Review: Illumination by Rowan Speedwell

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Illumination coverExhausted from his last performance on his band’s final tour,  Adam Craig, lead singer of the rock band Black Varen, returns to his suite to find it filled with his fellow band members and hangers-on partying out of control.  Adam feels burnt out and dissatisfied with almost every aspect of his life and now he’s had it.   Adam really wants to be back on stage, his real love. Plus, Adam is deeply in the closet, appearing to be straight because of his career.  Adam has always known he is gay but with a homophobic guitarist and Black Varen’s  fans to think about,  Adam has been forced to hide who he really is.  Now the secrecy and denial is wearing him down.  Escaping the party in a cab, Adam winds up hours way at a lake resort he remembered visiting often as a child.  It was a time and place where Adam had truly been happy.  Now its closed and the entrance chained. But a drunken Adam is not to be denied and he climbs over the chain and wanders around until he ends up falling asleep in a chair on the deck of a lakeshore cabin.

Miles Caldwell, a brilliant artist, lives in a cabin on the lake resort that his parents owned, now the property of Miles and his sister. It is the perfect place for an artist like Miles to live and paint.  It is also the only place Miles can live and stay sane.  Suffering from agoraphobia and social anxiety, Miles needs the isolation and quiet that the lodge and its surroundings give to him.  Unable to leave the resort, Mile’s only companions are his African Grey parrot, Gracie, his sister when she visits, and two old friends, a couple who help keep Mile’s grounded.

Mile’s spends his days illuminating manuscripts, often losing tracks of the hours he paints, consumed by the intricacies and tiny embellishments he creates for his masterpieces.  When Miles discovers Adam asleep on his porch, his first inclination is to call the police and have the intruder arrested.  But after introductions are made, each man is soon charmed by other.  Adam by Mile’s lack of knowledge as to his fame as a rock star as well as Mile’s gentle nature and idiosyncratic ways. And Mile’s? Well, he is enamored of just about everything about Adam, including his charm, gorgeous body and intelligence.

Before each man knows it, their accidental meeting turns into a two week romantic idyll.  Although each man tried to keep their affair light and complication free, just the opposite is happening.   When the demands of the band and his rock star way of life calls Adam away from Miles, can a man whose demons keep him trapped at home find a way to happiness with Adam, a man always on the run and still in the closet?

What is illumination? According to Webster’s, illumination is the act supplying or providing light to make something visible or bright. It is also the  manner in which an artist creates an elaborate decoration of the text of handwritten books with gold or, more rarely, silver, giving the impression that the page had been literally illuminated.  In other words, the page illustrated glows with light.   Rowan Speedwell uses both meanings of the word in her novel Illuminations to create a story that glows with its tale of love and redemption.

Speedwell has created two main characters, each a man carrying a darkness within them, both in need of love and passage to a happier life.  I loved both men.  The author has done a marvelous job making these men complicated real people, each layered with a variety of quirks, gifts, and oddities to their personalities.  And of course, each man also has his own individual demons to fight.

Adam is probably the most recognizable and even relatable of the two men.  He is a rock star tired of his fish bowl existence. He hates hiding who he really is, whether it is his sexuality or his love of the stage. Adam keeps both hidden and is paying the heavy price of denial with several types of self inflicted injuries.  He is using his best friend as a beard, having casual sex that later disgusts him and he is taking too many drugs.  Adam uses drugs to deal with life, not recognizing that it is getting out of control.   Rowan Speedwell paints a picture of an unhappy man who is self destructing with no way to stop it.

Her second character is astonishing in so many ways.  I never saw Miles Caldwell coming.  He is truly a unique creation.  Without going into spoilers, there is so much about Miles that will surprise you.  He is a artist of a very specific art form, one that is centuries old.  He illuminates text and he does so using the old methods.  He is brilliant in his artistry and known only by a small group of collectors and buyers.  His world is a much smaller canvas in all ways, not just in his artwork.  Due to his agoraphobia, social anxiety, and other issues, Miles has restricted his universe to his cabin and the lake shore in front of his cabin.  His companions have been winnowed down to his parrot Gracie, his sister Lisa, a lawyer, and two old friends, now a couple, who have known him since childhood.  And all contact with the outside world is handled either by phone, computer or by the delivery men.  It is a tight, small place in which Mile’s lives and feels safe.  And Speedwell brings the reader into Miles’ world gently and with an intimacy that makes us realize what Miles has both gained and lost in the hand life has dealt him.

Mile’s world is itself embellished by the secondary characters Speedwell creates to support him and shore him up mentally and emotionally.   Lisa is a heartbreakingly sturdy and loyal sister.  She has lost as much as Miles has, perhaps even more, and yet there is so much to admire about her.  Lisa is a well rounded creation and you will want to shed tears along side her when her pain and frustration gets too much and overwhelms her.  At little more on the odd side is Bobby and Doug, a  gay couple who have been friends with Miles for years.  Bobby, in fact, has been Miles  sex buddy with the complete approval of Doug, his long term partner.  With certain restrictions of course, because those sexual acts belong to Doug alone.  It’s a strange little arrangement that feels jarring to the reader and kind of pathetic in that is how narrow Miles’ life has become.   I understood the author’s reasoning in its inclusion but how you feel about this arrangement, whether you can accept it or not, might complicate your feelings  about this story and their friendship.

