For all the bizarre and sadistic events happening in Skin Hunger, the tone (a.k.a. the author's and/or narrators' attitudes toward the story) is pretty chill. Events are related clearly, without too much bias. When Sadima first reaches Limòri, for instance, she notices a man painting portraits in the main square:
A woman in blue-green ruffles sat before him, her chin lifted, her posture stiff. Sadima could see the likeness on the paper. It was good, flattering, but he had the hair color a little wrong. (17.2)
Sadima isn't, like, freaking out about the painting not being super accurate, she's just observing it in a clear, straightforward way, being honest about its good and bad qualities.
When Hahp is narrating, the tone is still honest—but let's face it, Hahp is a tad theatrical. Shortly into his stay at the academy, he notes:
I was so hungry. It was hard to sleep without a pillow, and I hated the feed sack I had to wear. The chafing became painful and bloody. And my feet were so sore and swollen that the first ten or twelve steps after I woke were pure torture. (18.4)
Okay, dude, it's not like you were being water-boarded or anything. So while we're getting an unfiltered, honest perspective from Hahp, he's kinda melodramatic in how he goes about it.
Why young adult? Look at the main characters in Skin Hunger: Sadima's seventeen for most of the story, and the guys she's living with are twenty-ish; Hahp is eleven going on twelve, and his roomie Gerrard is around his age too, as are the rest of the boys in the academy. The characters go through normal growing-up stuff like leaving home, learning new things, getting a crush, and fighting for survival against evil wizards. Ya know, typical young adult lit material, with a little magic thrown into the mix…
… Which brings us to why Skin Hunger counts as fantasy: wizards, flying horses, and sharing thoughts and feelings with animals. This ain't historical fiction, folks, since none of that stuff exists in our world.
You probably thought of this when you picked up this book, but Skin Hunger is a sorta strange title. Why would a book about resurrecting magic be called that? What do skin and hunger have to do with magic, a fantasy setting, or a young adult novel? Well for starters, all of the characters experience hunger at some point in the book, whether it's caused by poverty or torture.
But there's a more direct reason behind the title. We finally figure it out near the end of the book, when Hahp has this exchange with Gerrard:
He took another step toward me. Then he stopped. "If I help you," he whispered, using barely enough breath to shape the words, "will you help me?"
I nodded, astounded. "Yes."
"And then will you help me destroy this place?"
I knew he couldn't possibly keep a promise like that, but I put out my hand, and he gripped it. The touch of flesh on my flesh, his skin on my skin, jolted me into feeling a kind of hunger I hadn't even recognized. How long had it been since I had touched anyone? (64.21-24)
Hahp realizes that the wizards have been deliberately keeping the boys isolated at the academy, keeping them from forming friendships or alliances. In addition to the emotional isolation, there's a physical separation between the boys, and they're never encouraged to touch (like by playing games or shaking hands). Lacking a sense of connection with one another, they also lack empathy for each other, which enables the wizards to make the boys complicit in starving and competing against one another.
The whole isolation theme applies in Sadima's storyline too, though less literally than in Hahp's. Sadima works to end her loneliness by seeking out Franklin since he also has abilities that no one else possesses. But her feelings for him allow her to be trapped in the situation by Somiss's machinations. Even though she and Franklin are physically close to one another, they don't get to be affectionate with each other very much, for fear of Somiss catching them. So Sadima, too, is hungry for skin-on-skin contact and the emotional closeness that comes with it.
Holy ambiguity, Batman. We're not really sure what's going to happen to either Hahp or Sadima at the end of the book.
In Hahp's case, he's still stuck in the academy with the wizards trying to weed out the boys through starvation, sleep deprivation, and psychological torture. But something has changed: he and Gerrard have (quietly) made a pact to work together to beat the wizards at their own game, so that one of them, at least, can get revenge. Even though Hahp's still not allowed to eat because he's in the process of memorizing the song Somiss wants him to, Gerrard feeds him a meal.
Gerrard also helps Hahp study the book of songs, which Hahp is convinced he never could've managed on his own:
By the third time I could feel myself learning it in a way that reading is silently, stumbling over the words, I never could have managed. On the tenth time, he stopped reading after the first few words, and I recited it, alone.
I reached out and gripped his arm for an instant, then sat back on my cot to practice silently. It had been so long since my thoughts were thoughts, not screams. I was still scared, but somehow the knives had gone out of it. (64.25-26)
So things are looking up for Hahp, if only barely.
Sadima flees Limòri with Franklin and Somiss after someone sets fire to their house. They wind up going to the underground tunnels, which Somiss believes are the ancient home of magic. Oh, and Somiss is also keeping beggar boys captive in there, and we don't think it's part of an educational program to keep kids off the streets.
Somiss is being his usual not-giving-a-crap-about-anyone-but-himself self, so when their carriage overturns, it's up to Sadima to find where Franklin's been tossed and ask him, "Where are you hurt? Can you sit up?" (65.8). Luckily Franklin's not hurt; none of them really are… yet, anyway.
