A Review of Skin Hunger (A Resurrection of Magic # 1) by Kathleen Duey
Simon Pulse, 2007
By REBECCA, March 2, 2012
Skin Hunger’s story is told in chapters from alternating viewpoints.
Sadima: Caring and artistic, with a penchant for hearing animals’ thoughts and cheese-making
Somiss: brilliant & sociopathic? sociopathic & righteous? righteous & corrupt & brilliant? yes!
Franklin: Sadima’s love, servant to Somiss, and conflicted about whether the ends justify the means
Micah: Sadima’s well-intentioned but limited brother
Papa: Sadima’s father, ruined by the death of his wife at Sadima’s birth
Hahp’s narrative, centuries later:
Hahp: Slightly suicidal, abused son of a rich merchant with a talent for thought control
Gerrard: Hahp’s roommate, mysteriously astute with the ancient language of magic . . .
Franklin: Distant, if not actively malevolent, wizard who teaches the boys to move their thoughts
Somiss: Somewhat Nietzschean wizard, devoid of mercy, who inspires terror wherever he goes
Jux: Manic and vaguely psychopathic wizard whose backstory is told in the sequel, Sacred Scars
Other pupils at Limòri Academy: fellow sufferers, not allowed to help one another on pain of death
What would you sacrifice to resurrect the power of magic? Once resurrected, what would you sacrifice to possess it?
Skin Hunger is told, alternatingly, from Sadima and Hahp’s perspectives. Sadima lives in a time when all knowledge of magic has been banned by reigning royalty, who (as always) fear the power it gives to the people. The promise of magic’s resurrection is the promise of closing the immense gap between royalty and the starving peasant classes in the cities and farmers in the country. Magic is a practical tool that could drastically ease these folks’ daily lives—it can cure stomachaches, calm a crying baby, or ease childbirth. In Hahp’s time, centuries later, magic has been resurrected and is controlled by a group of elite wizards, making it (as always) a commodity that fetches a high price— prohibitively high for those whom it might actually help. All this makes for a worldview that values magic and education, hopeful for their ability to change the world. But it also makes for a worldview that is distinctly suspicious that the power to wield magic corrupts absolutely.
Somiss is the ultimate embodiment of this promise and this threat. The son of a wealthy noble family (with one of many claims to the throne), Somiss abandons his family, monomaniacally driven to research the old magic. He is brilliant and tyrannical, and in his paranoia that his work will be discovered he resorts to . . . extreme measures of . . . research. What’s awesome about Kathleen Duey, though, is that Somiss’ goal of restoring magic is absolutely an honorable one that the reader roots for, one that, if it goes as Somiss claims it will, would make the world a better place, flushing out royal corruption and leveling the classes. Sadima, who was raised on a farm and finds her way to Somiss and Franklin’s city garret in her teens, is not naïve, and yet her love for Franklin entices her to participate in their work long after she believes that it has soured. This tension continues in the sequel, Sacred Scars (2009), which is also amazing, and proceeds directly from where Skin Hunger leaves off (review forthcoming).
This ethical tension (how far should we go to pursue knowledge) is one that I find endlessly compelling, and I was quite impressed by how suspenseful Duey’s portrayal of this drama is in both narratives. In Limòri Academy, Hahp and the other boys toil to be the one who “graduates.” They are punished for offering any help to one another, and are punished for their failures with food deprivation, physical torture and, most effectively, mental warfare—how long have they been there? how big is the room, really? when will they next eat? what do the wizards want them to do? The wizards push the boys to their limits in an attempt (we think) to find which of them has the makings of a wizard. It’s just like graduate school.
what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
Duey was clearly invested in this being a real atmosphere piece—Limòri Academy, in particular, is one of the damned creepiest places ever. With its endless twists and turns, its ability to seem like a huge space when it’s dark but resolve into a normal sized room when lit, the way the wizards seem to be able to hear your very thoughts . . . Eeurgh! Awesome. It also lives up to its intention to have complicated, terrified, weak, strong, conflicted characters. Hahp, especially, is a character that I haven’t seen in YA fantasy before. Because he barely interacts with anyone, Hahp’s characterization is all in his head and how he reacts to the bizarre and confusing challenges of the Limòri wizards. While this could, in a less skilled author, make for a solipsistic or self-indulgent narration, Duey is extremely disciplined in her choices, and so our all-access pass to Hahp’s poor little head reveals the shame, fear, and desperation that seem realistic for a pubescent boy who knows that he is definitively on his own.
