The Skin Map is the first volume in a new fantasy series called Bright Empires, written by Stephen R Lawhead.
Kit Livingstone is one of people that have never seemed to get used to living in society, passing through various dead-end jobs with no real plans or ambitions and far too apathetic when it comes to relationships. When his great grandfather suddenly appears in an alley during a heavy storm, Kit finds himself transported to a very different place - caused by stepping through a junction of ley lines that grant those with the knowledge or power the ability to travel to alternate universes.
Kit's great grandfather seeks the pieces of a unique skin map, a roadmap of symbols tattoed onto the body of the greatest explorer of the Ley Lines and the alternate worlds. Since his death this map has been divided with the pieces lost in time, should anyone manage to find them all it is destined to lead them to a prize beyond imagination.
I have always been a great admirer of Stephen Lawhead and his work, I began reading his Song of Albion series at a young age and it was one of those rare moments that helped open my eyes to the world of the written word (along with others such as Tolkien, Brooks, Pratchett, Holt and others). It was the first time that I had read a series that used the alternative reality scenario and to this day it remains on of my favorite stories. Since then I have collected and read most of his works and I am always surprised by the different style he uses for his fantasy and historic fiction novels, to me this is the sign of a skilled author.
It was therefore quite humbling to be asked to review his newest work and after all these years he still hasn't lost his magic. The style is a little different to any of his previous works and in some ways seems to bring a blend of his historical style with his fantasy style and inject a new sense of maturity to the prose. I must admit I love this projected voice, the elegant yet uncluttered wordplay and the light hearted humour is both refreshing and easy on the eyes.
Another novel set in London! it seems to be a reoccurring theme at the moment reading novels set in my favorite city. This one though does travel to different parts of the world in different times through these ley line points, most of the book is set in the relative past before electricity, cars etc and as such these include the somewhat flowery prose of the time which reminds me a little of Susanna Clarke but here it's handled much better and doesn't reduce the pace to the speed of an asthmatic ant carrying heavy shopping.
The backstory is both rich, vibrant and detailed enough to get you sucked in without spoiling the plot and the pace is quite relaxed without becoming stagnant. The characters are interesting, even the incidental extras feel well described and Kit comes across well as an average guy a bit out of his depth. The story itself works superbly and the rich blend of history and contemporary is exemplary. The only slight negative I have really is that ending is somewhat abrupt and almost feels like the author didn't really know when to stop this first part of the story.
The Skin Map is a very accomplished novel of style and grace, a fantastic start to what promises to be an oustanding series.
Written on 2nd March 2011 by Ant.
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