Themes Explored: inter-dimensional travel, religion, the end of the world, ancient history, politics, familial discord, physics, astronomy, relationships, romance, entrepreneurship, ingenuity, philosophy
Synopsis: It is the ultimate quest for the ultimate treasure. Chasing a map tattooed on human skin. Across an omniverse of intersecting realities. To unravel the future of the future. The Skin Map itself is not the ultimate goal. It is merely the beginning of a vast and marvelous quest for a prize beyond imagining. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: Stephen Lawhead has an impressive career as a writer. Most of his novels tend to blend together elements of fantasy, Celtic mythology, science fiction, legends, and ancient history. He is one of the few writers who managed to find success in both the wider publishing industry and the Christian fiction industry. Bright Empires is Lawhead’s first foray into science fiction since his Empyrion books in the 1980s. Normally he focuses on writing stories set in fantasy world heavily influenced by Celtic mythology. And all his series that focus on traditional fantasy elements work exceptionally well. While I enjoyed certain elements of the Bright Empires series, I do not think science fiction is Lawhead’s genre. The first novel, The Skin Map, deals with Kit Livingstone making a startling discovery in London and meeting his long-lost grandfather. This occurs do to something Lawhead calls Ley Travel, a way to jump between dimensions. Throughout the series, all the main characters jump between geographically different dimensions.
Kit Livingstone is the main male character and his life is not going well in the first book. His girlfriend breaks up with him and his life feels directionless. Just when Kit feels like he had no more options left, his long lost grandfather shows up with an amazing discovery about traveling to other times. Then Kit’s life becomes fantastical beyond his wildest imagination. For the most part, Kit is a normal guy pushed into amazing situations. When Kit is first introduced he comes across as your average underachiever with the potential for genius. Over the course of the series, his long buries intelligence manages to rise to the surface and make him seems like less of a slacker. However, Kit is little more than a slightly more expanded upon caricature of an ideal hero. His flaws are glossed over way too quickly and he becomes some kind of amazing genius almost overnight. Personally, I would have enjoyed the series more if Cosimo was the main character and Kit was an important secondary character.
Arthur Flinders-Petrie, the creator of the skin map, is the reason behind everyone else’s madcap adventure through ley lines. However, Arthur’s history is not well-developed or utilized in a convincing manner. Of all the secondary characters introduced, Arthur is by far the most interesting and nuanced characters. He jumps from his version of England to Ancient Egypt and China. But his story is only told in small snapshots that do little to develop his motivations and aspirations. I wish Lawhead had written a book just about Arthur’s life and then used the rest of the series to explore what happens to his legacy after his death. This would have not only made Arthur more compelling but it would have made the entire series more cohesive. Jumping between time and multiple storylines in a relatively short book length, means no one story stands out and no character has a truly compelling narrative.
And this brings me to Wilhelmina “Mina” Klug. First of all, Wilhelmina is a horrific name. Second, she is a rather shallow character until about the middle part of the third book. Mina works in a bakery in London and absolutely despises her job. Then her former boyfriend disappears then reappears with tales of time travel. Then Mina ends up in Medieval Prague and finds her long buried entrepreneurial spirit. Her big idea is to introduce the concept of a coffee house, aka Medieval Starbucks, about a century early. Since women could not go into business by themselves, she ends up teaming up with a good natured but struggling baker. Of course the store is a major success and soon Mina is quite wealthy, well relatively. Don’t get me wrong, I do like that Mina finally managed to find her passion and turn it into a major success. But this development seems rather out-of-place in the overarching plot. However, she is by far the most believable character in the series.
Character wise, the series also suffers from a lack of a compelling antagonist. There are two villains: Lord Archelaus Burleigh and Douglas Flinders-Petrie, Arthur’s grandson. Burleigh is searching for the skin map for no discernable reason and just acts nasty to everyone. He is not given any major characterization until the last book and this is unfortunate. I think he could have been a compelling and multi-dimensional villain, instead he is just a run-of-the mill evil guy who has a complete change of heart. I found the character incredibly frustrating because of all the wasted potential. Douglas’ motivations are never mentioned or even hinted at, he just shows up at random intervals. He is depicted as some kind of psychopath but his character never interacts with any of the main characters. I kept questioning why he was even included; his narrative just took pages away from the main characters.
Lawhead is a talented author and I genuinely enjoy reading his stories. But this series does not live up to his past works. I appreciate that he decided to write something a little different and the idea about ley traveling is quite fascinating. However, there are simply too many characters and not enough world-building or characterization to make this series amazing. I just could not connect with any of the characters and simply did not care about their adventures. But I had to know the ending, so I forced myself to read the entire series. Of all five books, The Bone House is the strongest entry and has the best world building descriptions. Bright Empires just frustrated me due to a lack of the phenomenal world building I normally expect to find in a Lawhead series. All the books, except for the last one, move rather quickly, so I do not feel like I wasted a lot of time reading the books. I highly recommend Lawhead’s Song of Albion Trilogy, Pendragon Cycle, and the King Raven Trilogy.