Review of Lawhead’s “The Bone House”

In The Bone House, Book 2 of the Bright Empires series, the race to recover the fabled Skin Map — once tattooed on the torso of the greatest traveler the multiverse has ever known, and rumoured to contain the greatest secret of all — is still on. Kit and Giles have escaped from the disease-ridden tomb to which the Burley Men confined them, and the good guys are beginning to gain the upper hand. (Mostly thanks to Wilhelmina Klug, whose experiences in 17th-century Prague have transformed her from stressed-out Londoner to time-ranging adventurer, equipped with raging confidence and above-average intelligence.)

But their attempts to find the map and keep it out of the hands of Archelaus Burleigh, the Black Earl, will send them careening into worlds and times they never dreamt of — and at cross-purposes with other ley travelers whose existence they know nothing about.

I have never found Stephen Lawhead to be an author who inspires the breathless turning of pages; his plots tend to unfold slowly, and the incredibly well-researched and authentically depicted settings of his books invite readers to soak themselves — when they do, the experience is usually rewarding. But in this case, the setting is not a culture or time period; it’s an idea: of the universe as multiverse, navigable by invisible lines that jump time, space, and dimension; and inhabited not so much by people as by immortal souls.

In my view, this is both a strength and a weakness. The whole concept of the multiverse and of ley travel is fascinating, definitely worth steeping yourself in. But at the same time, the idea isn’t always easy to grasp (just ask the characters); and the sheer breadth of this story makes it hard to steep yourself in any particular atmosphere or even get close to any particular character. I found myself getting blissfully lost in one place or one character’s story but then having little motivation to pick up the book again once I’d put it down. The nonlinear nature of the plot (which is totally appropriate for the setting of ley travel) also tended to work against any real tension or suspense. Add to that the omniscient voice, and we get the sense that we are watching a story unfold that is somehow predestined, that has already happened. The combined effect is to invite detachment from the story while encouraging engagement with an idea.

If my review of The Skin Map (Book 1 of the Bright Empires series) was ambiguous, it was because I found it hard to express my feelings about a story that wasn’t over yet — one, in fact, in which the major themes and plot thrust were only beginning to emerge. The Skin Map laid ground, and I was interested to find out how The Bone House would build on it.

And now? The Bone House was more interesting, more exciting, than The Skin Map; more thought-provoking as well. But I still find it hard to review. The story and its themes are still emerging. Like Kit, the chief protagonist, I find myself observing this story, going along with its flow, being interested in its people and places, and yet still not really having a clue what is going on.

Becky Miller of the CSFF, in her review, wrote, “Instead of picking at the story to find something to fault, I’d rather give my thoughts on what might be coming or what it all might mean. The Bright Empires series is, in part, a mystery, after all. And part of the fun of mysteries is to try to make educated guesses, then see how close you came to the way things actually are, story wise. ” I prefer to keep out of the guessing game for now. This is an intriguing series, puzzling in many ways, frustrating in others, always pointing to an enlightenment that lies just ahead — in the next world, across the next ley line, and (hopefully), in the next book.

(A note to readers: Do not even try to read this book without reading The Skin Map first. I’ve seen some incredibly unfair reviews by readers who did just that — in no way is this book a standalone. And a disclaimer: A copy of The Bone House was provided to me by the publisher.)



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One response to “Review of Lawhead’s “The Bone House””

  1. […] a lot of backstory. You can read my reviews of the past installments here: The Skin Map, The Bone House, The Spirit Well, and The Shadow […]

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