The Bone House: A Bright Empires Novel
by Stephen R. Lawhead

I found the pleasures of The Bone House (“Quest the Second” in Stephen R. Lawhead’s Bright Empires series) lie mostly in touring the book’s locations. The author likes to travel—he says that going places is his favorite kind of research—and he’s more than willing to take us with him while he zips around his richly detailed multiverse, riding the ley-lines like cross-town buses between worlds and epochs. Lawhead refers to his favored genre as “this hybrid historical/fantasy thing,” and The Bone House’s treasure-hunt across the interconnected dimensions of space and time gives him lots of freedom to exercise his historical-writing muscles. 

His itinerary in this book includes old favorites like Egypt in the 1920’s and foggy, gas-lit London, as well as some under-visited locales like seventeenth-century Prague, the Etruscan city of Velathri, and medieval Oxford, culminating with an extended home-stay with a clan of aboriginal hunter/gatherers in an unnamed paleo-place. The Bone House continues a complex, multi-stage quest that began in The Skin Map, a quest to find the scattered sections of a cryptic map that record the discoveries of an early explorer of ley-travel to parallel dimensions. The search takes different characters to different places at different times and asks a lot of readers as they must  participate by connecting the dots and filling in the gaps in the action. Lawhead describes his writing as organic and shuns outlining his plots in favor of discovering them as he goes along. His readers’ experience is similar, complicated by the non-linear (or multi-linear?) chronology caused by time-slippage as the cast goes ley-leaping between worlds. (When a book opens, like this one does, with that Einstein quote about the distinction between past, present, and future being “only an illusion—albeit a persistent one,” caveat lector. Let the reader beware.)

Readers won’t turn to this author for his shimmering prose style or the impeccable logic of his plots; you often find the word “bestselling” connected with his work, but not the word “literary.” However a lifetime of exploring the human experience of the divine has given ex-musician, ex-artist, ex-seminary student Lawhead a deft touch for imagining himself into other culture’s approaches to the sacred and carrying his readers with him. He portrays an Etruscan king’s auguries and an aboriginal elder’s vision-quest with satisfying emotional realism, respect, and empathy.

This book is for people who read and enjoyed the preceding book in the series. A summary of The Skin Map is thoughtfully provided to refresh memories of the intricate time-line, cast of characters, and house-rules for this world, but the prologue won’t be enough to help the un-initiated throw themselves into the The Bone House with pleasure. The conclusion only leads on to the next lap; nothing is resolved. The book doesn’t work—and is not intended—as a stand-alone novel. If you want to make Lawhead’s acquaintance, this is not the place to start.

The Bone House: A Bright Empires Novel
by Stephen R. Lawhead
Thomas Nelson, 2011
385 pages, $25.99 jacketed hardcover