Review: The Skin Map, Stephen Lawhead

I haven’t finished it. I don’t think I will. Today marks a dark day in my life. The day I give Lawhead a poor review.

Quick overview about The Skin Map:

Cover shows swirly symbols, archaic drawings, some guy’s obscured face, and some other guy running toward pyramids superimposed on the backdrop of London.

Back cover says something about a fast-paced treasure hunt across an Omniverse through ley line travel. Piqued my interest, and I enjoy Lawhead. (In fact,Byzantium was the second full-length novel I ever read, back in sixth grade. Crichton’s Lost World was the first)

The image I had going into this was a quest, perhaps epic in design, where a group of people from several time periods overcome obstacles and the environment to ultimately start connecting a map made of an intrepid explorer’s tattooed skin. Awesome premise.

I also knew, after reading Lawhead, that anything I read of his requires about half the book to truly get involved. After reading–and loving–his Robin Hood trilogy, Byzantium, and a few others, I knew what I was getting myself into. His need to casually create atmosphere is understandable.

The story itself is supposed to revolve around Kit Livingstone and his girlfriend, Wilhelmina. She goes through some ley line, he follows a second behind, and they end up worlds, and time periods, apart. Kit finds long-winded 1600’s relatives, Mina finds a bakery.

The book is fractured. The characters talk with glib redundancy, “I’m sure–no, heartily certain–my intrusion was accidental to the core of my every fiber,” are very simple yet trying to act grandiose and intelligent, and are doing whatever they want throughout. There is a filament of a plot. Skin Map=Good. Yet, after reading 3/4 of the book, there had only been one mention of it, and it, not surprisingly, was a fake and a false alarm.

Lawhead has a historian’s focus at his core. He much prefers environmental accuracy in detail to flow, character development, or plot. If this story spun around one person doing his own thing and slowly making his way to the ultimate conclusion, I’d be all for it. The truth of this book is I don’t believe Lawhead has any vested interest in his characters, the plot, or thematic elements whatsoever.

Yet every aspect of this book is weak–save for the setting. Throughout, Lawhead seems much more interested in looking accurate than being entertaining, or even interesting. Mina’s subplot is the most entertaining, and all it shows her doing, time and again, is improving on a coffee shop: social climbing, finding coffee-beans, making pastries, becoming important.

Halfway through the book, the characters start cementing together, but unlike his previous works, this story focuses on nearly ten people, the least of importance being Kit, the MC, and Mina, his quasi-girlfriend. Damage done, in my opinion.

You find no epic National Treasure-esque thrill ride. You find no daring escapes, no Indiana Jones wormhole-diving. You don’t even hear about the archaic writing/symbols until 3/4 of the way through the book. What ultimately made me put it down was my disgust that, finally, Lawhead decided he wanted to return to everything this silly thing was supposed to be in the first place. If he had continued letting everyone wander around in the rain, grinding coffee beans and fighting “burly men”–obscure “bad guys” that are nothing more than thugs–I would have probably read it to the end simply to see if Kit and Mina find each other. No. He had to try at a semblance of a plot.

The ideas behind this are great. If I hadn’t read Stephenson’s Anatham, the concepts would be a jumbled haze of whatever in my head. If I hadn’t read de Lint, the idea of walking through wormholes (ley lines) to alternative realities would be a jumbled haze of whatever in my head. In short, other writers have done everything this book was trying to do much more efficiently. And the dialogue grated so powerfully on my head that I actually growled at one point.

The book was sophomoric, without interest or passion or confidence. It was a historian’s love for history alone that pushed him to write this book, and it certainly didn’t deserve anything of the cover or the reviews.

I  give it a 0 of 5. Yes, Goose egg. This book has absolutely no intrinsic value.



10 thoughts on “Review: The Skin Map, Stephen Lawhead

  1. Thanks! This one is scratched from the “to read” list. I’m thrilled to have been saved…once I start a book OCD compels me to complete it. I’ve stayed awake some nights to finish disgustingly horrid books I would have loved to throw on the floor. At least it won’t happen with this one. 🙂

    • Yeah. I certainly know I don’t like spending time on books I have no interest in. That being said, this is only my opinion. You might find the Skin Map the right kind of meandering adventure for you. I’m sure it’s SOMEONE’s fun. It’s just not mine. At all.

      If you want to read some of Lawhead’s other work, I recommend all of his Robin Hood series (relatively new), and a previous commenter mentioned his Pendragon series, which I also heard good things about.

