Review: Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey


October 24, 2012 by Heidi

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey book coverTitle: Skin Hunger [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Kathleen Duey [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Book one in A Ressurection of Magic series.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Published: September 30th, 2008 by Atheneum (Originally published January 1st, 2007)
Format: Paperback; 357 pages
Source: Borrowed from Catie

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.

There’s a line between horror novels and those that are dark, but it’s certainly a chalk line that can be blurred fairly easily, a line that Kathleen Duey dances upon in her A Resurrection of Magic series.  I may never have picked this one up on my own, but thankfully my friend Catie had just finished reading it herself and offered it to me in the pile of books she’d brought for me to borrow.  She handed it to me saying that it was kind of like Harry Potter…if at Hogwarts they tortured all of the kids to get the magic out of them.  Well that certainly got my attention.

Harry Potter may have some very dark story elements, but it also has an overabundance of charm and whimsy that makes us brush off comments about “the old punishments” for students as all in good fun.  Skin Hunger brings those dark elements to the forefront and makes us fully realize what horror we were brushing off.  It was sort of like reading or hearing threats of “tarring and feathering” or “keelhauling” without actually ever thinking about how absolutely messed up those punishments were until you see them occur.

So, as you may have surmised, Skin Hunger will not be a book for everyone.  It’s a book with little hope, and much darkness; the kind of book that rubs all sorts of unpleasantness in your face.  The kind where the bad guys have won, are winning, will likely continue to win, and you cling to the pages half in hope half in dread until you come to its close.  However, if you’re a reader that truly means it when you say you like the dark and slightly disturbing, Kathleen Duey’s A Resurrection of Magic could be your perfect choice.

I love the magic and grit reflected in the cover art of this book, it fills me with the same cold wonder I had throughout reading.  In addition, I have to note that Skin Hunger is one of the most incredibly adept titles a book has ever been given.  It describes a feeling so few of us can truly understand, one more horrible and sad than I could wish on any person.

We are thrown into two distinct stories in Skin Hunger, one told in third person from Sadima’s perspective, the other in first person from Hahp’s.  The characters live hundreds of years apart, and at first seem to have little or nothing to do with one another.  I was surprised to find myself equally invested in each of their fates, and eagerly jumping back and forth between the two perspectives.  Kathleen Duey embraces the power of duel perspectives and various narrative styles so effortlessly that it is easy to forget that these elements quickly unravel under less expert control.

Sadima has always felt alone in an overly protected childhood where no others share her abilities to communicate wordlessly with animals.  She feels that when she finds Franklin, she finally has someone who understands, but it takes Sadima too long to see that Franklin can never be fully hers.  Sadima proceeds to fall into a largely frustrating and timid existence, too scared to be happy on her own, and too intimidated to be happy with Franklin.  We watch her become increasingly entangled in the lives of the man she loves, and the man he serves, slowly understanding how they are building a past that can create Hahp’s present. Hahp enters a school for wizards feeling initially that it is an escape from the father he despises.  Told that only one of their class will graduate, the boys at the school are given no comforts and provided with no food until the time when they will either learn to wield magic, or perish.  Hahp’s plight seems more desperate and imminent than Sadima’s.  Hers is a situation she chooses not to escape, his is one he cannot, one where each gain in one direction sends forces against him from another.

I am filled with hope for Hahp, and utter dread for Sadima.  Hahp’s future is a mystery.  Sadima’s future has already occurred.  We know something happens to her, but not what, and somehow the unknown past is more calculating and disturbing than the unknown future–it has no chance of changing.  If you like happy wrapped up ends, Skin Hunger may frustrate you.  For me, it was one of those rare cases where I loved feeling still in the dark at the book’s close.  I like that I can’t quite fit the puzzle together yet, that I can’t even guess at what the final picture will be.

Skin Hunger is a disturbingly fascinating read.  It examines humanity’s capacity for cruelty and harm in the name of the greater good.  It is a story of misguided ambitions and unfathomable bleakness, one that will leave the reader sucked dry of emotion and hungering to feel.  It is a story that is long ago and all too near.

I knew he couldn’t possibly keep a promise like that, but I put out my hand, and he gripped it.  The touch of flesh on my flesh, his skin on my skin, jolted me into feeling a kind of hunger I hand’t even recognized.  How long had it been since I had touched anyone?

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Fair warning: Skin Hunger does not leave off all neatly wrapped, and while the second book in A Resurrection of Magic, Sacred Scars, is available, the third book is still in progress.  I probably should have waited to start this series, but I’m too captivated to stop now.

Recommended for:  When thinking of other authors who can be described in similar terms, my mind turns only to Margo Lanagan, who is also known for very dark and disturbing YA.  This series will likely be as polarizing as Lanagan’s work, but I for one am loving it.

Get a second opinion:
The Readventurer – “What I remember most about it right now is just how dark and original and compelling it all was.”
Word for Teens – “I do want to read the next in the series – my interest is peeked to see what happens!”
The Book Geek – “Not a crowd pleaser but a good book for those readers who are looking for something different.”


