Sunday, October 31, 2010

November CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1: The Skin Map

The Skin Map, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Day 1 of the November 2010 CSFF Blog Tour
Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Skin Map for review on the November, 2010 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

On the first read, The Skin Map comes across as a puzzlingly convoluted tale. But further reflection and perusal of the book alleviates such a notion. A better description would be that it is disjointed. I do not mean that in a bad way at all. Given the nature of the underlying premise of the story, the existence of so-called ley lines and their ability to whisk one away to another time and place (always in the past as the future has not occurred yet), the seemingly disconnected parts are natural. Of course, they are not truly disconnected; it is only that their inter-relatedness is developed slowly, which adds to the intrigue.

The story has two key protagonists, Kit (Cosimo) Livingston and his girlfriend, Wilhelmina Klug. Kit’s life is aptly summed in the words of his great-grandfather,

“ dear boy, you are a lonely twenty-seven-year-old bachelor with a worthless education, a boring no-hope job, a stalled love-life, and very few prospects for the improvement of your sad lot.” p. 11.

The fact that those words were spoken directly to Kit by a relative who should be at least 125 years old alerts one to the extraordinary possibilities in this world of ley lines and time travel.

Wilhelmina, as portrayed by Lawhead, is a drab, monotonous, and colorless character who is a baker (key to her role in the story) at Giovanni’s Rustic Italian Bakery, requiring a 4:00 AM start every weekday leaving her exhausted by six in the evening and sound asleep by eight:

“As Kit watched her slouch back to her big blue sofa, which was her habitual nest, he was once more impressed with the idea that he simply had to get a better girlfriend at first opportunity. Dressed in black slacks and a black turtleneck with the horrible, ratty, hand-knitted purple scarf she wore everywhere, with her feet stuffed into flat-heeled, sheepskin boots, she was a dead ringer for the undertaker’s anemic daughter. Why, he wondered, did she have to look so austere? Whatever happened to sugar and spice? When enumerating the qualities he desired in a mate, vim and vigour, a zest for life, and a keenness of mind and intellect came quite near the top of the list. Wilhelmina’s idea of excitement was an extra scoop of sultanas in the cinnamon buns. Her intellect might have been keen enough- if anyone could ever catch her awake long enough to stimulate her into meaningful conversation.” p. 29

Such are the leading characters, not an unusual scenario for any story, but a particularly familiar situation for speculative fiction. For reasons that involved ley travel and a meeting with his great grandfather in another time and place, Kit is late for a promised day of shopping with Mina (diminutive of Wilhelmina), and in order to appease the unbelieving Wilhelmina’s cynicism, he convinces her to go with him and see what happened for herself. In the doing of that, the two are catapulted into a different time and place, but not together.

Wilhelmina lands in medieval Germanic territories (her German is poor but she manages) and makes her way into Prague accompanied by a likeable character named Englebert. The time period is during the reign of Emperor Rudolf. I’m assuming this is Rudolf II who reigned from 1576-1612. According to Wikipedia, Rudolf II lived in Prague Castle, was eccentric, depressed, and held bizarre courts of astrologers, magicians, and other strange figures. The Rudolf of The Skin Map is much like this, and among those strange figures are alchemists who are pertinent to the story.

Meanwhile, Kit lands somewhere, meets up again with his great grandfather (also named Cosimo); the two are almost overpowered by ‘Burly men’ (henchmen of Lord Burleigh, the arch villain of the story), and finally escape via another ley jump to the London of 1666.

The quest is a search for the ‘skin map’ whose acquisition, both for Lord Burleigh (a particularly distinguished fiend) and Kit (along with Cosimo and another, Lord Henry Fayth), is eminently vital. The skin map is a collection of hieroglyphs that have been tattooed, in piecemeal fashion, onto the chest and abdomen of an important character who uses them as a guide to safe and accurate time travel; their indelibility in his skin ensures the map never departs from him (although at one point it almost does by flaying at the hands of the despicable Lord Burleigh).

The quest for the skin map is certainly a prelude to something big and marvelous, which the story hints of involving a place called the Well of Souls. The accuracy of that assessment will be revealed in subsequent volumes of The Bright Empires Series; the next is due to arrive in September 2011, The Bone House.

I enjoyed the story. Lawhead is a good writer, crafting his sentences and paragraphs well, and masterful in his depiction of the life and times of medieval people. The story is intriguing, albeit not easy to follow (I attribute some of that to the abbreviated time in which the book had to be read). The characters are many, distinctive, and attractive, another indication of Lawhead’s excellent writing prowess.

There is little of the writing, if anything, to be negative; but if something negative were to be said, it might be the dialogue which, for me at times, came across as a bit too artificial. The effort to have those of another era speak in a manner fitting to that time does not always have a genuine mood and sometimes feels overdramatic. But the story is good, the writing great, the characters interesting, and this little issue of dialogue is only a speck of a problem.

Stephen R. Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Skin Map on Amazon