Book Review: Skin Hunger, by Kathleen Duey

In a kingdom where magic has been stamped out, Sadima grows up on the family farm without a mother thanks to the charlatan who allowed her mother to die at her delivery. Meanwhile, centuries later, Hahp is sent to train at a school of magic open only to the most wealthy and powerful families. As each character tells a story, the two plots eventually weave together in Skin Hungerthe first in a series of books tracing generations of characters as they struggle to navigate politics, society, and a harsh world.

I wanted to like this book much more than I did, unfortunately. It wasn’t bad, necessarily, it just didn’t quite do it for me, and while I struggled to enjoy it, I kept feeling like it was falling short. The pacing, for one thing, was not ideal. Much of the book dragged immensely, and while it felt like a deliberate narrative decision (to make the reader feel much like Hahp would trapped underground with no way to measure the passage of time), the end effect was a little off-putting. I don’t need my books to gallop along at a raging pace, but there were large chunks of the book that felt unnecessarily long or drifting, including sections that felt as though they’d been added as filler.

That said, Skin Hunger had some things going for it, including a delightful note of the macabre. As you know, I enjoy reading things that are a bit dark and twisted, especially when it’s neatly streamlined into a book rather than pointed out as something notable and nasty. Many parts of this book are creepy and gross, and they often repulse the characters, but they also speak of a society, and of people, rotten to the core in a way that’s rather well done. Duey avoided obvious, overplayed, grand gestures when it came to the cruel things people do to each other, and she managed to create a sustained atmosphere of fear and tension really well.

In Sadima’s story, there was an air of unbelievability as an isolated farm girl abruptly decided to leave home at the invitation of a magician (a representative of a class of people she’d been taught to hate and fear her whole life) and take up residence with him and a friend in the big city. Much of her story continued to float along in that sort of unbelievable, dubious way, which made it harder for me to connect with her character, even though I very much wanted to. As is frequently the case for me with love stories, I ended up spending a great deal of time being simply irritated with her for making poor decisions and them complaining about their outcome, for not standing up for what’s right out of fear, and for throwing herself into rather a mess over a boy. I mean, really, Sadima, there are more where that came from.

Yes, I am a heartless reader.

Hahp’s story interested me more, even though his was the one which dragged on interminably and started to make me wonder if I’d been trapped in some sort of time loop. Sent to the Academy, he has very mistaken impressions about what goes on there — as does everyone — and finds it to be a harsh, cruel environment where boys are starved until they solve puzzles, kept in cold and darkness at the whim of the magicians who run the Academy, and tortured with challenges involving venomous snakes and stinging ants.

This ‘training’ is all part of a larger competition to see who among a class of ten can survive, and we’re not talking about who drops out first, but who lives. The brutal training may yield highly trained, talented magicians, but it seems like a high price to pay…especially once you start connecting the dots on the history of magic, power, and the people who wield it.

Skin Hunger felt at times to me like an exploration of how the lust for power can change people and compel them into making extremely unwise decisions, but also about how some people have innately cruel tendencies that are simply brought out in the right situations. Some of the determinism unsettled me, as though people are bound to their fate and have no way of shaking it off, because as a reader, one of my core beliefs about the world is that it is possible for people to change, shift attitudes, and reconsider the world they live in. If the world is in fact deterministic and certain people are fated to be kind of cruel from a very young age, it sort of defeats the purpose of trying, which makes of the purpose in my own life largely irrelevant, like shouting into a well and expecting a unicorn to pop out.

So perhaps I was predisposed (hah) to view the book unfavourably when it presented such a bleak view of humanity, with a spoiled child who grows up to be a spoiled, cruel man who thinks nothing of using and abusing the people around him. While we’re clearly supposed to think less of this character for the way he is and what he does to people, it’s always disappointing to see villains presented in such a stark, irredeemable fashion. I tend to like my villainy a bit more conflicted, in a challenge to the attitude that villains are simplistically evil and easy to read.