Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Logo designed by the wonderful KMont
In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.
This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey.
For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review fare – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.
Title: Skin Hunger
Author: Kathleen Duey
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Atheneum Books / Simon and Schuster
Publication date: First published 2007
Paperback: 357 pages
Sadima lives in a world where magic has been banned, leaving poor villagers prey to fakes and charlatans. A “magician” stole her family’s few valuables and left Sadima’s mother to die on the day Sadima was born. But vestiges of magic are hidden in old rhymes and hearth tales and in people like Sadima, who conceals her silent communication with animals for fear of rejection and ridicule. When rumors of her gift reach Somiss, a young nobleman obsessed with restoring magic, he sends Franklin, his lifelong servant, to find her. Sadima’s joy at sharing her secret becomes love for the man she shares it with. But Franklin’s irrevocable bond to the brilliant and dangerous Somiss traps her, too, and she faces a heartbreaking decision.Centuries later magic has been restored, but it is available only to the wealthy and is strictly controlled by wizards within a sequestered academy of magic. Hahp, the expendable second son of a rich merchant, is forced into the academy and finds himself paired with Gerrard, a peasant boy inexplicably admitted with nine sons of privilege and wealth. Only one of the ten students will graduate — and the first academic requirement is survival.
Sadima’s and Hahp’s worlds are separated by generations, but their lives are connected in surprising and powerful ways in this brilliant first book of Kathleen Duey’s dark, complex, and completely compelling trilogy.
Stand alone or series: First in the A Resurrection of Magic trilogy (the final book is being written as we speak)
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): print
REVIEW & DISCUSSION
Ana’s Take: I’ve had Skin Hunger on my TBR shelf for years and was really happy when it was chosen for the OSW Halloween Readalong although we did wonder whether the book was actually Halloween-worthy in terms of its Horror level. Having read it now, HELL YEAH.
Imagine if Harry Potter had gone to Hogwarts only to find out that in order to become a wizard he had to almost starve to death in a cruel environment where he wouldn’t be able to communicate with or help Ron in any way. That’s what Hahp, one of the protagonists of the novel goes through in excruciating detail. Meanwhile, in another storyline, separate by a few generations, Sadima is an important tool in setting up the motions that will eventually lead to Hahp’s misadventures. What happened in the meantime?? What went wrong – or right – in the world of Skin Hunger that magic is found once again, brought back and used to torture children?
Thea’s Take: Like Ana, I’ve literally had this physical book on my TBR for YEARS. It has survived the purge from moving apartments in Los Angeles, to making the trip with me across the country to New York – I’ve always meant to read the book and never wanted to donate it or leave it behind, it was just finding the time to read it that seemed to be the problem.
And, for the most part I completely agree with Ana – this is a fantastic dark fantasy novel that is decidedly very different from the happy world of Hogwarts. Is it a horror novel befitting Halloween Week? Meh. Not really. But it is a captivating fantasy novel that alternates between two storylines across the centuries, leading up to a dramatic revelation about wizards and true magic.
1. Skin Hunger tells the stories of two characters, set in the same place but apart a few generations. What did you think of these stories and how they connected?
Ana: The two stories start seemingly independently, and as the chapters alternate and (slooooowly) progress, it becomes clear how they are interconnected. I thought this was really well done because it highlighted the same location, years apart with the way that one story fed into the other.
Their interlocked progression also adds a great level of tension because we know that whatever happens to Sadima, cannot be good, right? If it all ends so so bad in Hahp’s storyline.
Thea: Loved the stories. LOVED THEM. I was confused when I first started reading the book, as I didn’t realize this would be a dual protagonist alternating storyline type of book – but once I got into the swing of things it all made sense. I loved the way that the dual storylines seem to be completely disparate at first, but then we see that they converge around the figures of Franklin and Somiss – scholars hoping to uncover the truth of magic, whose fate lies in the cold granite wizarding school centuries later.
I also agree with Ana – the intertwined storylines ARE incredibly intense. There’s some happiness that we see in Sadima’s storyline in the past, and the whole time I was reading I felt a terrible sense of dread and foreboding. You just know things aren’t going to end well.
2. Let’s talk more specifically about plot, How do you feel about plot progression in both stories? And how did you feel about the way the worldbuilding is introduced/constructed in the two timelines?
Ana: The worldbuilding is one of more inference than direct exposition. We have a light impression of both worlds because everything is so covered by secrecy. I loved the contrast of both storylines: one where magic is something to fear and distrust and another where magic is now accepted once more but still used in a very cruel way. Of course, we have no idea why Hahp’s world is as it is – is the cruelty of the magic academy something that has to be happen because of how magic works in this world? Or is that the result of the Founder’s sociopathic tendencies? Is there a “good” reason – the greater good? – at all behind the academy? It was also interesting to me the way that in Sadima’s storyline, there were so many female characters whereas in Hahp’s there are none. What happened there? Why is hunger and competition so important to make magicians? That curiosity is what kept me reading voraciously – and although some of the things are heavily foreshadowed in Sadima’s arc, there is very little that is answered by the time the book ends.
