Review: Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

The wizards had done this many times. It had become routine to them, watching boys die. (p. 352)

When an academic superstar tells you not once, but twice in one day how fabulous a book is, you take notice.

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey is absorbing, rich, compelling. I read it with almost the hunger one of the protagonist describes. I’d been told by the aforementioned academic that the story is about a boy who is taken to a magic academy, where the students do not eat until they are able to make food for themselves magically (i.e. they starve.), and that the story is also/really about living when you are rendered absolutely powerless.

I hadn’t been told how wonderful the story is. There are two protagonists, really: Hahp, the boy at the school, and Sadima, whom we meet first and who leaves her home farm to find other people who, like her, have magic. To find one other magician, actually, whom she met once and kinda fell in love with. The book jacket says as much so I don’t think I’m irreparably spoiling anything by saying that the chapters, which alternate between protagonists, are set a few hundred years apart, and that Sadima ends up working for the magician Hahp fears most.

That magician is named Somiss, by the way. He and Voldemort would be soulmates, if only both of them had enough of a soul left that being soulmates was possible. Or maybe Somiss is more like Valentine of the Shadowhunter books, or (SPOILER) the Mage of Carry On – a passionate reformer who seems reasonable, even noble, until you see beneath the surface.

The story beneath the story, though, isn’t only about surviving when you are stripped of agency and (frankly) expected to die; it is about the construction of history. I started marking with a sticky note every major passage on the history of the world, and what the book Hahp is given says of the world’s history. Here’s the result:

Skin Hunger by Kathlen Duey - notes
A few of the stickies are characters’ thoughts on what Somiss is doing or making other people do. But most of them? History.

Yeah. This book has a lot to say on the construction of history. Also on social change (or lack thereof?) and on power (see Corruption) and revolution. It is also a story of the disadvantages and advantages of poverty and wealth. Hahp’s roommate, Gerrard, grew up orphaned in the city slums; unlike the other boys, he never had the luxury of enough food or of paying attention to what he is eating longer than the time it takes to stuff in his mouth – although Gerrard knows how to live hungry, he is gravely disadvantaged at the magic required to make food. Nor are the practical details of the narrative neglected, such as the effects on one’s digestive system when all one eats is apples (hint: not pretty), and the need for shoes on cobbled streets. Most of the minor characters are neither heroes nor villains but inhabit that grey area in between; like living people, they are sometimes loving, sometimes unkind.

Somiss was convinced he was working faster and better than he ever had, that hunger somehow improved his mind. It seemed crazy to [Sadima]. If hunger made people smarter, why couldn’t the street orphans find ways to live without having to beg and steal? (p. 204)

One warning: the book uses the term G****. The Roma are presented as people rather than as subservient and squalid Others, but the word itself is racist. The use fits the era of the story, but given that there are no other recognizable other lands/nations or peoples, I don’t see why that word couldn’t have been changed. This is significant flaw.

It is, however, the only problem. My sole other lament is that I don’t have the other second and third of this trilogy sitting on my desk as I type. (On the other hand, if they were, I’d be reading instead of writing.) The magic system is fascinatingly organic and I have a feeling the way magic works will continue to unfold in the second and maybe third books.

Highly recommended.

Sadima had heard of royalty in campfire tales, but in the stories they were almost always wicked. (p. 102)