Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey
I rarely go after a book solely because of the author (Chabon and Dumas are special in this regard), especially when it’s my first experience with an author. But when I heard Kathleen Duey speak at Dragon*Con and realized she was an author, I knew I had to pick up her work; she’s articulate and thoughtful. So I put Skin Hunger, one of her novels, on hold at the library as soon I as got back.
Skin Hunger takes place, mostly, in the city of Limòri, following two people centuries apart. All her life, Sadima has been told there’s no magic left in the world; her mother’s death at the hands of a so-called magician is certainly compelling proof. But Sadima has a strange connection to animals, able to read their feelings and thoughts–an ability she hides. When a man called Franklin arrives and appreciates her powers, he invites her to Limòri, where his master, Somiss, studies such matters. But when Sadima arrives, she finds herself torn between the love she bears for Franklin and her increasing horror at his master. Centuries later, magic is readily available–to wizards and those who pay for their services. Hahp, a second son of a wealthy merchant, is sent to their academy, which he expects to be like all the others he’s been kicked out of. But once he arrives, the wizards explain that only one of them may become a wizard, and the academy soon becomes a living hell, where his continued survival is never assured.
Skin Hunger suffers from a peculiar misstep in structure and pacing. The chapters alternate between Sadima and Hahp, and Hahp’s story starts as soon as we’re out of the gate. But Sadima’s story starts the night of her birth, which gives us an awkward first fifty pages, as we have to catch up to the inciting incident of Sadima’s story (Franklin’s visit) until we can really get underway with Hahp’s story. It’s just a very slow start, although, like most young adult fiction, it’s readable enough that it’s not as big as a problem as it could be. After, Duey builds up the tension and horror nicely by picking up the pace ever so slightly as time goes on. The climaxes to both Sadima and Hahp’s stories are well-done and almost satisfying on their own, but this is definitely an installment in a series and not a standalone novel. I sincerely hope that Sacred Scars, the second installment of this trilogy, doesn’t suffer from a slow start as well. (I doubt it, as Sadima and Hahp are already quite established.)
Once we get past those first fifty pages, Skin Hunger is a very good piece of horror. Sadima and Hahp’s lives intersect in small, terrifying ways, and there’s a good contrast between the mental and emotional horror of Sadima’s life and the mental and physical horror of Hahp’s life, which switches up things nicely; we might escape Hahp’s hunger only to discover something that breaks Sadima’s heart. As Sadima learns more and about what Somiss is doing and the true nature of his relationship with Franklin, there’s a chilling sense of growing horror. The horrors of Hahp’s life are a bit more immediate. The wizards do not provide food to their students, and barely teach them how to do it magically. Students who can make food magically are hated by their peers and, being forbidden to help each other, must watch the unlucky ones starve to death. And that’s just the beginning of it. There’s little gore here–most of the horror comes from abuse and manipulation. The worldbuilding, such as it is, mainly serves the horror; it’s a fairly standard medieval fantasy setting, with gypsies and a philosophic movement known as the Eridians added in. What’s important are the differences between Sadima’s world and Hahp’s world, especially differences relating to magic. If you’re a squeamish type that wants some horror, you would do well to pick up Skin Hunger.
Sadima and Hahp are quite good as main characters. Sadima is sheltered but not naive, and a determined and courageous young woman once she figures out what she wants from life. No matter how much Somiss and his work scare her, she wants to do the right thing. Her romance with Franklin is done quite well, too–they’re a subdued couple, but you want them to have at least a few moments of happiness with each other as their lives go to pot. Hahp is different. He’s more selfish, although the academy certainly beats that out of him, and living with Gerrard, a South End urchin that’s now his roommate, forces him to examine his privilege. He’s also got a vicious streak, often daydreaming about beating his abusive father. I do have to say I giggled a bit over Hahp’s use of the word “crap”–it felt a bit too modern to me. I don’t want to say much about Somiss, because I don’t want to spoil you, but I will say this–watching him evolve from workaholic scholar into, well, what he becomes is fascinating and horrifying. I read a lot of first installments in fantasy series and ditch them, but I’ll definitely be continuing this series.
Bottom line: After the unfortunately slow first fifty pages, Skin Hunger gets underway as a fantastic horror story, following the farm girl Sadima as her new master attempts to recover magic to a magic-less world and the student Hahp as, centuries later, he discovers the academy for wizards is a living hell. If you’re a squeamish person who still wants a little horror in their lives, you would do well to pick this up.
I rented this book from the public library.