And of course, there is Gracie, the Congo African Grey Parrot.  As someone who has one as part of her family, I loved Gracie and thought the author did a  superb job of bringing the ACG to life in a remarkable way.  These are extraordinary birds with the recorded intelligence of a 5 to 7 year old child.  And given the right socialization and treatment act exactly as Gracie does.  So wonderful to see the African Grey as part of this story and this relationship, I loved it.

The art of illumination is such an amazing element of this story.  We learn about the types of ink, and how they are created as well as the calfskin used as canvas.  Every aspect of the products necessary for Miles to work as well as the history is included here. But it is done smoothly as part of the narrative rather than as a history lesson.  Through Adam and Miles’ interaction,  we learn about the types of illumination and the  intricate gold leaf work associated with it.  And as Adam is educated about illumination to his astonishment and joy, so is the reader.  This is Adam’s first introduction to illumination and Miles’ art:

Miles walked into the center of the room and pointed at the back wall. “That’s illuminated manuscripts.”

“Holy. Fucking. Shit.”

The wall was covered with framed calligraphy pieces. Adam had played around with lettering in high school art classes, but nothing even remotely like these. The calligraphy was a bunch of different styles that he supposed were historical, and they were beautiful, but the painting that decorated the pieces was amazing. What looked like real gold was interspersed with designs and foliage and flowers painted in deep, bright colors, layered and detailed. He put his nose up close to the glass covering one of them to look at the tiny brushstrokes showing the miniscule hairs and veins of a leaf no more than a half an inch long. “Christ on a crutch,” he breathed. “You did these?”

“Yeah. They’re samples,” Miles said carelessly. “That one you’re looking at is a reproduction of a fourteenth century Book of Hours—that’s kind of like a prayer book rich people carried around with them in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.”

“Whole books of these?”




Adam stood back and craned his neck to see the ones toward the ceiling. Those didn’t have as much gold—one didn’t have any at all—but they were even more intricate in the spiraling designs he recognized as Celtic. Others had amazingly realistic flowers and bugs painted so that they looked three-dimensional. One was entirely in shades of gray. The ones that had calligraphy all had the same text, that 25
started out “Lorem ipsum . . .” Some of them had the “L” ornately decorated, with pictures inside the letter of flowers or people or animals. “So this is like, what, your catalog?”

Miles laughed. “Yeah, in a way. I do have a catalog, both physical and online—I have a professional facsimile photographer take pictures of finished pieces.”

The paintings dazed Adam, already only semi-functional from the hangover. He turned and said weakly, “I need one of these.”

If you have been as lucky as I have to been able to see this work in person, then you know that its ability to stun a person with its visual beauty and astound with its intricate designs is realistically telegraphed in the scene above.   Its jaw dropping art and Speedwell not only understands that but is able to convey it through her words and characters,  an amazing achievement.  The author uses it as a metaphor for the light that Adam and Miles’ relationship brings to each man and their life, and their story is elevated further.   Like illumination, there are many stages and complicated procedures necessary before the final product is finished and will glow.   Speedwell delivers on that end too.

There are so many serious issues here for the author to address.  Issues of drug abuse, mental illnesses, family dynamics and personal growth that you might think that the story  would bog down under the combined weight of all these heavy problems and sometimes it came close.  But Rowan Speedwell also remembers to add in levity and light just when it is needed the most.  Whether it is in the reflected glory of Miles’ artwork or the comedy that is Gracie, the story swoops and climbs the emotional hills and valleys of the author’s plot with an agility that the heart can accept and the mind will enjoy.

For myself, the story works best with we are dealing with Mile’s and Adam’s issues in tandem.  Once the story removes Mile’s and his efforts at recovery from the equation to focus on Adam and his struggles with his fame and addiction, then an important part of the focus of the story is lost, not to be regained until Mile’s reappears towards the end of the book.  I wish the author had found a way to continue the equal treatment of both men as they are concentrating on their individual problems much in the same manner she  brought them together in the first place.  That would have made this story perfect.  As it is, it falters a bit towards the end when it stays on Adam and his efforts to balance his love for Miles with the reality of his life.  We need to have Miles there to balance out Adam as much as he does.  And when the story brings them back together, and the men find themselves glowing from their renewed health and love for each other does Illuminations really shine with its promise fulfilled.

Illuminations is a perfect title for this story that revolves around two artists in love. One, a man with a profession whose origins is steeped in ancient history and is consumed by the focus the small illustrations and gold leaf applications it requires.  The other man  a modern musician whose music is spread across countless stages, large venues and recording studios that carry his songs to millions everyway.  With these two diverse characters and their art, Rowen Speedwell delivers an intense and ultimately rewarding tale of love and redemption, one that I can recommend highly.   Pick it up and start reading.  And maybe once you are done,  head to the library or the computer and check out The Book of Kells and the art of illumination.  Prepare to be astonished and happy that the author incorporated such a magical art form into such a marvelous story.

Cover Art by L.C. Chase,  What a wonderful cover, perfect in every way.

Book Details:

ebook, 307 pages
Published September 30th 2013 by Riptide Publishing
ISBN13 9781626490529
edition language English

By Scattered Thoughts

At over 50, I am ruled by my terriers, my gardens, and my projects. A knack for grubbing about in the woods, making mud pies, and tending to the injured worms, bugs, and occasional bird and turtle growing up eventually led me to working for the Parks. I was a park Naturalist for over 20 years, and observing Nature and her cycles still occupy my hours. From the arrival of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the Spring to the first call of the Snow Geese heading south in the Fall, I am entranced by the seasons. For more about me see my bio on my blog.


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