Unlike the physics book I read recently, that I chose based on its title (How to Teach Physics to Your Dog), this book I picked up in spite of its title. The only idea of a skin map I could think of was the diagram of the dermis and epidermis that I had to make in tenth grade biology. But the book was by Stephen Lawhead, one of my favorite authors, and there was no way I was going to pass up reading his newest novel.
Once I started reading it, I was even more intrigued. Central to the plot is the idea of ley lines, lines that connect various ancient sites associated with some kind of mystical power. In the novel, these ley lines enable travel between “worlds,” using the many-worlds theory that each choice made in our world somehow engenders a split between the world we know, where that choice was made, and innumerable other worlds, where different choices were made.
Lawhead only hints at some of the possibilities inherent in this idea. In practice, the characters find that the primary difference they find as they travel between worlds is that they also travel both in time and place. So one character finds himself in seventeenth century London, while another lands in Prague, another sixty years earlier. Later (or should one say earlier?) both end up in ancient Egypt.
In a short essay at the end of the novel, Lawhead explains how he became interested in the idea of ley lines. He explains that researchers have actually detected electromagnetic energy radiating along some of these lines. Lawhead makes no claims as to the validity of the belief in special powers associated with the lines; he does say there seems to be enough evidence for some “open-minded speculation.” Certainly enough for a fantasy novel.
I became somewhat interested in such concepts after reading excerpts from a book several years ago, but I failed to write down the name of the book, so I’ve never been able to locate it again. Previously I had thought the idea of any place on earth being particularly special to be superstitious nonsense; even Jerusalem, which is considered very special in Scripture, is special (in my view) not because of its inherent qualities but because God chose it.
Several years ago (I’m not sure if it was before or after reading the material mentioned above), I visited the Old Mission Point lighthouse in Michigan, and as I emerged from the wooded trail to the open area around the lighthouse and then walked out to the beach, I was overcome with an amazing feeling of peacefulness and joy.
I’m not particularly prone to such feelings, which made it all the more surprising. I’m not saying there is some special power there, but the experience made me at least think about the possibility that places exist that do exert such power. (For what it’s worth, the lighthouse happens to stand just a few hundred yards south of the 45th parallel north, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.)
After reading the novel, I read some more about ley lines. Skeptics point out that, given enough ancient sites associated with spiritual power (churches, stones circles, roadside shrines, burial sites, etc.), it is almost inevitable that some can be connected with straight lines. As this page shows (go down to the “skeptical approach” section), any random arrangement of points can produce the same number of lines. And as there really are telluric currents – electrical currents that move through the earth – it is hardly surprising that some of them would be located along lines identified as “ley lines.”
Completely aside from that discussion, the book made me think about another question. Does a book that is part of a series have to meet the same criteria as a standalone novel to be considered a good book?
Most books that are part of series can stand alone reasonably well. The Skin Map cannot. By the time I was 90% of the way through the book, I realized that there was no sign of leading to a climax. The book was just going to end, with no real resolution, as though one had taken a longer work and arbitrarily cut it off at some predefined number of chapters.
There is a small bit of resolution, just before the end, but it is done by bringing a character from another plotline, with no explanation how or why she got there. I won’t call it a deus ex machina, simply because I expect that it will be explained in the next book of the series. Otherwise it would be very unsatisfying.
Another complaint in reader reviews is that the book jumps back and forth a lot between different plotlines, following different characters in different times and places. Personally, I found it no more confusing than some other books that I have read – and enjoyed. And if any book has the “right” to jump around in time and place, it’s one that is exploring the idea of travel between “worlds,” each of which has its own timeline.
Another criticism is that Lawhead could do a great deal more with this idea of travel between worlds, and its philosophical and moral implications. But he apparently has four more books in which to do so, and I wouldn’t want him to exhaust the subject long before the conclusion of the series.
What else? The characters are not all that well-developed. But again, there is plenty of time for them to develop. One reader review at amazon.com complained how few conflicts one character, Mina, seems to face, while Kit faces constant conflict. I had noticed that too, but figured there was a reason for it. Perhaps I am simply more willing to trust that Lawhead has this all planned out and will develop it more than satisfactorily over time.
Perhaps, I think now as I reflect on it, it has something to do with the idea that God has things all planned out, though they often make no sense to us at the time. Mina seems to have one stroke of luck after another, while Kit’s luck is exactly the opposite. There doesn’t seem to be anything in their characters, prior to their adventures in time, to indicate that Mina should do so much better than Kit.
The older (as in from older eras in history) characters point not to luck but the Providence of God. I would expect Lawhead, as a Christian author, to further develop this concept. Of course, the whole many-worlds idea, where each choice people make creates a dividing of pathways between different worlds, does not fit easily with the concept of the Providence of God. I am very curious how Lawhead will deal with this in the rest of the series.
In short, there are a number of ways that it seems this book could have been done better. But since it is clearly not intended as a standalone novel, I am more than willing to wait (much as I would love to be able to read the next book now instead of waiting nearly a year) and see what happens.