Friday, November 16, 2007

National Book Award Finalist: Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One by Kathleen Duey

This post reviews the fourth of five National Book Award finalists, Skin Hunger, by Kathleen Duey.

In a dark and disordered world, in which magic has been banished except for the practice of charlatans and vestiges of nonsense jingles and Gypsy songs, Kathleen Duey has woven the story of two young people separated by generations but bound to the quest for the resurrection of magic, a magic which is a cruel and pitiless master, but one which promises to redeem mankind from suffering and death.

Skin Hunger (Atheneum, 2007) is the story of two teens, Sadima and Hahp, told in alternating chapters in seemingly unrelated plot lines. Sadima, whose mother died at the hands of a quack magician at her birth, has grown up under the care of her loving older brother, avoiding her sad and bitter father who still grieves the loss of his wife. In a chance meeting with a compelling young man named Franklin, Sadima reveals her ability to understand the "silent speech" of animals, and with the death of her father Sadima feels free to follow Franklin's request to join him in the city of Limori, many days away by foot. Reunited with him, she learns that Franklin is bound for life to a strange master, Somiss, a driven young man consumed with the quest to recover the lost magic of the distant past.

In the city Sadima is taught first to copy and then teaches herself to read the remnants of magical songs and chants which Somiss is assembling. Although she yearns to escape Somiss's domination, Sadima becomes hopelessly bound to his obsession because of her love for Franklin, who knows that he alone has the power to mitigate Somiss's monomaniacal search for control of the lost magic. Finally, pursued by his cruel father, Somiss, bearing his precious copies of magical song, leads Franklin and Sadima into a cavernous redoubt where they will piece together the secrets of the ancient wizardry which Somiss believes will restore health and end war on earth.

The second strand of the story is the first person narrative of Hahp, a wealthy but indifferent student, the unloved second son of a rich merchant who is abruptly turned over to a wizardry school in an vast, dimly-lit, underground cavern. With nine other bewildered and terrified students, Hahp is brutally treated by the wizard masters Somiss and Franklin, who allow four of the group to starve when they are unable to learn to conjure up food for themselves. Because the boys are told that they will die if they help each other, Hahp, the first to learn the food-spell, despairs of being the one apprentice who survives to become a wizard, an achievement which he learns will entitle him only to lifelong vows of chastity, poverty, silence, and cloister. Yet, as the first year passes, Hahp and his roommate Gerrard, who rivals Hahp in mastery of the wizards' teachings, make an almost unspoken compact, despite the fearful penalties, to work together to survive their ordeal.

Duey's storytelling skills keep the reader riveted through these separate but engrossing narratives. As the two seemingly unrelated strands progress, it becomes apparent that Sadima's story is indeed the prequel to that of Hahp, who is forced to master the secrets which Somiss and Franklin, now old, yet ageless, and empowered by their merciless and imperfect mastery of magic, seek to guard and transmit.

For those mature young readers who become involved in this first story, which ends abruptly without resolution, the books which follow in this trilogy are sure to be welcome. As Tolkien warned, the possession of magic has the power to destroy the soul, and Duey's tale leaves the reader hoping that Hahp will find a way to gain knowledge without losing his own humanity in the quest.

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