Thinking that perhaps the deficiencies were due more to the difficult of massaging well worn legends into readable (and believable) fiction for modern readers, when I was offered a copy of The Skin map as a loaner with a request for a recommendation I decided to give it a spin. Perhaps Lawhead has had the same misgivings about his source material, because here he writes an original story with roots in a couple of different ideas but no pre-existing back story or fan base he has to appease.
1. Alternative history. While this has been a popular genre, particularly when it comes to dead leaders like Lincoln, Hitler, and JFK, here the framework isn't explored very deeply. When Kit Livingstone finds that his long dead great grandfather is both still alive and engaged in time traveling to alternative histories, there is some talk about parallel tracks that can take greatly divergent paths based on minor input changes, little is done with the idea. For example, when Kit leaps with his great grandfather from modern day London to London the day before the great fire of 1666, other than the mild irritants of hard to understand accents and archaic vocabulary, everything seems pretty much as the history books tell us it was.
2. The physics of time. While time seems such a simple and pervasive thing in everyday life, scientific attempts to understand and explain how time works end up more complex and speculative than we would expect. Lawhead weaves in the ideas that some scientists have proposed, driven by some of Einstein's most bizarre theories, that time is actually a seemingly infinite number of parallel dimensions that are all simultaneously occurring. Where we are at any point in time depends on probabilities or providence, the latter Lawhead's preference based on his Christian worldview, which holds that God is directly engaged in real time history and that probabilities, fate, or chaos are wrongheaded explanations for events based on limited perceptions of the full context of time and place.
3. The ley of the land. Some early British archaeologists, notably Alfred Watkins, began to realize that Stonehenge was not just an isolated pile of rocks but one of a series of Stone Age monumental architectures, landscapes, and roadways connected along immense tracks that Watkins dubbed "ley lines.". Aerial photography and satellite and radar mapping have confirmed the existence of these alignments all over the United Kingdom, but not their purpose. Lawhead uses ley lines as the mechanism by which his characters move amongst time and alternative histories. His characters "leap" from time to time and place to place, very reminiscent of the American TV show "Quantuum Leap" of several years ago.
Lawhead is a good story teller and decent if not great writer of characters and dialogue, so he keeps the story moving nicely along. The biggest problem with this kind of fiction is establishing the "rules" of the world and applying them consistently, and Lawhead makes a few basic errors. For example, Kit is told that he should interact with people and events in his alternative worlds as little as possible, yet fellow time travelers like Kit's great grandfather do it all the time, even establishing new scientific societies and starting new businesses. But of course this is clearly a fantasy novel, not a serious "science" fiction about the possibilities and theories of time travel.
While different sets of characters leap to different times and places, whether for fun, research and mapping (via a complex set of tattoos, hence the "skin map"), or in search of each other, they start to converge near the end of the book, but the ending comes too abruptly with too little explanation. But not to worry, this is the first part of a trilogy which Lawhead has already finished so I can continue reading the second in the series in search of answers to the sudden events in book one of the "Bright Empires" series.
What did you think of this review?