Let me get this off my chest before I start: I am not a big fan of time travel novels or novels that jump back and forth between sets of characters in different time periods. With that said, I must acknowledge that I liked Stephen Lawhead’s new book, The Skin Map, more than I thought I would. It was a far cry from his excellent Song of Albion trilogy, but still not an utter waste of time.
The story starts out with the protagonist, Kit, being accosted in a London alleyway by his great-grandfather Cosimo and dragged through time/space to the seacoast of England in the 1600s. Cosimo tells Kit that they are journeying along “ley lines,” an ancient travel method that has been forgotten by modern man. When Kit returns to London, he tries to show his girlfriend Wilhelmina what happened to him. They take a saunter down the same alleyway, and poof! Kit is back to 1600s England, and Wilhelmina is…somewhere else entirely. Cosimo, angry at Kit for bringing Wilhelmina, declares that she could be anywhere or anywhen and they must find her before she changes the course of history.
As Cosimo decides how best to begin the search for Wilhelmina, Kit begins to familiarize himself with the world of four centuries ago, meeting Sir Henry Fayth, a scientist who is good friends with Cosimo, and Lady Haven Fayth, Sir Henry’s incredibly attractive niece. He also learns of the existence of the “Burley Men,” nefarious characters who are able to jump the time/space continuum and who desperately want Cosimo’s piece of the Skin Map, an important artifact that will guide them in this travel.
Besides following the thread of Kit’s story, the book jumps continuously between three other threads: Wilhelmina’s culinary adventure in 1600s Prague, Lord Burleigh’s evil escapades in feudal Japan and Napoleonic Egypt, and Arthur Flinders-Petrie’s seminal journeys that explain the creation of the skin map itself. As often happens with stories that change focus like this, one of the stories is far more interesting than the others, and you wish the author would just stick to telling that one.
In this case, the most interesting story out of all four, is Wilhelmina’s adventure. Shocked out of her senses at first by the unexpected transportation to a new world, Wilhelmina proves resilient and resourceful. She falls in with a baker named Etzel and, being a baker herself, introduces him to several new, modern recipes. She helps him start the first coffee house in Prague and ends up introducing the tasty, new beverage to the Emperor himself. Ironically, Kit thinks he needs to rescue Wilhelmina, but in the end, it is she who has the wits and wiles to rescue him when the Burley Men turn ugly.
This novel is the first in a projected trilogy called Bright Empires. It ends on a cleverly constructed cliffhanger, Lawhead’s attempts to get the reader to read on when the next installment arrives. If ever a book could be described by the adjective “okay,” this book would be it. The Skin Map was mildly interesting and eminently forgettable. Perhaps books two and three will have a stronger story grip, although my experience with Lawhead says that the first novel in his trilogy is usually the best of the lot.