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Book Review: The Skin Map by Stephen R. Lawhead

Genre: Time Travel/Parallel Universe, Adventure, Christian Science Fiction
Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: August 31, 2010
ISBN-10: 1595548041
ISBN-13: 978-1595548047
Author Website: Stephen R. Lawhead

Stephen R. Lawhead breaks (sort of) free from mythic historical fiction to take a stab at time travel/alternate worlds narrative in The Skin Map.

Kit is a modern day Londoner, living a fruitless life full of the mundane, a dull baker girlfriend, and the depression that accompanies the uninspired and lackadaisical. On an unusually difficult traffic system day (Kit can’t buy a ticket at the window because the computers are down, but the free-standing computerized ticket provide won’t take his Oyster card – and on and on recursively) Kit decides to make the long slog to his girlfriends flat by foot. This walk takes him along Stane Way, an ancient straight track of old London. No one is more surprised than Kit when a man claiming to be his great grandfather and namesake (Cosimo) steps from the shadows. Kit is instantly thrust into an alternate world, though his preconceived notions won’t allow him to accept it easily. Returning to his own universe, Kit tries to prove to his girlfriend Wilhelmina that it is true, and the two become separated by time and universe and thrust into the center of a race to find the Skin Map, the key to all the universes.

Lawhead’s alternate universes are fairly similar to our own. While they may be at a different time (always in the past, never the future) than ours, they vary little from our own history. Substantial differences might include the lack of a Great Fire of London in 1666, or that Cromwell never deposed a king, turning instead to itinerant preaching. Lawhead has chosen not to let the alternate universes deviate too far from the main line (Kit’s) so as to make history his playground. Over the course of the novel, Kit finds himself in Britain of 1666 and Egypt of the 1920s, Wilhelmina stays entirely within early 17th century Bohemia, and another character – Arthur Flinders-Petrie (the last name is an homage to noted nineteenth century English Egyptologist and archeologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie), the creator of the Skin Map – in Age of Discovery China and Ancient Egypt. As the characters use ley lines to move from universe to universe, they bounce around in time as well and effects in one seem to have an effect in others, so that the various branches of time and universe never deviate far from one another.

This is perhaps the great failure of the story. Though scientifically based, its alternate universes provide nothing more than an opportunity for Lawhead to have his characters bounce around in time. Lawhead could just as well have had the ley lines provide time travel, rather than move between alternate universes for all the difference they make in the narrative.

The narrative is entirely character-focused. Kit, Wilhelmina, Arthur Flinder-Petrie are the primaries, with the villain Lord Burleigh and a few other minor characters occasionally jutting in. Kit’s story is the primary narrative, though it is hard to realize this as Wilhelmina’s takes up considerably more text space. Kit works with his grandfather and a 17th century English gentleman to find the Skin Map, even as Lord Burleigh attempts to do the same while also sending ruffians to stop them.

Wilhelmina, however, steps up to the challenge of being transported to Bohemia in 1606, going to work for a baker and becoming a successful businesswoman. It is Wilhelmina who provides an end of novel deus ex machina when she saves Kit from a dire situation. Her story is actually fun to read, if taken out of context and seen as a historical short story apart from Kit’s adventure. As it is, Lawhead spends and inordinate amount of time developing Wilhelmina’s narrative to the detriment of Kit’s. Wilhelmina becomes a Mary Sue, in fact, able to do everything with aplomb. A cursory knowledge of German given to her by a grandmother makes her capable of conversing well enough in the language to transact business deals, her twenty-first century ideas rarely clash with those of the 17th century, she remembers esoteric pieces of history that the character lead-in at the beginning of the novel gives no indication of, and a business acumen that seems at odds with her role as a job-hopper and baker’s apprentice. Her storyline is interesting for the bits of history it reveals, but Wilhelmina is just too unbelievable a character, too skilled, too successful, too capable to be real.

Arthur Flinders-Petrie is enigmatic and interesting, though his character is left mysterious for the most part. Lord Burleigh is classic villain, out to get what he can from the universes, taking artifacts from one universe to sell in another. Why he wants the Skin Map is unknown, but it probably has something to do with the central hub, the Well of Souls that is oft-mentioned but never explained.

Lawhead’s writing is also a tad tiresome. His foreshadowing is occasionally ham-handed and obvious: “He had only to get his hands on Sir Henry’s books and all would be well….In a few days he would discover just how wrong he truly was, but by then this train of thought would have reached a wholly unexpected destination.” That entire second sentence would have been best left out of the novel entirely. The plot attempts to move quickly, but is broken up so often by disparate characters and short chapters that flow is hard to gain. The novel is all build-up and set-up with a rapid and unsatisfying denouement and conclusion that hinges on a deus ex machina moment.

Ultimately, The Skin Map is a parallel universe story written for those who have never read parallel universe stories before. The science of universes becomes a matter of faith (though Hawking is mentioned by name) and we just have to accept that Lawhead’s explanations are kosher, even when it seems that events violate the rules he has set for his alternate universes. Long-time SF readers are going to have little patience for Lawhead’s story, and urban fantasy readers will find little that is urban about this story – though there are limited elements of the paranormal in the ley line component. Historical fiction readers may enjoy some of the plotlines (such as Wilhelmina’s) but only as a curiosity. The Skin Map is simply too scatter-brained and simplistic to produce a substantive or entertaining narrative.