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Review: “The Skin Map”

My last foray into Stephen Lawhead territory was with The Pendragon Cycle. That was back in the early 90’s, and it was quite an enjoyable experience. So it was with some anticipation  that I opened The Skin Map, Lawhead’s latest and the first of a series. Conceptually, the novel appeared to be a perfect vehicle for Lawhead, who excels at historical detail. But while the concept and the detail don’t disappoint, I found myself struggling through both.

The Skin Map blends several genres, but is probably best described as time travel or urban fantasy. The story revolves around Kit, a 21st century Londoner who stumbles upon a portal between different universes within our multiverse (alternate universes with infinite possible histories). Along the way, he loses his girlfriend Wilhemina in 17th century Prague, and in an attempt to rescue her, finds himself in a quest for a map that details these universal portals (or ley lines). As such, the story shifts between numerous possible worlds, an 18th-century Chinese port, old England, ancient Egypt, just to name a few.

But what could be a wild ride was, for me, only marginally interesting. For the main characters who lead me on this fantastical journey are not very interesting. Kit and Wilhelmina’s relationship, which becomes the dramatic hinge of The Skin Map, endeared me to neither. For instance, upon introduction, we learn that Kit believes “he simply had to get a new girlfriend at first opportunity” (pg. 29). After a rather unflattering description of Wilhelmina’s features — mousy hair, receding chin, spinster’s hump, and dark-circled eyes — it’s no wonder he feels this way. She yawns a lot, is emotionally cold, even calls him a “dope.” Thus, our protagonist concludes, “Wilhelmina was no catch” (pg. 30). To which the reader must surely agree. So when Kit leads Wilhelmina to the portal and they spiral into different histories, I almost wanted to say “Good riddance.’

Which creates a problem, because finding Wilhelmina becomes the springboard of the novel.

As compelling as the possibilities of inter-dimensional, alternate history jumping could be, Lawhead’s characters seemed strangely un-incredulous, as if finding oneself in 17th century Prague was just a scheduling error. So when one of Kit’s guides warns that Wilhemina “might cause unimaginable damage, unleashing catastrophe after catastrophe of unreckoned proportions” (pg. 125), I had to ponder what “unimaginable damage” that might involve. Time travel stories carry their own logical questions. Tweaking A affects B, which changes C and inevitably removes Z. Perhaps Lawhead will explore such possibilities in later installments. However, in The Skin Map, I was left with a lot of those questions.

Stephen Lawhead is adept at setting and historical details, and this is where The Skin Map excels. Descriptions of the Chinese port city and the bakery in old Prague are wonderful. And some of the physics and philosophical speculation are intriguing. (I especially liked Lawhead’s short essay Afterword entitled The Ley of the Land, which outlines the realtime theories behind the story.) So as much as I felt a disconnect with the characters, Lawhead is a great writer and has proven his handle on tales of epic scope. For that reason, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and the rest of the series a shot.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I’d like to thank Thomas Nelson Publishers for providing me this Book free as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Patrick Todoroff June 28, 2011, 6:15 AM

    Shame his editor didn’t have him make his characters more engaging. That’s what hooks me and elevates a story above the norm.

    I’ve tried on several occasions to read SL and it never took. Now he’s one of those ‘big names’ I recognize but skip over when searching for a new read.

    Thanks for the review.

  • Deborah June 28, 2011, 6:26 AM

    I read this book last year and I really enjoyed it. Then again, this was my first Lawhead book so I have nothing to compare it to. Also I am not normally a fantasy/speculative fiction reader (maybe about 5-7 a year at most) so again, not much to compare it to. But I found myself enjoying the story because it read more historical fiction than fantasy for me. Also a bit thrilled that there was an interracial relationship in the story. I felt Kit wasn’t very well developed but I really loved Mina. I’m looking forward to the next book. I think it’s a good book for those who don’t normally read the genre.

    • Tim George June 28, 2011, 7:43 AM

      Like you Deborah, I don’t read a lot of fantasy. And like you, that may be the reason I enjoyed The Skin Map. A friend of mine who is an avid fantasy was as disappointed as Mike.

      But, Mike, as a history buff and fan of alternative history fiction I immediately saw the implications of poor plain Wilhemina’s introduction of one new element to 17th century Prague. The balance of power is already shifting from Italy to Poland before the end of the the book.

      I don’t think I’m giving away too much to observe Starbucks might well have its world headquarters in Eastern Europe today rather than Seattle.

  • Tony June 28, 2011, 1:04 PM

    And the characters never improve? I mean, sounds like an interesting place to start if given some hints about interesting changes within the characters. . .but if they’re static. . .well, that’s not fun.

    The plot sounds interesting though. Might check this one out. . .eventually.

  • Kevin Lucia June 29, 2011, 3:11 AM

    I read half of it. The tone reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman…but like you, couldn’t work up any real concern or liking for the characters. Liked the concept, the prose felt solid…but perhaps the characters were just a bit TOO dry and removed…

  • Vic DiGital June 29, 2011, 5:52 AM

    Why do you think he is portraying the characters, especially Wilhemina, in such an unflattering light? Does he otherwise write her as a character he expects the reader to like?

    Otherwise, this sounds interesting. But I’m at the point in my reading life where I don’t think I’m going to start a new series until it’s finished being published. Is this intended to be a series, or a trilogy?

  • Jason Joyner June 29, 2011, 10:29 AM

    Lawhead is streaky. When he’s on, I devour his stuff. But other times he absolutely loses me. I really enjoyed the first book of the Pendragon cycle but the second one lost me in just a few chapters.

    I liked the Skin Map. I admit that Kit is too much of a dim bulb through the book. However, Mina’s story and arc does become interesting – how she changes when thrust into such a strange circumstance. It took a while to see how the two were going to converge, but when they did, it was with a twist.

    The Christian Sci-fi and fantasy tour featured The Skin Map last fall. We had a ton of participation with it, and there’s different opinions, features and what not collected at Becky Miller’s post: http://rebeccaluellamiller.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/csff-blog-tour-the-skin-map-day-1/

    If anyone is interested.

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