As I’ve mentioned, one of Duey’s clear goals is to explore the classic philosophical issue of how far one should go to pursue knowledge. What’s unique about Skin Hunger’s take on this issue, however, is that it looks very different in 11-14 year old boys than it does in Somiss, a man in his twenties. For Hahp and Gerrard, possessing knowledge of magic is a matter of survival—the pure pursuit of wisdom twisted into a desperate Skinner-box lever pull. As the boys go through their classes, learning to move their thoughts into their toes, Hahp fantasizes about how he wants to be the one to graduate and become a wizard, not because of a desire to do magic, but so that he can finally look his abusive father in the face and know that he has the power to protect his mother. One of the more interesting elements of Hahp’s storyline is the way the boys’ deprivation and training seem almost cult-like, the wizards more monks than magicians.
As you likely noticed in the character listings, Franklin and Somiss are in both narratives, and they exemplify the underlying horror of the novel: how did we get from Sadima’s story to Hahp’s? How did we get from Somiss and Franklin’s desire to solve an intellectual mystery and restore magic to the people, to Somiss and Franklin’s mental and physical torture of children in an attempt to perpetuate their hold over magic? Holy crap, this book is disturbing and awesome.
My one critique was that the cross-cutting between Sadima’s and Hahp’s storylines happened too quickly—the chapters are sometimes only a few pages long. However, upon re-reading Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars to write this review, I realized that much of the narrative suspense comes from this style of editing.
Along with being a totally kickass book that portends a kickass series, Skin Hunger is a really excellent example of how tools of production being controlled by an elite few cannot help but lead to suffering, death, and the suppression of knowledge! Is the resurrection of magic destined to produce a rarified commodity because Somiss, despite having run away, is, and thinks like, a member of the nobility? Or is it because he sincerely believes that he is the only one who could possess power without becoming corrupt? Or because he’s a psychopath?
Many reviews of this book that I’ve read seem to think that nothing happens, or that this ethical issue is treated in an overly dark manner. I can’t help but think that these reviewers are also not fans of Faust, nor are they researchers of any kind, nor do they possess a deep dissatisfaction with the system that controls access to resources and believe that perhaps if we could study what undergirds that system and find the key to toppling it then people would be better off. As such, I dismiss their opinions. More important, I totally understand why they wouldn’t find this book interesting. For me and, I think, for anyone who is intrigued by the razor’s edge on which the pursuit of knowledge becomes oppression, there is a nearly Saw-esque level of tension in attempting to be the one student who graduates (whatever that means) Limòri Academy, potentially at the cost of your peers’ lives. God, Somiss is an evil, evil genius!
I can’t wait for the third book in the series to be released! Kathleen Duey reports that she’s working on it . . . Also, check out more amazing work by the cover artist for Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars here.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan (2009). There is a similar sensitivity to how the lies that we tell about our histories, when revealed, can be just as horrifying as, say, zombies (or wizards, as the case may be).
Winter of Fire, by Sherryl Jordan (1992). Elsha, all her life a member of the slave class that mines coal for the Chosen, has visions that bring her to the attention of the all-powerful Firelord. She becomes his Handmaiden, and discovers mysteries that have long divided the Quelled and the Chosen.
The God Eaters, by Jesse Hajicek (2006). Ashleigh Trine and Kieran Trevarde are imprisoned and studied for their talents, and magic is strictly controlled by, who else, a corrupt overclass. Trine and Trevarde bust out of prison and begin a dusty, epic run for their lives, and for the mysterious patterns that make magic, not to mention love. One of my favorites—check out my review here.
Procured from: the library
Skin Hunger was recommended to me by my dear friend, E—. Many thanks!