Thursday, September 25, 2008

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Plot Summary: Sadima lives in a world where magic has been banned, leaving poor villagers prey to fakes and charlatans. 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.
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.

I picked up this book because it was a National Book Award Finalist, and because of all the fabulous author blurbs on the cover. I usually love what the National Book Awards select, so I opened the cover with excitement. Then, after chapter three, I set it down and almost didn’t pick it back up.

This is rare for me. Once I start a story, I’m obsessive about finishing it even if I don’t like it. I do this because I believe that I can learn something from all stories, even if they’re poorly constructed or just not my taste. It’s really saying something if I set a book aside. That said, let’s continue.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

In chapter three, we see the birth of Sadima. Her brother, Micah, has gotten a magician to help their mother with the birthing process, but the magician is a greedy, cruel, heartless old woman. First, she charges an outrageous fee for her services (the family’s entire savings plus the mother’s inheritance). Then, once Sadima is delivered, she drops the baby on the floor, lets the mother bleed to death, stuffs her bag with all the valuables she can find, then tells Micah and his father that Sadima and their mother should be left alone to rest – all so she can make a clean getaway with her stolen goods. Hours later, Micah’s father finally peek in to the bedroom to check on the new addition to their family, only to find his dead wife covered in dried blood, and his new daughter near death on the floor. I cannot imagine walking into anything worse.

I’m a mom, so I’m highly sensitive to children being put in harm’s way. More so when that harm comes from selfishness and a blatant disregard for responsibility. So this scene hit me really, really hard. I set the book down, then had nightmares about my own children being chased by a cackling old woman. Not pleasant. Moving on...

Anyone who knows me should know that I don’t shy away from showing harsh reality in my stories. Harsh things DO happen in life, and sometimes it necessary to see them. Key word here: necessary. So, with the assumption that I would learn why I needed to see such a heart-rending, horrifying scene, I picked the book back up.

The story is told from two different characters, Hahp and Sadima, in two different time periods, present and past. The chapters alternate, Sadima telling her story and Hahp telling his. Each story is separate – Sadima’s doesn’t further Hahp’s, and vice versa. Which is fine, except for two things.

1) The old woman who delivered Sadima never reappears in the story. It seems that her only purpose was to show how she’d turned Sadima’s father into a reclusive, spiteful person. Which would be fine, except that this happens at the beginning of the story. We didn’t get the chance to really know Dad’s character beforehand, therefore we don’t see the change. Which makes showing the effect of losing his wife unnecessary.

Another purpose might be to show us the horrifying state of the current magicians. Which would work fine if there were more magicians swindling innocent folk. But the only person we see doing this is the old woman, and one person doesn’t reflect the state of an entire group of people.
Because of this, I’m not seeing the necessity of seeing Sadima’s birth. I think the story started too early, and that the real beginning is in Sadima’s teen years when she first encounters Franklin.

2) Sadima’s and Hahp’s stories are completely separate. If you pulled them apart and read each separately, they wouldn’t feel incomplete. Their stories develop the same as if they were in a book of their own: we’re introduced to the characters, we get to know them, they start on a journey toward the big conflict, etc. Which is fine, except we never get to the big conflict. Both Sadima and Hahp build up a hatred for their current situations, dreaming of leading different lives. Once they both decide it’s time to act, the story ends.

Ms. Duey is a talented writer. She wrenched emotions from me that only vivid, sympathetic characters could manage. Her words pulled me in to her world and made me care about it. Then she took me on this emotional roller coaster, cranked me up to the top of the tallest drop, and left me there. That drove me absolutely crazy, and I wanted to hurl the book across the room screaming “That’s IT?”

I’m wondering why both Sadima’s story and Hahp’s story needed to be told simultaneously. By the end of the book, I felt like I had just gotten to know them, and then the story ended. Why couldn’t we first read Sadima’s whole story, then read Hahp’s whole story? I don’t see the need for them to be heard at the same time. Granted, I don’t have all the information – I don’t know where the story is going or how it will end. Maybe there’s a reason that we needed to see Sadima’s birth. Maybe there’s a reason we needed to feel so much sympathy for Sadima’s brother and father, even though they dropped out of the story. Maybe there’s a reason we needed to see Hahp and the other boys repeatedly mistreated, but not see any other parts of the academy. If so, I think these reasons need to come sooner.

I know it sounds like I hated this book, but I didn’t. The story’s premise is very unique and intriguing, and I really do want to know what happens. I know this is the first in a planned trilogy, but I’m just not a fan of being left hanging for a few years. I think that a different structure would have made this story more powerful and effective, leaving me perfectly happy to wait for more.

Then again, this book was nominated for the National Book Award, so maybe I just don’t get it. If anyone else does, please enlighten. :)


Marcia said...