      If you want me to give reviews on anything, you’re welcome to request something. I’m kind of directionless right now toward new releases, except for The City’s Son coming out in August. I’m definitely going to read it. ~x

      • Directionless? Generally speaking, when individuals find themselves directionless as you say, there is something on the brink of the subconscious that is biding time for the exact moment of revelation. Sometimes there is a bridge to cross or a valley to traverse before…

        I do recall you don’t really get into poetry, however find it difficult that you would have skipped reading this. I’m curious to know if you’ve ever read Dante’s Inferno and if so what you thought. If not for pleasure; perhaps for research purposes…

      • I took two masters courses on Dante and Milton, and not only studied their work, but the vast mountain of work that accompanied the work.

        I absolutely loved it in those late-night, tearing my hair out kinds of ways. Of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno was most compelling, Purgatory was eh (no pun intended), and Heaven was also so-so. His take on hell is used quite extensively today–although the idea of Lucifer being frozen (from a lack of Holy Warmth) has fallen quite out of favor for the more “modern” look of Milton’s Satan.
        Symbolism was strong and powerful. Dante was in the throes of self-hatred, and did some powerful soul-searching. At the same time I studied Inferno, I also studied Ovid’s Metamorphoses, because so many of Dante’s symbols came from classics.

        I’m thinking Finnegan’s Wake for the next novel of serious study.

        I’m also looking for new releases, because I feel a compelling need to follow the flow. Or should I just… read the classics and forget the new stuff?

  2. Ah, Joyce! What a wonderful pick. I’m sure to read your thoughts on the different angles throughout Finnegan’s Wake would make for quite interesting articles.

    Somehow I’m just not surprised to learn you took two masters courses on Dante and Milton. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts as I was curious to your opinion. The individuals that I’ve talked to about Inferno believed it to be either controversial or blasphemous. Needless to say, I didn’t share their opinions. I have wondered off and on throughout the years if Frost was drawing a type of parallel between the two with his poem–If not intentionally–subconsciously.

    I’ve very few new releases I plan to read, personally. Your sentence begs the question – Why do you feel compelled to follow? Which do wish to draw upon more? Which has or holds that which you seek for psychological nourishment – the old or the new? Learning tells us that it is necessary to read it all. Being a learned individual gives you the intelligence to know that which is the right direction for you. Am I making up gibberish again? 🙂

    • No you aren’t making up gibberish.

      Frost has a kind of simplicity to his work that vitalizes me. I love good poetry–in spite of what I wrote earlier. My favorite book of poetry is Erotikon by Susan Mitchell, though I’ve spent a long time reading Leaves of Grass by Whitman. In my more “emo” days, I was very prolific in writing poetry. It was the only way I knew how to transcribe my dreams.

      Some day I may post something. Probably not, though. They were more a tangle of words and meanings than anything polished.

      I feel compelled to follow the flow because I’m stepping into a world of peers, contemporaries, and fellow writers. I love classics. I could study them all day. Yet I feel a disconnect to them because they spend so much time talking about candles and pen and ink and horses and so much organic earthiness that I don’t have or use. I’m not a part of that world, and the only things we have in common, those old generations and I, is the fact we dream, and are afraid of the same things, and are fascinated by the same things.

      Contemporaries reflect what people want. I want to find a great writer before he’s great, to read and know him before he’s a success. I want to reinforce what I believe is a cycle in writing. Now, and the next five years, is when we’ll find a great explosion of writing talent, because it coincides with a second Great Depression. I want my finger on that pulse, when it happens, so I may share in it and find solace.

      Plus I want to find the writers who write like me, so I may find the agents that might want me. Theoretically. ~x

      • Whitman…I have a full collection of his poems and do get lost in them from time to time. I also have a collection of Lovecraft’s poems that I allow myself to delve in more often. They are both thought provoking nonetheless.

        You seem to know very well where you have been and where it is you wish to be in the future. Personally, I’ve found that drawing upon the likenesses found in classics, the things we can relate to will never fail in the creation of something new. As with anything, take what you need and throw the rest out—for writing that is.

        What people want…yes, I suppose all contemporary writers are looking for that same answer. I hope you find exactly what you are looking for. I do admire your fervor even if I see something different in the horizon. In the event I should overstep a boundary with presumptuous ideas I will keep the majority to myself. This exchange has been quite illuminating and I hope to be around when your first book is published. I will want to be able to say I was the first to read it. 🙂

      • I appreciate your commentary, and I see no reason why you wouldn’t be around for when I’m (finally) published.
        The best writers are passionate on the verge of obsessive. Everything else comes with experience. 🙂

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