The concept used in Looking for the King is an interesting one for a novel. Calling itself “An Inklings Novel” the story intertwines a romance of sorts, a mystery/adventure and a series of conversations with and between the main characters and the famous literary group which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien.
It is 1940, and American Tom McCord, a 23-year-old aspiring doctoral candidate, is in England researching the historical evidence for the legendary King Arthur. There he meets perky and intuitive Laura Hartman, a fellow American staying with her aunt in Oxford, and the two of them team up for an even more ambitious and dangerous quest.
Aided by the Inklings-that illustrious circle of scholars and writers made famous by its two most prolific members, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien-Tom and Laura begin to suspect that the fabled Spear of Destiny, the lance that pierced the side of Christ on the cross, is hidden somewhere in England.
There are basically three threads: the relationship of the two main characters Tom and Laura; the mystery surrounding Laura’s dreams and the Spear of Destiny; and the intellectual/spiritual conversations with the Inklings and its impact on Tom’s worldview.
While the unique structure, and the underlying mystery, had the potential for an entertaining story I found the combination fell flat. There was no sense of danger, no suspense or surprises, just conversation and a plodding plot. Those with a strong interest in Lewis, Tolkien or the Inklings might enjoy the book just for those aspects but it wasn’t enough for me.
The story starts out with an encounter meant to introduce both the sense of mystery and the tension but the tension is of a rather mild form and the mystery plays out far too easily. Instead what you really have is a conversational novel where the characters conversations tell the story rather than the action (for the most part). As you might imagine this takes a great deal of skill to pull off and Downing doesn’t quite make it work.
While underlying mystery of the Spear of Destiny is potentially a great hook, the romance is far too obvious and the story is just too thin. Those interested in the Inklings (and sympathetic to their philosophical perspective) might find the conversations interesting but there is little else to make this story standout.
Laura’s dreams, for example, contain no real suspense as they just keep stumbling on the exact places – no wrong turns and no real sense that anything of importance will happen should they make a wrong choice. In fact there is no real action until the very end of the book – and even then it is wrapped up neatly.
And the relationship between Laura and Tom is cookie cutter. Two young people overcome their different backgrounds and personalities to find a budding romance. And again, Downing doesn’t make the threat of them not getting along risk anything real. It is just a minor hurdle that inevitably will be overcome.
And Tom magically moves from being uninterested in spiritual things to a growing interest and faith after nothing more than a few conversations and a session of thinking alone by the river. No risk, no real struggle for the reader to feel.
In the end, this felt like a book built out of conversations and places that the author enjoyed and found fascinating but not put together in a way to grab the readers attention and hold it.
If you share the author’s perspective – which I do for the most part – it is a quick and easy read. But I felt like Downing just tried too hard to make a novel out of scattered conversations and a thin (but admittedly clever) plot device.