Unlike many books, the hardest part of this review is summarizing the story. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to talk about this one without referring to the previous two of the five-book Bright Empires series.
And secondly, the story is … not linear. I may as well give a SPOILER ALERT now. I don’t know how to do this review without referring to plot details, some critical.
The Story. Kit Livingston, having transported inadvertently along a ley line to the Stone Age at the end of The Bone House, is adapting and learning, not just about survival, but about community.
Mina, his former significant other who has found herself as a small business owner in medieval Prague, realizes she is in danger from Lord Archibald Burleigh who wants the Skin Map–a coded mapping of the ley lines that shows where the Spirit Well is located–and will stop at nothing to find all its segmented parts. Consequently, Mina decides to go into hiding, setting off a lengthy flashback recalling how she became a student of the ley lines which allow travelers to move from one dimension to the other.
Cassandra, a PhD candidate working on an archaeological dig in Arizona, inadvertently stumbles upon a powerful ley line. In an effort to replicate and document the experience, she becomes lost in twentieth century Syria. When she discovers a society of fellow or former travelers, she becomes a member and accepts their first assignment: to find Kit and his great-grandfather.
The story ends with Kit and Mina, still the character in her flashback, reunited but back in the Stone Age all because Kit stumbled upon what everyone is actually looking for: the Spirit Well. He believes he can return there, but there’s a problem. His access point that opened to the Spirit Well dimension is blocked.
Strengths. I may have lost some of you with that last paragraph. Mina, on her way to hide, thinks back over her years of learning how to travel the ley lines and the help she received and the events that occurred. One of those events was connecting with Kit of story-time present.
I almost missed this, thinking I’d read carelessly and overlooked where the flashback ended. But at one point Kit speaks of Mina rescuing him in Egypt, an event that occurred in The Skin Map, but Mina informed him that for her, in her current dimension, that event hadn’t happened yet.
How is this a strength? It illustrates to me how brilliantly Stephen Lawhead is handling the multiple strands of this plot–past and present and their intersection.
The thing that impressed me the most was that I never felt lost. Once or twice I had to remind myself who some of the minor characters were, but whenever a chapter (frequently) began with a different point of view character, I quite easily fell right into their plight and setting, just as eager to learn more as when Mr. Lawhead took us away from them.
This is a major accomplishment, I think, because I generally complain about books with shifting point of view characters and back-and-forth story threads. The thing that was different in The Spirit Well, as I saw it, was that the story itself called for this format. This was not a whimsical approach, an author showing off his cleverness for the sake of impressing his readership. No. This story is better, or perhaps, requires, this interweaving of characters and places and times. Mr. Lawhead does it brilliantly.
In addition, in The Spirit Well the characters come alive, largely because they grow and change.
Thirdly, the spiritual ramifications of all that’s happening come closer to the surface. There’s much here to explore in the next two books, but God is not hiding, and the characters are more aware of Him than they have been in the previous two books.
One more. The settings are rich. Mr. Lawhead did a remarkable job bringing these various places, and times, alive. All his talents as a historical novelist are on display.
Weaknesses. I don’t have anything. Some people on the CSFF Blog Tour mentioned the slow pace. I never found it so. Kit is thrust from the Stone Age and is in immediate danger, Mina must flee her home in Prague or be captured, Cass follows her scholarly curiosity and becomes lost in another dimension with no way of knowing how to get home. Meanwhile, Arthur, the man who tattooed the ley line locations to his body, is killed, the map created, and divided. There’s betrayal and manipulation, suspicion and death. There’s also hope and help and healing. It’s an incredible story, masterfully told.
Recommendation. I’ve liked the previous Stephen Lawhead books CSFF has toured. This one is a cut above the others. In addition, this feels important–like Mr. Lawhead is showing in his story great spiritual truths. Some worry that these “truths” may turn out to be falsehoods. I have no reason to believe that to be so. I could be wrong, but at this point, I think the direction of the Bright Empires series is up.
It’s a mystery inside a science fantasy, with characters who are developing into people I care about. This is a must read for Stephen Lawhead fans and for those interested in time travel stories or multidimensional stories. I highly recommend it to people who enjoy historical fiction or fantasy. It’s the kind of book anyone who considers themselves a reader would enjoy. But my recommendation is to start with The Skin Map and read them all. This is a series you won’t want to miss. Also be sure to tell your friends. (They might be ticked off if they find out you were sitting on this one without telling them. 😉 )
In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher which in no way colored my review.