Stephen R. Lawhead is an American novelist who has been writing in the historical fiction and fantasy genres since the early 1980s. ‘The Skin Map’ is the first book in his five-volume ‘Bright Empires’ series, telling a tale which melds his fantasy and historical interests.
The story starts in contemporary London. One Sunday morning, Kit Livingstone sets off from Hackney to pick up his girlfriend, Mina, ready to go curtain shopping. Delayed by problems on the tube, Kit decides to walk the last three miles to Mina’s flat. However, when he takes a short-cut down an unfamiliar alleyway, he is accosted by an elderly gentleman called Cosimo who insists that he is Kit’s great-grandfather. Unclear how this can possibly be true, Kit agrees to go for a coffee with him. When they emerge from the far end of the alley, though, twenty-first century London has disappeared to be replaced by the West Country fishing village of Sefton-on-Sea, sometime in the seventeenth century! Cosimo tells Kit that the alleyway is a ley line which they have used to travel in space and time. Kit finds this too difficult to believe and insists on being taken back to modern-day London, something which his supposed great-grandfather reluctantly agrees to.
Once back on familiar territory, Kit rushes over to his girlfriend’s place, expecting to be a few minutes late. When she tells him he’s missed their appointment by eight hours, he tries to tell her what happened to him but she doesn’t believe a word of it. So he drags her off to the alley hoping to show her the West Country village. However, half-way down the alleyway, they get separated by a freak rainstorm. When Kit turns round to go back for Mina, she has disappeared into thin air!
Completely confused, Kit rushes to the far end of the alleyway once more and finds Cosimo waiting for him. Cosimo agrees to help Kit try to find Mina, whom he says must have left the ley line by a different exit. However, in return, he wants Kit’s help to locate the Skin Map of the title. This is a fabled map of the world’s ley lines showing how they connect to each other. It was created by an explorer who was so scared of the map falling into the wrong hands that he had it tattooed on his torso. After his death, the skin was cut off and preserved but the map has subsequently been cut into many pieces and scattered worldwide. Cosimo wants Kit’s help to reunite the map in one place so that its mysteries can be unlocked. The problem is a group known as the Burley Men are searching for the map, too, and if they find it first, all hell is likely to break loose. Can Kit help his great-grandfather beat the Burley Men and complete his quest?
‘The Skin Map’ is an entertaining adventure story which melds elements of the Science Fiction, fantasy and historical genres. What I liked most about it were the sections where the characters were transported to historical settings. These were evoked really well, from the unsanitary smells of seventeenth century Prague to the prickly humid heat of early twentieth century Egypt. In addition, a sub-plot detailing the back story of ‘The Skin Map’ is told with great verve.
A frequent criticism of the first book in many series is that the pace can be slowed by the need to introduce all the characters, settings and sub-plots. Although this accusation cannot be levelled at every chapter of ‘The Skin Map’, there were several places in the book where the narrative did lack energy and I found myself flagging somewhat. This was not helped by the fact that Lawhead has a tendency to resort to archaic and flowery language at times, making the novel sound more like a Tolkien knock-off than it should.
I also got a little confused over the intended readership for this series. The protagonist Kit is twenty-seven years old, which led me to assume that this was a story aimed at adult readers. However, there is very little engagement with adult issues and, for much of the book, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading a children’s novel.
‘The Skin Map’ is an entertaining if slightly slow-paced introduction to the ‘Bright Empires’ series. I will be interested to see where Stephen Lawhead takes the story next.
(pub: Lion Hudson. 336 page paperback. Price: £7.99. ISBN: 978-1-78264-013-4)