Kathleen Duey

I’m about to do something with this blog that I haven’t done before.  If it works well, I may do it again … but even if it doesn’t work well, I have to rave about a book that I’ve just read.

You hear about books that are unputdownable – this book is not unputdownable, but the opposite. Every so often you have to gently close the covers to have a damn good think, or shake yourself, or scream at the characters, or go away to get some mental image out of your head.  But then you have to go back to the story – HAVE TO.   It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered a book that has made me think so hard and which I’ve enjoyed reading so much.

What is it?  Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey (and it’s sequel – Sacred Scars).

At first, when I began Skin Hunger I thought – ‘Oh, another fantasy set in a low-tech society about magicians, I know where this is going.’  Then … I didn’t.  It gets dark – very dark, and the book is brilliantly written; two stories that weave together to form one (the chapters jump between the stories alternately).

The first story is focused on a girl called Sadima, who lives in a time when magicians are all charlatans but who can hear animals.  She encounters two men who are trying to bring real magic back into their world.  She falls in love with one of the men, Franklin, but the other, Somiss, is a monster; evil, ambitious, manipulative and spoiled.

The second story is focused on a boy called Hahp, whose tale begins several hundred years after Sadima’s.  He lives in a country where real magic is available to whoever can afford to pay for it and is indentured into a school where he is to learn to become a magician … or die.

Yes, the books are about magic, but the fantastical elements soon fade into background to the real themes of the books.  The nature of evil and how people are drawn into it. No character in the books is innocent.  At the end of book one Sadima and Franklin end up complicit to Somiss’ monstrous behaviour (the torture of orphan boys).  Hahp’s anger and hatred keep him alive, but lead to a horrible decision at the end of book two.

Yet all the time Duey prevents us from seeing anything in black and white.  Ostensibly the monster, Somiss, wants to bring magic back to the world, because the royal family is so corrupt (although the reader imagines that he is doing it for his own amusement – a child who was never denied anything, now wants magic for his new toy), she paints the picture of a society that desperately needs change, and magic as the potential catalyst for that change.  Somiss is perhaps the ultimate example of  ‘the end justifies the means’.

His partner, Franklin, is in fact a slave, sold to Somiss’ family as a toddler.  He has been trained to keep Somiss happy so when Somiss makes demands of him, he is unable to refuse.  Later, Somiss holds Sadima over him, and even later, the possibility of success, of sharing magic with the world (Franklin’s dream, not Somiss’), so Franklin helps Somiss lure orphan boys and keep them in a cage to be tortured.

Sadima is in love with Franklin and stays with Somiss so much longer than she otherwise should have done, trying to mitigate his evil with her kindnesses. At one point she is in a position to kill him but she rises above his evil and proves herself the better person.  Her punishment for defying him and letting him live  is so horrible, it makes the reader shudder. Ultimately the reader begs her to kill Somiss – there Duey cleverly drags the reader into Somiss’ evil as much as any of the book’s characters.

In his lifetime Hahp, who the reader empathises with, is tortured horribly by the magicians – the end result of Somiss initial forays into cruelty to the orphan boys he kidnapped.  The scenes of torture are horrifying.  Boys are starved to death, burned, buried alive in solid stone, raped, and kept in terrifying isolation.  But this is all to teach them magic.  By the end of book two, Hahp can fly.  Do the ends justify the means?

We see a gentle people hounded (very much like victims of the holocaust), we see boys grow into men twisted by torture both mental and physical and we see kindnesses make only small differences when money and knowledge are the ultimate in power.

The books are dark, very dark and they make you think, make you wonder what you would do in the same situation.  The writing is accomplished; at no point do you get bored, or start skipping chapters so you can stay with one story above another and the books are loaded with themes (absentee, cold or distant fathers and the nature of knowledge and education being just two).

Over time the two stories, Sadima’s and Hahp’s, draw together; I imagine a meeting of some kind in the third book.  However, I won’t find out for some time because Duey is still writing book three.  That’s my only criticism – having devoured books one and two I now have to wait for book three and I’m rubbish at waiting.

These are the books I wish I’d written this year … so I’d better get writing, and bring my A-game!

  1. Reading your personal history–I can only admire your courage and your stamina…and your humor! I could not be happier that the crutch is not needed after all.

    I will type faster, knowing you are waiting for the third book in the trilogy! The descriptions of your immersion while writing Angel’s Fury echo my own experience with these. I feel like I LIVE in Limori.

  2. i love love love this book! i think the second of the trilogy is the most finely crafted second book of a trilogy i’ve ever read. i’m so glad you discovered it because i recommend it to everyone i know. even my non-reading son loved it!

    btw spoilers SPOILERS

    • Sorry about the spoilers! I did warn you …
      I’m obviously recommending it to everyone too. I only discovered it via a random article I read about swearing in YA novels – this was the example used – how Hahp swears more in the first book, but in the second he has other ways of dealing with his life. Even the swearing in it is clever!

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