Sadima lives in a world where all magic has been banned. Her sense of empathy and communication with animals causes her to feel isolated until she discovers two men who are working towards bringing magic back into the world. Hahp is living in a future world, where Sadima’s new friends have succeeded in their plans for magical invigoration – but at what cost? Hahp and the other boys in his “class” are put through harrowing trials and face starvation on a daily basis as part of their training to become magicians. They are told at the outset: only one of the ten boys will survive to graduate.
The intermingling of these two stories is a key aspect of the appeal of this book. I almost wish the flap copy had not made it clear that Hahp was living in Sadima’s future, as I think that it would have been even more effective if I had realized that for myself as the story moved towards it’s conclusion (or as much of a conclusion as the first book in a trilogy ever has.) At the same time, however, knowing ahead of time that Sadima’s world was the “past”, it was interesting to track the differences in attitude between the real time events happening to Sadima and the “history” books that Hahp is forced to read. There are clues to both stories in the lives and experiences of people in both the future and the past.
The book is fairly plot-driven. There is some exploration of the characters as people, but mostly they serve as a furtherance for the what is going on. That does not make Hahp’s anger, terror, or despair any less real or palpable, but it does highlight that it is fear at the plot’s expense. I find it hard to fully believe, for instance, that it would take over a year for him to start having meaningful conversations with his roommate. But during the novel the suspension of disbelief is powerful, and the reader can simply accept this and focus instead on the mental turmoil this behavior causes Hahp.
As mentioned before, this is the first in a series. I will be looking forward to the rest of the books, as the worldbuilding was interesting, and several of the characters were particularly arresting. It was a National Book Award Finalist.
Notes on the cover: I understand the apple, but I’m not very clear on exactly why they chose to show Hahp without a shirt on, or with what appear to be tattoos on his back. During the apple scenes, Hahp was definitely wearing a burlap tunic: he had no separate pants and shirt, and mentioned several times his discomfort with nakedness. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure why the title is Skin Hunger in the first place. There is one offhand mention to something that might be interpreted as skin hunger in the very last pages of the book, but otherwise it doesn’t come up at all.