26 February 2008

Locus Magazine's Gary K. Wolfe reviews Kathleen Duey

from Locus Magazine, February 2008

Skin Hunger, Ekaterina Sedia (Atheneum 978-0-689-84093-7, 358pp, hc) July 2007.

Most reviewers get reminded on a fairly regular basis of books that we've overlooked, so when Kathleen Duey's YA novel Skin Hunger was brought to the attention of our esteemed reviews editor — after having been a finalist for last year's National Book Award in Young People's Literature — I got a copy, and it didn't take long to see why we might have overlooked it. Despite an impressively brooding David Ho cover, it bears a title that could easily be taken for a generic zombie or vampire tale (though it turns out to mean something quite different), an author who despite some success in the YA field has remained largely invisible to the genre community, and a warning that it's the first volume in yet another trilogy, bearing the overall title "A Resurrection of Magic" (by now, you could pretty much start a monthly book club of tales involving the return of magic to the world). But it turns out that Skin Hunger is one of the more accomplished and original fantasy novels of the year, and the trilogy it inaugurates might well constitute a major work (the narrative here is too truncated to claim that quite yet). There are a lot of strategies available to authors launching trilogies — they can write a more or less independent novel to be followed by sequels; they can complete a limited story arc within the context of a larger unfinished arc; they can write a movie-serial cliffhanger; they can simply stop the narrative at an appropriate breakpoint, with the understanding that the major issues are left unresolved. Duey chooses a combination of the latter two strategies, and it's inevitably a risky choice — some readers will feel that the tale just stops in midstream, or that it's only a fragment — but when the strategy works well, as it does here, it can be ferociously compelling: Duey may or may not know exactly where she's going, but this is clearly a story that wants to be told, and, so far at least, it's a supremely honest and perceptive fantasy.

And it's also a fairly dark one. The story alternates between the third-person narrative of Sadima, a young girl growing up in a world in which magic has been reduced to the depredations of charlatans but who finds in herself a talent for communicating with animals; and the first-person tale of Hahp, a wealthy merchant's disdained second son sent to study wizardry at a draconian monastic academy where students who fail to learn magic are simply allowed to starve to death — a kind of Hogwarts as Gulag. It takes a while to realize that these narratives are set several generations apart — Hahp's tale seems to take place a couple of hundred years after Sadima's — and that they're connected. Sadima, whose mother died at the hands of a fake magician while giving birth to her, lives in a poor rural family which despises anything to do with magic, and her relationship with her father is strained by the circumstances of her birth. She meets a kindly young man named Franklin, servant of the brilliant young aristocrat Somiss, who has heard of her magical skills, and after her father dies she sets out to join them in the seaside city of Limòri, becoming a kind of cook, scribe, and all-around manager for the humane Franklin and the volatile, reclusive Somiss, who is determined to rediscover the ancient secrets of true magic and establish a kind of academy, despite the opposition of the royals and of his own family. Meanwhile in the future, Hahp, whose wealthy family lives in the same city of Limòri and who also has issues with his dad, learns that being sent to study at the wizards' academy is very nearly a sentence of death — supposedly only one of the students will actually graduate. Still, all the students come from wealth except Hahp's roommate Gerrard, who he initially calls "Fishboy" because of his lowly origins, and whose presence there is unexplained. There is absolutely no redeeming warmth in Hahp's brutal tale — the students readily turn on one another (and are warned against helping each other), the instructors are unyielding, students actually die as warned, and even the hope of survival is tinged by bitterness and plans for revenge.

So when we learn that Hahp's major instructors are Franklin and Somiss, a host of intriguing questions arise: how have they survived the centuries? What became of Sadima? How did the promise of returning magic morph into this nightmare of brutality, and how does it actually function in this new world? Duey's view of magic is incisive and morally complex, and her skill at developing the central characters of Sadima, Franklin, and Somiss is equaled by her convincing sense of place — what we see of the city of Limòri, whose history seems somehow bound up in the narrative of the unwritten centuries, almost echoes the rich and grotesque New Weird settings of Miéville or Harrison (but more about that in a minute). Duey is clearly tapping into something powerful here, and if the remainder of the Resurrection of Magic plays out at this level of intensity, it will easily take its place among those YA trilogies that ought to earn the attention of fantasy readers of any age.

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the February 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
Comments are welcome, but are moderated.


Post a Comment

<< Home