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  1. VeganYANerds says:

    Fantastic review, hun! I already knew this was not a book for me after Catie reviewed it but I can appreciate how different and dark this book is and I know one of my co-bloggers would really like it.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Mandee! Yes, this one certainly won’t be for everyone, but I hope that more people out there do see it and pick it up. It’s so original and rich, I think those who do enjoy darker fantasy will really love this series.

  2. Oooh my GAH!!! I hadn’t heard about this book before. You’ve made it sound so dang tantalizing! Though I might wait to pick up the series until we AT LEAST know the date of the third book. Thanks, Heidi!!

    • Heidi says:

      Yay! Glad this one appeals to you. But yes, I totally feel ya. Kathleen Duey has SWORN that she is working on book #3, but there’s still no eta or publishing date so I can’t blame a girl for being nervous about diving in.

  3. This. Book. It sounds AMAZING! I love dark, gritty stories and I remember adding this to my TBR Shelf the moment I read Catie’s review, but I’m compelled to seriously go out and buy it now. While it seems odd, I love novels that dark so dark and full of despair simply because they are so different and often times, they mirror the way we feel about life better than ones with infinite hope do. I am keeping your warning in mind though, so I’ll be sure to pick up the first two books in this series once the third novel in this trilogy is out…or at least closer to the release date because I’m itching to get my hands on this one now! Fantastic review as always, Heidi! :)

    • Heidi says:

      It is amazing, Keertana! I think you’d really like it. Like you said, it seems odd to say because it isn’t precisely a feel good kind of book, but like you said it does often more accurately mirror real life than other types of stories. According to Catie, the second has an even worse ending (non-tied-up-wise) than this one! I’ll make sure and bug you about them when we have an ETA on book 3. 😛

  4. Oh wow…love this review Heidi. That moment that you quoted above really got to me too. I was so hung up on the starvation and the beatings and stuff…but really the psychological torture and isolation has to be so much worse. I love that she doesn’t try to disguise the fact that years of torture would leave a very real mark on a person.

    I think you’ll really love the second book. Sadima’s story gets so incredibly interesting. I think you’ll really like what she does with it. Can’t wait to see your updates and review for that one!

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Catie! I actually just wrote this review several months after finishing the book, which I think speaks volumes for how well the story stuck with me. I definitely think that the psychological torture is so much worse, and it’s something both Sadima and Hahp experience, even if they don’t both go through the physical torture. I’m really excited to pick up Sacred Scars! I’m forcing myself to finish my current stack from the library before I request it…

  5. Melanie says:

    Goodness, I don’t know if this is the type of book for me or not. It sounds compelling, but I don’t know if I’m up to its disturbing aspects.

    I’m impressed that the author was able to pull off the two perspectives. It sounds complicated.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, it was the first book I’ve read I think where the duel perspectives had essentially two completely different and unrelated stories, let alone different narrative styles. I expected this to be hard to get into, but it really wasn’t! I think that the narrative styles may even have helped to keep the stories separate.

      This is definitely one of those that I don’t know who might and might not love it. It is very compelling, but the disturbing aspects will be unappealing to many and I can’t blame them one bit.

  6. Nafiza says:

    I read this a long while ago and I don’t know, I couldn’t handle the fact that I’d be caring for these characters when something terrible is going to happen to them. The cover is so gorgeous though. And the title too is, as you said, very apt.

    • Heidi says:

      I can totally understand that reaction, Nafiza, there is certainly an air of doom about the whole thing that makes it hard to read. Glad you love the cover and title though!

  7. You nailed it when you said:

    “It’s a book with little hope, and much darkness; the kind of book that rubs all sorts of unpleasantness in your face.”

    This book IS dark and very, very sparse in the hope department. I read it a couple of years back and I was mesmerized but a bit freaked out at the same time. Especially with Hahp’s side of the story. God, it was BLEAK. After I read it I immediately wanted to shower and surround myself with rainbows and unicorns for a while (ok, maybe not unicorns…:) I think it’s a totally brilliant and original novel, but I’ve not yet been able to pick up the sequel.

    But I am glad you read it and it resonated with you, Heidi. I don’t often see reviews and it was cool to be reminded of it today:)

    • Heidi says:

      Bwahaha, I love you Heather, this comment totally made me laugh out loud. I know what you mean though, anytime I read/watch something really depressing I like to follow it up with something uber cheery. I don’t know, this was so bleak, but it did really resonate with me. I think it’s such a lovely book for the right reader, but yes, certainly too extreme for many.

  8. I’ve never heard of this! But I’m kind of intrigued. And a little scared! I don’t know, I don’t know. But wow, it sounds so dang interesting. Hmm…

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah. I really enjoyed this one, but it’s one of those that I hesitate to recommend to people because I’m fairly uncertain of who else will enjoy it as much. If it sounds intriguing, I say check if your library has it and give it a chance. :)

  9. […] Other reviews : This aint livin ; The Book Smugglers ; The paper critic ; Bunbury in the stacks […]

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.