Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella (p.3).
The novel posits the cosmos as multiverse, multiple worlds nestled together like soap bubbles in the bath (as one character describes it). The intersections among worlds create regions of increased electromagnetic energy. The story calls these locales "ley lines." That terminology originates outside the story world, as the author explains in an essay appended to the tale proper. The inciting incident of the book launches Kit Livingstone, who seems the chief protagonist in an ensemble cast, out of his twenty-first-century comfort zone into the unpredictable adventure of traveling through the multiverse across these lines.
Another who had preceded Kit in this kind of adventure had painstakingly had a map, the Skin Map of the title, tattooed on his body as a guide to this ley leaping. This book (and apparently the Bright Empires series as a whole) describes the chase to possess or recover this map.
The novel embodies many classic narratives of Western literature. First and foremost, it is a quest story with multiple parties pursuing the same object (but for ends not wholly apparent yet). Fish-out-of-water episodes abound as well, as the characters are dislocated in history and culture and must adapt quickly to maintain their cover stories, so to speak. I suspect the series will also become a coming-of-age saga as the reluctant hero grows to the task at hand.
The author deploys his ensemble cast with great skill. The shift among characters, narrative threads, and settings keeps the interest high and the pace fast. The secondary characters, especially a baker in seventeenth-century Prague, proved especially endearing. Kit was harder to like at first, but he's growing on me as the challenges reveal his character (hence the suspicion that his growth arc will become another unitive theme of the series).
"There is no God," he said, his voice flat and hard. "There is only chaos, chance, and the immutable laws of nature. As men of science, I had thought you would know that. In this world--as in all others--there is only the survival of the fittest." ~Lord Archelaus Burleigh, pp.337-338.The strongly drawn characters clearly reveal the lines of the conflict. The villain is over-the-top evil; I picture him twirling an oiled black mustache as he sneers his threats. The good guys are generally ordinary folks thrust into extraordinary circumstances which reveal and test their moral foundations. This is not to exclude the possibility for treachery and shifting allegiances, but among the core group of characters the sides seem black and white in classic adventure-tale style.
"Listen to this," he said, and began to read aloud. "Sir Henry writes, 'I hold two precepts absolute: That the universe was created to allow Providence its expression, and therefore nothing happens beyond its purview.... Secondly, all was made for the benefit of each: man, woman, child, and beast, down to the curve of every wave, and the flight of the lowliest insect. For, if there be such a thing as Providence, then everything is providential, and every act of Providence is a special providence'" (pp.371-372).
The Skin Map introduces Lawhead's newest series, Bright Empires. This particular book is not a stand-alone story like a Mitford novel or one of the Chronicles of Narnia would be. This more closely resembles the first season of a television series (complete with multiple cliffhangers) or the first volume of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
As such, this novel requires a great deal of exposition, introducing us not just to the characters but also to the whole concept of multiple universes and ley travel. In my opinion Lawhead weaves this into the story deftly and does not let the concept overwhelm the characters or conflicts.
For me, the reader, Simon Bubb, was a little slow to fully inhabit his characters, but by the second disc I stopped thinking of "the reader" and only thought of "the characters." This would seem the mark of a good performance. The complexity and breadth of the narrative require him to assume several different accents and different voices within each, but I was never confused as to the speaker at a given moment. I thoroughly enjoyed this listen and found myself looking for excuses to put the next disc in when my allotted listening time was done.
From a narrative perspective, it confused me that one character speaks of a concept of "absolute future," meaning that no one could travel to a time in another world which would be future relative to his or her home world, although later in the story at least three characters appear to do just that. I am happy to grant that the fault lies in my inattention or misunderstanding, so this is hardly worth mentioning except that in a high-concept work such as this those rules provide structure on which the story is built.
"'No Coincidence Under Heaven.... Providence not Coincidence'" (p. 372).My other uncertainty concerns the concept itself. The ley line idea has more credence with New Age groups than orthodox science or religion, while the once fantastic concept of multiple worlds is now the stuff of science and mathematics and is closely integrated with the big bang theory of cosmic origins. The text of the story itself and the appended essay indicate the author's familiarity with both these facts. The characters' words also indicate Christian theological underpinnings, with the heroes discussing God and Providence and the villain speaking of chance and chaos.
In the concluding essay, Lawhead writes, "Not being a scientist, it is my particular privilege to roam freely in the world of 'what if' without having to prove anything." Given that, I enjoyed listening to this novel as a work of fantasy. As long as I view it as make-believe, these concerns do not overly trouble me, but for readers particularly sensitive to the Creation-evolution issue even an allusion to the big bang or old-earth geologic dating may prove bothersome enough to avoid this book.
The Bottom Line
Although outside my usual reading comfort zone, This novel was a thoroughly enjoyable listen. It was great fun and just the adventure I had hoped for. Now, if you'll excuse me, the second book in the Bright Empires series has come in for me at the library, so I must go see what happens next.