Seems like the only times I really review books are when they hurt my head to the point that I become somewhat violent in temper at the thought of anyone else spending money on them. After all, the only other thing I’ve reviewed was Stormrage, which was at least topical.
I used to enjoy Stephen R. Lawhead. His Song of Albion trilogy blew my tiny mind well over a decade ago when I first read it. His Pendragon Cycle was one of the better takes on Arthurian myth I’d read, with seeds of myth from the lost city of Atlantis mixed in.
But something happened; something bad. His Patrick (as in Saint Patrick) made me want to bash my head against a rock. His recent Robin Hood retelling, with Welsh roots, is unfinished on my shelf…. I never could bring myself to read the third book in the trilogy. I don’t know how I made it through the first two, other than by dint of lots of skimming. The protagonists of the books became more and more emo – male Jaina Proudmoores, if you will, always whining and crying about something until with the turn of a page and absolutely no more character development than that, they are suddenly bold and strong and, well, heroic.
Unpossible, I say. (Also, spoilers ahead I say, not that I think anyone here would plan on reading Lawhead)
After what I think might be a few years of silence, he is back with the recently released The Skin Map. It sounds promising – an ultimate quest for an ultimate treasure. A map that is actually on scraps of human skin. Quantum physics, inter-dimensional voyaging, ley lines, the Omniverse.
The book opens in present day London, with our protagonist mentally pissing and moaning about how hard it is to travel in London. There is some heavy handed foreshadowing here about the complexity of London tube travel being similar to the complexity of inter-dimensional travel. Also, our hero’s (Kit – and by “Kit” I mean “Cosimo Christopher”) job sucks, his friends suck and his girlfriend sucks because she’s never lively enough due to keeping baker’s hours. Also, her taste in fashion sucks.
In the middle of his struggles to get from point A to wherever it is his girlfriend lives (something about an Oyster card not working and a run in with a very rude clerk) he runs into his great grandfather. He accepts this readily enough and even manages to get worked up over the fact that his great grandfather walked out on his family.
I don’t know anything about any of my great grandfathers and I doubt I could bring myself to get worked up over their past sins. I mean, that is just so far removed from my life today it’s not even funny. But Kit reacts as though he had been walked out on while he was just a young sprout.
Immediately, they travel. Like all time travelers in books, Kit convinces himself it was a dream. OF COURSE IT WAS. Then he goes to his girlfriend’s house and finds he has been gone for eight hours. Eight! And he’s like “surely it has been only a few minutes.”
What does the sky look like in London that this is remotely plausible? I must know.
Anyhow, the girlfriend (unfortunately named Wilhelmina) is all mad (duh) and doesn’t buy his explanation that he just went to another dimension with his great grandfather to have a pint of beer (double duh) so he decides to prove it to her. This is never a good idea.
The upshot is he finds dear old great gramps again and she gets dumped in Austria in the 17th century.
Gramps is basically like “Oh noes! That was a bad idea! We have to find her or the Omniverse could be terribly affected and we shall all be doomed!” But… he can’t? Not from that ley line? And so they have to launch a search in England in 1666? Where it’s totally okay to prevent the Great Fire from happening? And get their copy of their fragment of the skin map? And…
It’s already very incoherent.
Now the story alternates between Kit and Wilhelmina. And you know, I like Wilhelmina better. She’s too good for Kit. However, and this is very silly, Wilhelmina in 17th century Austria gets by JUST FINE on the little bit of German she remembers from, like, her grandma. And Kit, in England, is constantly befuddled and like “Are these people even speaking English?” Because, you know, everyone in 1666 totally spoke just like the characters in any of Shakespeare’s plays. EVERYONE. Street urchins, nobles, groomsmen, probably the parrots too, I mean everyone. Probably in iambic pentameter.
Ahem. Anyhow. Meanwhile. In a meeting of wunderbar coincidence, Wilhelmina falls in with… a baker! And they set up a shop together! Men everywhere are taken aback at this wumman being assertive and dickering down rent prices on shops for lease (because that’s apparently a skill you pick up dealing with landlords in modern day London) and next thing you know, they’ve got a bakery. But no one in all of Prague wants to buy their fluffy white loaves! They like the hard brown stuff. It goes better with the beer. Even when they pass out samples they can get no custom. Woe, woe, woe.
And then the baker goes off to…. Vienna or Verona or some place and acquires coffee beans because Wilhelmina told him to. And they start a coffee house. At first, no one shows up because the location is so bad (and everyone knows it’s all location, location, location!). But then Wilhelmina puts her keen marketing mind to work (actual quote there) and hands out free samples in the square! Which…. I thought they already did…. but that was just bread and this is coffee and pastries or something.
Naturally, they get lots of business now and even the King of all Christendom wants a sip. Life is good. Until the bad guy shows up, because he likes to hop around between Egypt and China and England and Austria, I guess. His name is Burleigh and his henchmen are called the Burley Men. Get it? Geddit? All his henchmen have names only three letters long. Dex. Tev. Cor. I think it’s a requirement to be a henchman. Gotta have a tough sounding and brief name. They have a prehistoric cave lion named Baby. It likes to chomp at the heroes.
Baby. Do you get the clever juxtaposition.
I gotta wrap this up. I just wanted to explain all some of the many moments of nonsense wherein I couldn’t help but wonder just how the fuck this book even got published, never mind how did he manage to sell the idea of a whole trilogy whole five books?
Which reminds me. The guy whose skin became the skin map? He’s this big dude who totally gets beat up by the henchmen and they are starting to cut off his skin while he’s still alive and he gets rescued by a shy and delicate Chinese girl. Because all Chinese people know karate. So he marries her and then she dies about two weeks later in Egypt. That’ll teach her to save anyone’s life.
So the bottom line here is Lawhead is super disappointing and I can’t figure out if I liked his earlier books because they were better or if I was just too young and sheltered to know any better. I have certainly read many other authors since Lawhead was a favorite and have learned to tell when an author has faith that their readers are intelligent and can follow complex and rich story lines and when they assume that they are writing for an audience of idiots. I think Lawhead is writing for the mentally weak. I won’t be buying anything of his ever again without first reading it for free to figure out whether it’s any good – and I assume none of it will be good.