Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Skin Map

Kit has a difficult enough time navigating the London Underground, but he soon finds out that making his way through a network of ley lines is infinitely harder. An old man calling himself Cosimo Livingstone – and claiming to be Kit’s great-grandfather – shows him one of the lines, but Kit declines to help with Cosimo’s mysterious “project”. That is, until Kit’s skeptical girlfriend Wilhelmina decides to check the ley lines out herself and vanishes.

This is the start of Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Skin Map, a fantasy that hooked me from the start. For some reason I’ve always been fascinated by ley lines, ever since I first read about them in Graham Masterton’s horror novel Walkers. Given that this book was likely to be a great deal less scary, I requested it from Thomas Nelson as part of their Booksneeze program and dived in as soon as it arrived.

Since ley lines can take people “anywhere or anywhen”, Kit and Cosimo have their work cut out to find Wilhelmina. They also have avoid the Burley Men, who are searching for the titular map, a guide to the secrets of the ley lines. The map was once tattooed on a man’s skin and is now parchment.

The story goes from Merrie Olde England to a sojourn in Egypt where the antagonist, Lord Burleigh, meets Howard Carter and helps excavate a tomb. Meanwhile, Wilhelmina – who is nothing if not adaptable – ends up in Prague in 1606, where she earns her keep by working for a baker and opening the city’s first coffeehouse.

Some suspension of disbelief is required to buy a modern woman not only doing all this but happily managing without hot water on tap, electricity, etc. But what kept me interested despite this niggling doubt were the descriptions. Lawhead does these extremely well, whether it comes to depictions of characters or of historical details such as apostle spoons. I especially liked the alchemist’s laboratory with its granite mortars and “prehistoric insects in lambent lumps of Baltic amber”.

One problem, though, were the said-bookisms. Characters rarely just say something. Instead they declare, venture, assert, prod, echo, offer, object, declaim, prompt, allow, wonder, counter and even yip. This is the first book I’ve read where people yipped. Finally, although the different threads converge at the end, the plot is by no means resolved—this is the first in the Bright Empires series—so it’s not for anyone who wants a self-contained book.

For what it is, though, it was an entertaining read. I’ll probably check out the sequel, if Thomas Nelson offers that as well.

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