Author: Kathleen Duey
Publication Date: 7/24/07
Blurb(GR): 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.
These days, the phrase “the study of magic” tends to evoke images of boarding schools, quirky teachers, magic potions, and cute mythical creatures more than anything else. However, when you take a look at our own anthropological record, “the study of magic” has more often been associated with a very different set of things: hours of meditation, fasting, ritualistic pain, brutal tests of endurance, isolation…and the list goes on. Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger seems to take inspiration from that second list, and the result is a refreshingly realistic and dark fantasy.
Skin Hunger follows two separate timelines. In Micah’s world, magicians are hated and feared and all magical training is banned. When Micah’s mother experiences complications in the birth of his sister, his only option for help is a traveling witch woman, who accepts his money but then leaves his mother dead and his baby sister lying blue and cold on the floor. Micah and his father both become understandably narrow-minded and intolerant of anything supernatural, which complicates things for Sadima, the little girl born that night. As Sadima grows into a girl and then a young woman, she starts manifesting supernatural abilities and isn’t always able to conceal them. Suffocated by her father’s strict rules, Sadima longs to run away, especially after one afternoon when she meets a traveling wizard who seems to accept her as she is.
Centuries later, in Hahp’s world, magic is ubiquitous and widely accepted or even revered. As the extraneous younger son of a prominent family, he is sent to attend the secretive school of magic - The Limori Academy - from which only one student (and sometimes not even one) typically “graduates.” Left behind by his brutish father and his browbeaten mother, Hahp soon discovers that the “training” he is supposed to be doing will be a lot more horrifying than he ever anticipated. In fact, chances are good that he won’t survive the process.
This book is unflinchingly dark and I loved that about it. The society that Sadima lives in is brutally disparate: masses of starving children wander the streets as the ridiculously wealthy rulers parade through the villages to celebrate their own power. Sadima finds her traveling wizard and loves him, but things are much more complicated (and many shades darker) than a simple relationship. The dynamic between Sadima, Franklin (the traveling wizard), and Somiss (his magic-hungry friend) is downright sickening.
But it was Hahp’s life at the academy that really fascinated/horrified me. Hahp and his classmates are isolated, starved, and tortured psychologically and physically – all to help them learn magical ability. And it works. It also kills a few of them and scars the survivors deeply. It twists Hahp’s thoughts into ugly, hate-filled, violent things. *shivers* I’m still thinking about certain scenes in that damn academy.
However, as much as I love dark, twisted fantasy (and believe me, I do) this wasn’t a perfect read for me. I got exasperated with Sadima, who relies on the “Snow White,” “I’m going to cook and clean and sacrifice myself to make everything better for everyone” strategy a bit too much. I wasn't always able to understand why she would stay in such a twisted relationship with someone she barely knew. However, she did seem to be growing a teeny tiny backbone by the end, which I hope gets a lot bigger in the second book.
Also, as the book progressed it became clear that the two timelines were in fact linked. I kept waiting and waiting for the moment when they would cross somehow. I truly expected a huge devastating “reveal” scene at the end. Highlight for spoilers: for example, I really expected Sadima to turn up somewhere in Hahp's academy (terribly twisted and evil now, of course), OR alternatively I expected her to die in the past world. I expected to be given some hint as to how Franklin and Somiss got to the place they're at in the future. But instead, this book just kind of…ended. It feels very much like an overfed prologue.
However, I find now that I don't have much energy to complain further about this book. What I remember most about it right now is just how dark and original and compelling it all was. This book has really lingered in my mind. If I had had the sequel in my hands when I finished this first one, I would have started it immediately. As it is, I am going to pick it up very soon.*
*Update: I picked it up from the library the other night and I was so excited to start it that I read the back flap while walking and almost ran into a concrete pillar. I finished it in one day.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Sarah Jaffe - Pretender