Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Skin Map (Bright Empires #1), by Stephen R. Lawhead


While slogging through the streets of London one rainy Sunday morning, everyman Kit Livingston encounters his long-lost (and surprisingly spry) great grandfather, who requests his assistance in a search for the titular Skin Map--a map made of human skin. From there, Kit is plunged into a world of ley lines, alternate universes, time travel, hungry wild cats, beautiful damsels, and heartless villains. The book follows his adventures, as well as parallel story lines in a variety of times and places (Egypt! Prague! China! London!) and involving an assortment of other characters: The amusingly-named Arthur Flinders-Petrie, whose tattooed flesh would eventually become the Skin Map; Kit's unenthusiastic girlfriend Wilhelmina, whom Kit inadvertently mislaid when he tried to prove the truth of his unusual experiences; and the evil Lord Burleigh, who has vague-yet-nefarious intentions and is dead set on finding the map before Kit or his great-grandfather.  Will Kit find Wilhelmina before Lord Burleigh finds the map? 

This first installment in Lawhead's new Bright Empires series is not really meant to be a stand-alone novel.  It is merely an initial episode, and with a rather abrupt and incomplete ending--much is left unresolved, and many characters have yet to fully crystallize.   Thus, in many ways it is difficult to judge the quality of this volume without more information on where Lawhead takes the series and how (and whether) he wraps up his many plot points.  Lawhead himself has described this series as more complex and intricate than anything he's previously written, so it makes a certain amount of sense that some of the plot threads extend into later books.

All in all, this was a decent adventure story.  I'm not sure any one of the story lines would have held up on its own, but by interweaving four or five different plots, Lawhead effectively bolstered their individual weaknesses.  I was particularly partial to (Wilhelm)Mina's highly entrepreneurial story line, set in seventeenth century Prague.  In many ways, it did not seem to fit with the other stories, but since it was my favorite, I didn't mind the rather jarring insertion of the surprisingly fascinating ins and outs of small business ownership and marketing in Renaissance Europe.  The characters in this story line seemed to be much better developed than in the others--she grows, she changes, she encounters obstacles and overcomes them.  And the supporting characters in her tale--her partner Etzel and their landlord Arnostovi--are much more interesting than, say, the fair maiden Kit encounters or Arthur's Chinese wife . . . or even Kit himself, who seems rather unimpressive, even for an everyman.  But perhaps he will get his chance to shine in one of the later installments.

The audiobook is quite well done--narrator Simon Bubb does a first-rate job and adroitly shifts among characters from a wide array of times and places, and likely improves a story that might not be quite as compelling on the written page.  His voicing of Kit is reminiscent of Martin Freeman (an everyman far superior to Kit, it must be said).

All in all, it's a perfectly serviceable and largely entertaining (if incomplete) work of imaginative fiction.  More than that cannot be said until Lawhead finishes the series and allows readers to examine the story in its entirety.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://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 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> :
“Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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