft

This is a classic faerie tale slash quest adventure slash urban fantasy, with all the history, strange creatures, and puzzles for the heroes that a reader could ask for. The story is told from the viewpoint of two normal pre-teens who go wandering through a magical doorway in the back of an old church, woven together with their later story as young adults struggling with the memories of those unlikely experiences. Daniel becomes a homeless vigilante fighting the evil that leaks through from the underworld, and Freya is doing a bad job of putting her past behind her. My favorite scene is Freya telling off an Oxford professor for his prejudiced view of ancient England that she knows for a fact is wrong.

In each timeline they are pulled into various nether underworlds that play with their minds and beliefs, forcing them to face their role in the events affecting not only their world, but all worlds. This first novel by Ross Lawhead does a wonderful job of exploring all the strange tales and mythologies that have survived the ages in the British Isles.

The juxtaposition of before and now is well done because each timeline reflects the other, yet tells its own crucial part of the story. This back and forth is essential for understanding why certain decisions are made and certain actions taken. With lush description and adventure-filled action scenes, the story pulls the reader along nicely. And while some of the fantasy elements felt a little tired, the few new tricks were worth the read. At one point in the story the young woman is kept in a state of unawareness, with a whole life passing by that is only apparent to her in the moments she can grasp consciousness. The reader is left watching helplessly, wanting to shout at her as she accepts the strange hallucinations of being a married woman, then pregnant, and finally growing old. This is done in a delightfully creepy way, easing the reader into the strangeness so that at first only little tinges of wrongness come through. It builds to a point of lovely tension. 

Unfortunately, at the same time this is happening, the man is learning to be a charcoal maker in faerie, and it drags on in a rather quiet and restful way that destroys the tension we feel from the other point-of-view. It left me wondering why he calmly accepted all the delays instead of working to get back sooner. And while all this is taking place, we pop back in time to the adventure they had as kids, and the story drags a bit. 

In the end we are left with a surprise decision by the girl that seems too far out of character for her, despite the attempts to set it up. This left me with little satisfaction at the ending, and less interest in finding out what happens in the next book. While the cover does admit the book is the beginning of a trilogy, I'd hoped for just a little more closure at the end of this first part, or at least less of a sense of betrayal from our heroine. 

Available in bookstores and online, The Realms Thereunder is eminently readable, despite my nick-picks, and will be a success with anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and old mythology brought together by a great adventure tale.