CSFF Day 2: Bright Empires

I’m planning to post my review of THE SHADOW LAMP tomorrow. I’ve been with this series from the start, and as it’s a complex and continuous series of the first order (not one of these stories stands alone), I thought it would appropriate to go back in time, introducing the series (and the story thus far) to those readers who have NOT been with us from the start. Egregious spoilers avoided.

The quotes below are from my original reviews.

The Bright Empires series begins with THE SKIN MAP. From my original review:

Kit Livingstone, like so many heroes of so many stories, Skin Mapis living a vaguely dissatisfying life when we first meet him attempting to navigate the London transit system on his way to meet Wilhelmina Klug, described in book blurbs as Kit’s “unpleasant girlfriend.” But it doesn’t take long for the unexpected to charge in, starting when Kit meets the last person he would have expected to meet even if he’d been entertaining expectations of meeting anyone: his great-grandfather Cosimo, who disappeared two generations ago and has never been seen since.

Cosimo, who is shockingly spry for a man presumed dead for at least a decade or two, wants Kit’s help with something. What, we’re not entirely sure–but it involves navigating ley lines, intersections between times, worlds, and dimensions that only a select few people know exist.

One of those select people is a nasty piece of work called Lord Burleigh, whose men travel armed and keep a prehistoric cave lion on a leash. Burleigh, like Cosimo, is trying to find the pieces of a detailed map of the ley lines–the Skin Map, so called because it was once tattooed on the torso of the most far-ranging traveler of all.

(read the full review here)

I was slightly ambivalent about THE SKIN MAP–I found its concepts intriguing, and Lawhead always shines at painting locales and times, but the plot didn’t grab me as much as I hoped. Looking back, I think some of my mixed feelings owed to this first book being a foundation.

I hoped the story would get better in Book 2, THE BONE HOUSE. And lo, it did.

Bone HouseIn 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.

(full review here)

In THE SPIRIT WELL, Bright Empires really comes into its own. This series is a journey, and a long one, but like many journeys, it grows more interesting and rewarding the further you go. To quote most of my original review:

Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Spirit Well is Book 3 in the Bright Empires series, and as predicted, it takes the whole series to a new level: it is here that its many storylines begin to come together, that its timelines coalesce, and that its themes truly emerge. Having read this installment, I predict that Bright Empires may become one of those perennial journeys: a long read you can soak into every other winter or so and just enjoy the trip.Spirit Well

The plot is not precisely easy to summarize. Kit Livingstone, having stumbled across the location of the Spirit Well, finds himself accidentally ejected from the prehistoric world where he has become a new man–but there are no accidents in this omniverse, as we are often told, and his stumble reunites him with Wilhelmina, his one-time-girlfriend-turned-ley-traveler, who recently rescued him from certain death in Egypt. Only there is a catch: the Mina he reunites with is still learning ley travel and has not rescued him yet. Meanwhile, at other times and in other places, the Flinders-Petrie line is variously creating and preserving the Skin Map and villainously trying to ferret it out.

Yet to plunge into this mess is Cassandra Clarke, from contemporary Arizona, a young paleontologist who accidentally finds a ley and is transported to Syria in the 1940s. Only there are no accidents–as we’ve said–and Cass promptly finds a group of seekers called the Zetetic Society, who take her under their wing. In their company, Cassandra Clarke comes to understand a great many things about the omniverse–and so, for that matter, do we.

Bright Empires truly is a journey, and once you’ve finished The Spirit Well,you may find that you too have stepped into the shoes of a seeker.

(full review here)

Rebecca Luella Miller, founder and organizer of the CSFF tour, has said a few times that she feels Bright Empires is destined to become a classic. That may well be true. It’s that rare kind of series that could be read and enjoyed by readers across ages and genres, interesting in its details, intriguing in its concepts, enjoyable in its characterization and events, and heading toward a major payoff–one I’m really interested to see.

Tomorrow, I should be posting my review of THE SHADOW LAMP. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the rest of the series. It may be just the ley line you’re looking for to escape this winter to the fascination of other worlds.



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