Sunday, February 20, 2011

author spotlight: stephen r. lawhead + the skin map

skin mapBritish ley lines, the first German kaffeehause, and an Egyptian sarcophagus are just some of the points of interest which make up the plot and pacing of Stephen R. Lawhead’s latest fiction novel, The Skin Map, “Quest the First” of his new Bright Empires Series.

If you’ve ever read Lawhead before you should come expecting good storytelling, for that is what Lawhead truly is: a story-teller.  His latest endeavour in mythic historical fiction, The Raven King Trilogy, retold the legends of Robin Hood in a bold and daring new way.  Likewise his Pendragon Cycle brought fresh light and language to the Arthurian legends.  As a fan of historical fiction and fantasy genres, I have grown to appreciate Lawhead’s work as an author and writer since being first introduced to him in The Iron Lance, a historical work which depicts the journeys of Murdo, the son of a Scottish nobleman destined to sail to Jerusalem during the violence of the 1st crusade.

In this new novel, Lawhead tackles not history or legend as he so often has, but instead lends his hand to a story of inter-dimensional space and time travel.  The story begins with young, boring, modern day, Kit Livingstone, who is getting lost in his attempt to take a subway train to meet his girlfriend Wilhelmina.  He gets lost, it begins to rain, and as he makes his way Stephen R. Lawheaddown a long straight alley, trying to catch his bearings, he runs into an old man.  But this is no ordinary man: this is Kit’s great-grandfather, Cosimo, and he’s supposed to be dead.

After the natural shock and unbelief, Cosimo explains to Kit about how he has travelled to meet him in this alley: by using ley lines.  This is Lawhead’s central idea for the series.  That one can use ley lines as a means to journey to other times and alternate realities.

What’s a ley line?  Well, they were first documented and recorded in modern times just prior to 1922 by Alfred Watkins.  As Lawhead himself divulges in the epilogue:
Watkins spent a lot of time on horseback riding across the English countryside, . . .on one of these rambles he noticed how odd it was that many familiar landmarks seemed to be linked one to another in absolutely straight lines stretching for miles across the landscape; churches, holy wells, and stone crosses were connected to stone circles, dolmens, tumulus burial chambers, beacons, man-made mounds, standing stones, Roman roads, notches cut in hillsides, and other features of the ancient British landscape.  He began looking for and recording these observed lines on a map, and he dubbed them “ley lines”.
alfred wakinsLey lines have remained a mystery ever since.  And though bountiful speculation, conspiracy theory and the like exist, no one has any real answers, nor do we know how ancient peoples encountered them.  This is where Lawhead finds the room for some great fiction: “it is my particular privilege to roam freely in the world of ‘what if’ without having to prove anything. . . who can say absolutely that ley travel is not possible?”

Back to the story:  Cosimo explains to Kit about ley lines and ley travel—that one can actually journey along the lines to others times and places.  He also tells Kit of the skin map, an ancient tattooed parchment which maps the leys, one’s only true hope in being able to navigate through space and time.  Our heroes need to find the map before it falls into the wrong hands, and thus Kit is thrust into a riveting adventure.

You would expect so anyway.  And though there are some great moments, the story seems to drag in spots.  There is a lack of compelling creative tension which unites the sometimes four different story arcs, each following a different group of characters and their personal struggles.  Conviction certainly exists for Kit, Wilhelmina, Cosimo and their allies, but this only sometimes translates into momentum for the plot.  Perhaps, strangely, the best writing is what some might quickly pass over: detailed elaborations on cultural dress, the taste and textures of food and drink, the intricacies of entrepreneurial business dealings and the tone and gravity of location are thoroughly savoured.  I felt like the book could have been 100 pages shorter.

That said, I’m still really interested in what’s going to happen next.  The last few chapters in particular laid the groundwork for some really interesting ideas: the villian’s desire to find the Well of Souls, and a new device created by medieval alchemists which locates potential ley-travel routes being the top few.

If you’re a fan of Lawhead’s mythic and more fantastical work, you will be intrigued; it is quite different from his historical fiction in terms of content.  As a whole, Lawhead has a gift at capturing true emotion and thought-process in his characters…Kit and Wilhelmina particularly in their first ‘jumps’ in ley-travel exhibit a very convincing blend of unbelief and resignation.  The Skin Map is worth a read, I’m just hoping Lawhead ups the ante for book two: The Bone Room which will be released this fall.

Read other reviews of The Skin Map on click here.
For more information on Stephen R. Lawhead, head over to his website!

Happy Reading,

Trailer for “The Skin Map” book. This is a new thing for books nowadays: having a video trailer.

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