The Skin Map is the first book in Stephen Lawhead’s new Bright Empires series, which he describes as “the most challenging work I’ve ever undertaken.” Lawhead is the author of such excellent fantasy series as the Pendragon Cycle and the King Raven Trilogy, so he certainly has the pedigree to take on a work of the scope that he describes on his website as the future of science fiction and fantasy. Unfortunately, one is left not only wondering what is revolutionary about the book but what is unique about it at all as it recycles popular storylines from the past twenty years and is ultimately disappointing as a stand-alone book.
Kit Livingstone is a standard issue–if somewhat wishy-washy–modern-day Londoner, much more concerned with avoiding crowds on the Tube than quantum physics or mystical esoterica. Or at least he was, until one day he deviates from his normal commute and wanders down a dark alley where he meets his long-lost great-grandfather Cosimo. After a strange conversation he decides to simply walk away, but quickly discovers that the exit isn’t quite where he left it: nor is the alley, or even London itself. Instead he’s been transported to another time and place, and is only able to get back home with Cosimo’s help.
Even after Cosimo brings him home, Kit has trouble simply returning to his normal life; he’s seen too much, and really, his life wasn’t that great to begin with. So he drags his girlfriend Wilhelmina back to the alley and triggers the transportation again, only to discover that it is not quite as easy as Cosimo made it look and Wilhelmina doesn’t arrive with him, lost somewhere in space and time. So begins a search for Wilhelmina that ranges from ancient Egypt to Portuguese Macau to Habsburg Prague and uncovers a variety of friends and enemies, all of whom seem to be after the same artifact: The Skin Map, the only map that shows how to navigate through the portals, hubs, and lines that allow all of this extra-dimensional travel.
I said in the opening above that I found the book disappointing. A large part of that disappointment comes from it being a Stephen Lawhead book, who I generally find to be an excellent author even when the story he’s telling may not be the best (see: Grail). The Skin Map is, frankly, just not a well-written book. The characters are quite thin and spend a great deal of time trying to explain the implications of the world’s time/space travel system. It is based on the idea that ley lines serve as tunnels between worlds in a multiverse, and though there is some prevarication on this point, the multiverse seems to be a pretty standard version of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Far more words are spent on getting this point across than are necessary, and the characters (mostly Kit) are in such awe of the concept that they don’t come across as modern–certainly, they’re not fans of sci-fi or fantasy, at the very least. Paradoxically, despite spending so much time explaining what the ley lines do, there is almost no explanation of how they work. Sometimes they seem to be based on natural phenomena, sometimes human will, and sometimes narrative convenience, but nowhere in this book are the mechanics of what’s going on explored and so the reader is often left wondering exactly why what just happened took place.
The long infodumps explaining ley lines and generally shallow characters made me feel like this was intended to be a YA sort of book, though Kristen assures me it isn’t (and I asked several times). Normally I don’t have any problem with YA books–I often like them better than books intended for adults since they tend to have a level of wonder and imagination that adult books usually lack. The Skin Map has the negatives that are often associated with YA books without the positives, though. Kit spends most of the book either whining or reacting to events that are happening to him instead of setting out to explore the world(s). Wilhelmina, who is initially described in less-than-glowing terms, quickly becomes a much more likable character than Kit or Cosimo and I enjoyed reading most of her sections. The POV character who I found the most intriguing is the original creator of the skin map, but unfortunately he is also the character that we spend the least time with.
But all of that aside, beyond the plot and characterization the part of The Skin Map that is most distressing to me is the quality of the writing at the line-to-line level. For example, the first eight pages of the book have Kit navigating the London Tube. While I’m told that Londoners take a sort of perverse pride in the spaghetti-on-a-plate nature of the Underground, opening a fantasy book with a narrative version of Mornington Crescent is simply not a good idea. In other places the clichés are so thick and common that they have become meta-clichés in popular culture:
“No?” The man moved toward him. “I think you’ll find I already have.”
…really? Without irony or anything? Presumably “if not for you meddling kids” is being saved for later books in the series. From the man who wrote Merlin and Taliesin, I expect more.
The Skin Map is clearly designed to be the first book in a series and suffers as a result of setting up the world’s mythos, but the flaws are deeper than can be explained away by that excuse. Instead of being revolutionary and deep it is a shallow rehash of every many-worlds story written in the last few decades. Maybe it will become wonderful as Lawhead moves deeper into the story, but I’m not sure I’m interested enough to find out.
My Rating: 4/10
Where I got my reading copy: A giveaway of the eBook on Lawhead’s Facebook account.