The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead (Bright Empires #1)

6/10 As a long-time Lawhead fan, this left me in a bit of a bewilderment.

Stephen Lawhead has not ventured into the realms of science fiction for many years. Not since his Empyrion books back in 1996, in fact. The Skin Map is his return to the genre, in which he explores travel between dimensional universes, using String theory as his inspiration for a story about Kit, a young man from England who gets drawn backward in time by his great-grandfather through Ley Lines, areas of exceptionally powerful concentrations of electromagnetic fields. He artfully weaves the idea of the Ley lines into legends about the Celtic otherworld (the classic Lawhead theme) and religious and holy sites, which tend to be built over Ley line hotspots. The only source of explanation for travel through Ley lines comes from the skin map, a series of symbols that had been tattooed onto the skin of the first man to discover and unlock their secrets, Arthur Flinders-Petrie. Petrie is dead and skinned, making his tattoos a vital and expensive commodity. So naturally, the villain is out to get it as well as the heroes.

The difficulty with the book is that it is mostly bad. Poorly executed, actually. It really can't decide what it wants to be, science fiction or historical/fantasy/adventure fiction. The science fiction is built into the premise of traveling between universes, but this appears to have been mostly a neat excuse for Lawhead to get his characters into historical locales from the past. Historical fiction being Lawhead's primary writing field (like Byzantium, one of his best novels), one can hardly blame him for focusing on his strengths, I suppose, but the book lacks narrative drive in a bad way. The first eighty pages or so are well developed and get you hooked into the story, but then it just comes apart at the seams and never gets put back to rights. When Kit attempts to prove to his girlfriend Wilhelmina that he's not insane by taking through the Ley line with him, she gets lost in a different time and universe than Kit. This seems to set the book up as a rescue operation while avoiding the bad guys and hunting for the skin map, but unfortunately it never really gets to that point. Kit barely mentions or thinks about her for the rest of the story. Wilhelmina, at the same time, shows barely any concern for having been transplanted into sixteenth-century Austria. Instead, we're given a few pages of mild confusion before she settles into a new life with a baker named Etzel and where Wilhelmina proceeds to introduce coffee to the world a couple of centuries too early by creating the first coffee shop in history.

In point of fact, this is pretty much what happens in every sub-narrative in the book. A character is put into a situation that looks interesting, and then proceeds to wander around in an unorganized fashion, talking and theorizing. The book is almost entirely background for the characters, as though Lawhead were novelizing his background notes to the real novel which is still to come. Kit, Cosimo and Sir Henry mostly travel around talking and staying at inns. They discover the skin map has been stolen from its hiding place, something with potential interest, and then they go around traveling some more and wondering who could have stolen it. In one of the strangest narrative choices I have yet encountered in fiction, Kit, Cosimo and Sir Henry then travel to a Ley line location by carriage (by way of a chapter-length sequence in which they are riding in the carriage). They are attacked as they are using the ley line, and Kit is left behind. Instead of acting concerned at all, Kit travels back to London in another chapter-length traveling sequence, only to team up with Sir Henry's niece. So they promptly get back in the carriage and ride back to the ley line. This might allow Lawhead to get in all the physical details and research about what carriage riding was like in the seventeenth-century, but it doesn't make for riveting reading.

In short, the real problem with the book is motivation. There doesn't really seem to be any. We're given four or five narratives within the book, and none of them really go anywhere. They just sort of meander around. Nothing is particularly explained in the book, and no one has the motivations to do what they do with what we're given in the text. There is a betrayal at the end of the book, but this betrayal doesn't actually make any sense given the character and what has been established (we're never given an explanation either). I had to re-read it a few times for my brain to process it. The characters are rescued in the most entirely random fashion I have witnessed, with no explanation of how they were found or how the rescuer knew how to find them or even that they'd been kidnapped in the first place. A serious case of Deus Ex Machina all around.

As a long-time Lawhead fan, this left me in a bit of a bewilderment. His novels are gripping, witty, and tend to start slow and build into unrelenting excitement. The Skin Map had none of this, none of Lawhead's trademark character or plot development. It just sat there lifeless on the page. The only true saving grace of the book is Lawhead's unspeakably great prose. He's always had a gift for prose work, and this book is no exception. The prose was about the only thing that kept me reading. Unfortunately, that won't be nearly enough for most people. Without a good story these days to go along with it, you're sunk.

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Stephen Lawhead's Bright Empires series

The Skin Map

Bright Empires #1

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