The Skin Map by Stephen R. Lawhead
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010.
This is the first volume of a new science fiction/fantasy series entitled ‘Bright Empires’ which, its author claims, has been fifteen years in the making.
The story begins when Kit discovers that he has the gift of being able to jump between worlds via ley lines. Unfortunately he inadvertently loses his girlfriend Mina in the process. Enlisting the aid of his great grandfather, Cosimo, who also possesses the gift, Kit sets off to rescue her, a quest that takes him first to seventeenth-century London and later to twentieth-century Egypt. But this quest brings Cosimo and his ally Lord Henry Flyte into conflict with their old enemy Lord Burleigh.
A second strand of the story follows Mina who finds herself somewhere in central Europe in the seventeenth century. With the aid of a young baker called Englebert, she makes a new life for herself in Prague. This strand culminates with Mina encountering Burleigh and later overhearing him asking an alchemist to manufacture some mechanical device for him.
A third strand introduces Arthur Flinders-Petrie who is a pioneer of exploration using the ley lines. He is the author of the map that gives the novel its title and which for security reasons he has tattooed on his own body. We see him in conflict with Burleigh (who wants the map for his own purposes), falling in love with a young Chinese woman, watching her die in ancient Egypt, and setting off in search of the Well of Souls in an effort to save her. At some point, presumably after his death, the map is flayed from his body, divided up and given to various ley line travellers for safekeeping. However, in an epilogue to the volume, we see him stealing the section of map that was given to Cosimo and Henry.
The volume concludes with Kit being captured in early twentieth-century Egypt by Burleigh and discovering that he has already killed Cosimo and Henry. Then, completely out of the blue, Mina appears and sets him free.
I enjoyed Lawhead’s development of the idea that ley lines allow us to travel through time and space. He has clearly gone to a lot of trouble with this element of the story. The result is plausible and convincingly described. Actually his descriptions are generally pretty good, making it very easy to visualize the action and enter into the world of the novel.
Unfortunately other aspects of the novel’s world-building are less satisfactory. In particular, the characters’ apparent ability to jump from one culture to another without even the faintest hint of culture shock is hard to believe. Even less believable is their apparent ability to blend into to those distant times and places without arousing curiosity or suspicion. And Mina’s miraculous ability to use her childhood twentieth-century German to make herself understood in seventeenth-century Austro-Bavarian and in a matter of weeks to be able to carry on business negotiations in that language.
I also found Lawhead’s characterization and dialogue disappointing. Kit and Mina are rounded, if rather straightforward, characters. But the supporting cast tend to be stereotypical; for example, his villains seem to have stepped straight out of a Victorian melodrama (one can almost see Burleigh twirling his moustaches!). As for the dialogue, it is often little better than wooden; one wonders whether the author ever read it aloud to himself.
Last but not least, in his rush to bring the first volume to an end, Lawhead turns Mina into a deus ex machina. Presumably somewhere between the end of her story strand and her reappearance at the end of the volume she has persuaded the Prague alchemist to duplicate Burleigh’s device; she has mastered its use; and she has discovered that Kit is in danger. I can’t help feeling there is an interesting story here. Unfortunately it is a story that remains untold.
None of the story arcs introduced here is brought to a satisfactory resolution leaving one with the feeling that this volume is really just setting the scene for the rest of the series.
It is many years since I read anything by Stephen Lawhead, but I recall enjoying several of his early works so I approached with this volume with high expectations. Sadly The Skin Map fell far short of those expectations. However, I found his use of ley lines sufficiently interesting that I will probably persevere with the sequel when it is published later this year.
NB I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.