Thursday, November 5, 2015

Historical Fantasy: “The Skin Map”

With a title like The Skin Map and a hellish-red cover with shadowy images of pyramids and glowing arcane symbols, I expected this novel by Stephen R. Lawhead to be dark, and even biblically apocalyptic in tone. Boy was I wrong!

The Skin Map turned out to be one of the most whimsical novels by Lawhead I’ve ever read. You see, it’s all about ley lines, those mystical places where the fabric between dimensions runs thin (think Outlander and those ancient standing stones). And by way of these ley lines, there’s a lot about alternate realities and alternative histories, from ancient Egypt to seventeenth century London. And it’s a bit about a man named Arthur Flinders-Petrie, whose tattoos contain the secrets to navigating the ley lines and even understanding the mysteries of the Universe. So, you see, the map is on skin, but fortunately for Flinders-Petrie, that skin is still on his chest. 

While Flinders-Petrie is vital to the story, the book follows a number of other characters, several of whom are more important from a protagonist point of view. It all starts out when a modern-day Londoner named Kit, who “has all the social prospects of a garden gnome,” encounters Cosimo, his long-lost great-grandfather who doesn’t look nearly as old as he should. Cosimo has come to rescue Kit from “a life of quiet desperation and regret” by showing him the secrets of ley travel. Things, however, go awry after Cosimo’s initial journey with Kit causes him to miss a date with his morose girlfriend Mina. She doesn’t believe a word Kit says about “laying” lines and his long-lost relative, so Kit endeavors to prove it to her by showing her the ley line he and Cosimo used. But in the jump between dimensions, Kit and Mina become separated, and now Cosimo and Kit have to rescue her.

Thwarting them at every turn are the Burley men, henchmen of Lord Archelaeus Burleigh, a master ley traveler who seeks the skin map and believes Cosimo has a piece of it. Burleigh is a devilish villain who spices up the novel in every diverse storyline the book follows. These include an entire plotline about Arthur Flinders-Petrie and his tattoos, and one about Mina of course, whose life changes completely after she finds herself stuck in seventeenth century Prague.

All of the storylines coalesce by the novel’s end – but then the end is really not an ending. Rather, it’s a bit of a cliffhanger that doesn’t resolve the story. Lawhead has used cliffhangers before, and while I find them a tad frustrating, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next book. The Skin Map is part of his five-book Bright Empires series, so there is plenty more to this adventure. 

All in all, I found The Skin Map to be a delightful story that showed a lot of promise for the series. It’s also further proof that Stephen R. Lawhead is among the great writers of historical fantasy right now. If you are looking for a fun and lighthearted adventure, I highly recommend it.

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