Book Review: The Skin Map, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Kit Livingstone is having trouble negotiating the London Underground subway system. Service in his neighborhood is limited on weekends, and the fare machines aren’t taking his card. As he plods to a connecting station in the rain, he encounters a strange old man who claims to be his great-grandfather, Cosimo–the great-grandfather who disappeared without a trace back in 1893. Kit dismisses him as a drunk or lunatic, but the old man knows things about Kit and his family that nobody outside the family could know. If that wasn’t odd enough, the stranger leads Kit down a nearby alley, and they emerge in a different part of England, in an entirely different time.

It’s a bit much to absorb all at once. Cosimo has apparently discovered the secret of traveling along ley lines, mysterious pathways of force that connect ancient landmarks around the world. Depending on where and when you enter the network, travel across time, space, and alternate dimensions is also possible–and it seems Kit has the innate ability to detect and access the focal points of ley energy. Cosimo wants to enlist Kit in some sort of quest involving ley travel, but Kit needs some time to think about it. He returns home and tries to explain his remarkable experience to his girlfriend, Wilhelmina, who is understandably skeptical. He takes her back to the alley in an attempt to duplicate his trip with Cosimo. He succeeds, mostly, but Wilhelmina is separated from Kit during the transition, her destination unknown. In a panic, Kit seeks out Cosimo, but finding someone lost in the ley network is very difficult and largely a matter of trial and error. They’ll need some help, in the form of the only existing map of Earth’s ley system. There are a few other problems, though:

  • The map is tattooed on a parchment made from human skin.
  • The map has been cut into pieces.
  • Nobody knows where all the pieces are.
  • Other people are searching for the Skin Map. Big, nasty people.

The one certainty is that Kit’s life will never be quite the same. He’s exchanged his humdrum London routine for something quite remarkable–and more dangerous than he can possibly imagine.

The Skin Map is the first installment of Stephen R. Lawhead’s Bright Empires series, planned to encompass five volumes. He’ll need every one of them. The scope of this story is as broad as time itself and spans several alternate universes. If the first book is any indication, we’re in for a rollicking roller-coaster adventure full of wonder and mystery. We follow Kit, Wilhelmina, and their friends to 1600’s England, Prague, Macau, and finally to Ancient Egypt, where the hunt for the Skin Map takes on a deadly urgency. All sorts of interesting things happen along the way. We meet people familiar from our own history and others completely novel. Kit learns what it takes to fit in among different cultures and times, and it’s not as easy as he expects. The surprisingly resourceful Wilhelmina partners with a German baker to found the first coffeehouse in the Holy Roman Empire. We also discover the meaning, origin, and tragic history of the Skin Map.

Lawhead bounces the story at a quick pace among various key locations in the story, which can be a little disorienting, but it mirrors the characters’ experiences. The diverse settings are described in vivid, affectionate detail. I liked that the author didn’t gloss over some practical difficulties of time travel, including language barriers. Some of his characters seemed almost too conveniently equipped to cope with the challenges of their unexpected jaunts across time and space, but the story also implies a larger hand at work guiding their travels–not God, precisely, at least not to the characters’ understanding, but they do acknowledge a “Providence” steering events in an unknown direction and helping them escape from tight spots. The ley lines themselves are a genuine mystery of our world, and Lawhead uses them to good effect as a springboard for this delightful tale.

Suitable for teens and up. If you enjoy historical adventures, tales of time travel, the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, or science fiction romps along the lines of Doctor Who, you’ll have a wonderful time reading The Skin Map.

>>This review is based upon a copy of the book provided to me free of charge by the publisher, a courtesy I appreciate, but which does not guarantee my recommendation. I strive to evaluate every book I review purely on its intrinsic merits.<<

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