Wow, your blog has a cool new look! I love it!

Hmmm. The end of your plot description sounds like The Hunger Games.

I haven't read this, but I love your analysis of why the heart-rending scene wasn't necessary. And I 100% agree with how hard it is to take in such a scene as a parent. I NEVER read or listen to newspaper or TV reports on child abuse crimes. I would NEVER serve on a jury for such a case. I'm guessing that this scene was meant to show why magic has been banned, and why it might not be a good idea to automatically be on the side of having it restored? That otherwise, being on the side of magic might seem like a "duh" position in future books? Just guessing.

The totally separate stories seem to be there just because this is a trilogy and we can "dispose of" the two characters' backstory in the first volume. This sounds like part of what I've been noticing lately -- new series books don't stand alone as much as they did only a short time ago. "Different rules" are allowed. But this can lessen the reading pleasure of any one of the books. In a stand-alone book, the two stories would have to converge. If they don't here, the volume seems weaker within itself, even if the series as a whole won't seem weak in the end. So -- is a part-of-a-series book becoming a different animal from a stand-alone?

Carrie Harris said...

Ditto on the new blog prettiness. Oooh! I like it!

As a parent, I have the same difficulties as you and Marcia. Besides, I hate it when things happen just to move the story along and without sufficient justification. You can almost hear the author say, "Hmmm... I need to get from point A to point C, so I think I'll throw in element B to get there. But element B is just floating out there in the ether without a real justification except that author needed it.

I'm not saying this is happening here, because I haven't read the book. Frankly, I don't know why I'm ranting. You must have touched a chord! :)

PJ Hoover said...

OK, not gonna read your spoilers as it is close to the top of my TBR stack. We can compare notes when I'm done!

Oh, and super ditto on the cool blog look! I love it!

Tabitha said...

Thanks all! I was never happy with the templates that Blogger offers, so I've been searching here and there for a new one. I found this yesterday and just *had* to have it. :)

Marcia - I can't hear about child abuse crimes either. I would be a terrible juror in a case like this too. I wouldn't be able to listen to the facts of the case. Ugh...

This is the first trilogy I've read where the first book didn't have a climax. Just a beginning and maybe some of a middle. This is also the first time I've read a book where I didn't like it partly because of how well it was written. Good, solid characters, vivid setting, great all pulled me in, then left me hanging. I hope this isn't a new trend, because then I won't be able to read any trilogies until they're all on the shelf.

Carrie - I honestly can't say "go read this book" because I don't want to be responsible for someone else reacting the way I did. :) But this particular scene did feel like a "I need to show X, so I'll throw this in here." That makes it seem like the writer is not thinking about the story as a whole, which I think all good writers need to do.

PJ - looking forward to when you read it! I'd love to hear your opinion!

Gottawrite Girl said...

It's funny, I never once thought you didn't like the book - but rather just the opposite. I think I feel just like you - even if I "don't like" a plot turn, if it's provocative and honest I respect it anyways.

Keri Mikulski said...

Wow, great analysis of SKIN HUNGER.

Now that I'm a mommy, I can't even begin to think about reading a book about children getting hurt, but the book sounds very unique.

Tabitha said...

GWG - I'm glad it didn't sound like I hated this book. :) I really don't, I'm just wondering why all the horrible stuff was necessary. Especially since it was so well-written...

Keri - thanks! It's amazing how much kids change you, isn't it? I had no idea until my first son was born...

Jim Danielson said...

Your blog is looking good!

I'm thinking mine needs a facelift too.

As for SKIN HUNGER: I think I'll read a couple more reviews before putting it on my to read list.

Tabitha said...

Thanks! I found this little gem on They had something like 35 pages of templates. My eyes were crossing by the time I was done. :)

Skin Hunger has promise, but without more of the story I can't say whether or not I like it. I just don't hate it. :)

C.R. Evers said...

Hey Tabitha! I really liked skin hunger too. But I wished I had read it when the 2nd book was already out! :0) Kathleens writing is so strong it really does bring emotions to the surface and leaves you wanting more!

I liked the dual perspective. I felt like I was opening a present as I wondered how the two stories went together and it was a neat surprise as I started to figure it out. I felt like this style brought me along for the ride. Instead of being told about the importance of each character, the reader gets to feel like they discover it for themselves. Also, having Sadima's background from birth helped me to understand the decisions that she made later in the story.

But that's just me.

I'm looking forward to the 2nd book! :0)


Tabitha said...

I really wish the second book had been out, too. :) And I agree that it was fun to read both stories side by side, to see how they will eventually start to connect. I guess I was just pondering on ways to give the reader a little bit more in this first book. I guess I just don't have the patience to wait soooo long between books. :) But she is such a talented writer, isn't she?