Which brings me to the question of story progression: as much as I loved the writing, the story itself, the juxtaposing of the two storylines and the characters, I felt that at the end of the day…nothing much happens. By the half way mark, much of the two storylines were stuck in an endless repetition: Sadima working with Franklin and worrying about Somiss; Hahp’s stuck in the world of the academy, thinking about food. Although I understand that some of the repetitious nature of the plot is necessary to reinforce the horror and the sense of time passing of time, I still felt that a lot of it is forced and drawn-out. This is not a book that stands on its own at all.
Thea: Agreed on all counts. Skin Hunger is very much an introductory book – it’s a tantalizing setup, a teaser into this world of cruel magic, but it doesn’t really provide anything in the way of answers or true plot progression and development. That said, while a lack of forward momentum usually bothers me, this didn’t hinder my love of Skin Hunger, in large part because of how skillful the alternating narrative is, and in large part because the driving mystery behind the book – why has the world become so screwed up centuries following Sadima’s story, to the point where young boys are starved and beaten in their training to become wizards? – is so tantalizing.
For all that there is a degree of repetition, I think it is an effective technique and I never once found myself getting impatient with the novel. (I finished the book in a single sitting over the course of a few hours because I needed to know how it would all knit together – that’s saying something!)
3. What about characters? On the one hand, you have Sadima, a young girl with magic powers in a world that doesn’t believe in magic anymore and who slowly discovers what it means to have those powers. On the other hand, you have Hahp, a young boy who is brought up in a world where magic is important. What did you think of the two characters and their arcs?
Ana: Sadima has to keep her magic a secret during her lonely childhood years because of what happened to her mother in the hands of a fake magician. It is made clear that at that point in time, magic is something to fear and distrust. When she meets the two friends Franklin and Somiss, she is at first happy because of how she doesn’t need to hide anymore but the manner which she is brought into their lives and their work slowly becomes a source of angst and worry. Her connection with Franklin and Somiss and their work to “resurrect” magic is intriguing and interesting in the way that it reveals the history of this world.
Hahp’s storyline is perhaps where the true horror and darkness of the story lie. From the moment his father sends him to the academy to become a magician (knowing full well what happens there) to the instant where he decides to he needs to act if he needs to survive. I feel like a lot of both storylines place an enormous importance on agency and passivity: both characters have to make a decision at some point whether to accept what’s happening to them or to act – and the latter also involves a decision to be made with regards to how.
I am also incredibly fascinated by Somiss and Franklin. The two at first seem friends until the true nature of their relationship – a completely messed-up slave-master dynamic – is revealed. It is all the more riveting when we see what is happening to the two of them in Hahp’s timeline. That they are still there and that Franklin is still trapped and probably just as much as Hahp is.
Thea: Ah, the characters! The novel follows two main protagonists: Sadima in the past, and Haph in the future. To me, Sadima’s storyline was the more compelling though I agree with Ana in that Hahp’s is the more horrific. From birth, both characters are cursed to fathers who despise them; when Sadima was born, a charlatan “magician” stole her family’s money, killing her mother, and leaving newborn infant Sadima for dead. Her childhood is not a happy one, to say the least. Sadima’s father’s heart broke the day she was born, and he would never recover from his grief. And, though, Sadima’s older brother Micah is loving and protective, she is never able to be herself in her village and in her home because of Micah’s refusal to believe that she possesses magic – the ability to sense and communicate with animals.
Reading Sadima’s narrative, her unhappiness at home, her sense of never truly belonging, is compelling stuff. And, when she sets out for the city of Limori and settles in with eager magic-hunters Franklin and Somiss – well, that’s where things get really interesting.
Many centuries later, Hahp’s story is one of unhappiness and struggle. The second son of an uncaring father, Hahp has been sent to the frightening wizarding academy far, far away where he is stripped of his fine clothes, forced to endure confusing “classes” and starved. It is through Hahp’s frightened, confused narrative that we learn what has become of wizards Franklin and Somiss, and it ain’t pretty.
Overall, I found both characters compelling and memorable in their own distinct ways – Haph because of his entitlement (juxtaposed against his roommate, the “fishboy” Gerrard’s experiences and work ethic, Haph’s childhood seems rather cushy despite the emotional abuse of his father); Sadima because of her earnestness and fervent desire to use and be appreciated for her magic.
4. What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you enthusiastic about?
Ana: I would say the writing really stayed with me as well as the difficulty of reading Hahp’s ordeal. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the lack of real progression in the stories.
Thea: In current YA, the alternating hero/heroine storylines drive me to distraction – almost always, this is a sappy ridiculous love story technique, and there is little distinction between character voices. In Skin Hunger, however the narrative technique WORKS. It builds tension, it gradually reveals a world torn by magic and time, and I loved it.
What I didn’t love so much? The lack of answers and, yes, progression in the stories. But I expect much more to come in book 2.
5. Have you read any of Kathleen Duey’s books before? Will you try any others or continue with this series? If you have read the series already, do you recommend us to keep on reading?
Ana: This is my first of her books and despite the niggling sensation that things could have progressed well beyond the point that they did in this book, I do want to keep reading the series and already have book 2 lined up.
Thea: Ditto! This is my first Duey book, but I am eager to read more. Bring it on, book 2!
Ana: 7 – Very Good, leaning toward 8
Thea: 7 – Very Good
Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!