We say yet because Somiss is acting kinda strange: "Somiss carried all the sheet-bundles, and he was laughing, his eyes as wide as a child's as they started down the path" (65.13). Has he finally gone crazy, breaking under the strain of too much power and ambition? It's unclear. So like Hahp at the end of the book, Sadima's also in a bad situation, though at least by now she's resolved that she does care about Franklin and is looking for a way to take Somiss out if he becomes too power-mad.
So Skin Hunger takes place in a made-up world that has a bunch of elements of fantasy (medieval-type society with kings and lords, invented languages, old stories about wizards and magic)… except there's very little magic in the world itself. In Sadima's time, there are stories of magic, but nothing more. In Hahp's time, many decades later, there is some magic, but only wizards with their exclusive and shady training have access to it. We'll take you on a tour of some of the unique aspects of this setting.
The history of this land is filled with tales of magic—some good, some bad. Here's a quick history lesson. Wizards were pretty powerful in the past, and could do things like fly, cure diseases, and so on. But then things went south. Hahp learns why:
The first Age of Magic, it claimed, was ended by an alliance of power-mad kings and a general uprising of common people who had been duped by the kings into thinking the wizards were evil. Thousands of wizards had been killed in primitive, ugly ways—by ax, by fire, by quartering, by drowning. (18.22)
That sounds a lot like the Spanish Inquisition and the witch hunts from our own world's history. Magic went underground, and the rest of the world moved on. There were political repercussions, though:
The last paragraph explained that the kings had fought among themselves a swell; that the whole of humanity was plagued with war for generations.
I turned the page, expecting some explanation of why no one had passed down stories of the wars along with the stories of magic and wizards, but it wasn't there. The third chapter of the book had a list of the kingdoms that no longer existed because of that war. It took up twenty pages. (18.23-24)
Pro tip: If starting a war to eradicate magic, keep in mind that there'll be a huge toll on the rest of society.
Some knowledge about the past was preserved in old stories rather than written history books. At one point, for instance, Franklin is talking about his efforts to convince Somiss to study the silent-speech: "No. And I may never. He has found some old story that says it was the downfall of the wizards" (19.26). In stories about magic, how do you decide which of the other elements are true and fact-based, and which are fanciful? We're not sure.
And when Franklin first meets Sadima, he asks her if she's heard the old stories, the "winter-hearth tales of wars and wizards and ships on the sea" (11.30). Again Somiss is totally into these stories, thinking there's a grain of truth in them… and it turns out that there is. So pay attention to old stuff, whether in history class or in a traditional song performance, because you never know when you might learn something useful.
While most of our story takes place in some unnamed kingdom, there are hints that other nations exist as well. We know that there are other languages, for starters. Hahp tells us:
I had spent my first seven years speaking Yama until noon, Thereisti until supper, and our own Ferrinides until bed. A man who could speak those three, my father had said, could trade anywhere in the wide world, all the way out to the islands beyond the colonies. (18.6)
It's not a religiously homogenous place, either. There are Gypsies and at least one religiously distinctive group, the Eridians. Kary Blae, a noblewoman who gives Sadima a lift to Limòri, has this to say about the Eridians:
"They are wicked. My husband says they are bringing country girls into the city, forcing them to marry." (15.13)
But that doesn't seem likely, given that Sadima's employer, Rinka, is an Eridian, and she seems pretty cool. Here's how she describes her beliefs to Sadima: "Bound by oath to honesty and sacred labor. We work hard, and I will expect you to work hard" (27.17). And this just doesn't sound too bad to us.
We occasionally hear about foods and other things being imported. Hahp is tasked with releasing some "Servenian hummingbirds" (62.3), for example, and he remembers how his "father often imported oranges from Levern" (24.2). In other words, there are definitely lands beyond the one that Sadima and Hahp live in, even if we don't see them in this book.
Limòri is the largest city—and possibly even the capital—of the land where Sadima, Hahp, Franklin, and Somiss live.
To someone like Sadima, growing up in a tiny town like Ferne, Limòri seems impossibly huge. At first, she's only heard rumors about it, stories where "there were people with green skin and boats bigger than houses" (11.26), but then she ventures there on her own.
It takes Sadima a little over two weeks to walk from Ferne to Limòri, so it's a considerable distance. Once there, Sadima's astonished at how big everything is:
There were buildings that rose into the air as high as three or four houses piled one on another, made of blocks of dark stone… There were shops and markets everywhere she looked, and the women all wore fine, bright-colored dresses. (15.27-28)
The market square of Limòri is huge, too, but eventually Sadima gets used to it.
As with many large cities, there's a downside to having so many humans massed in one place: poverty. Hahp can see the city from his family's estate before he's shipped off to wizard-school, and here's what he sees:
I stared westward through the steam rising off the river mouth. Beyond it, across the delta and the still-water marshes on the other side, the night-torches in the South End slums of Limòri were being snuffed out. Once the eye-burning stench of the greasewood was gone, the beggars would swarm back to the boardwalk. But by then the shopkeepers' dogs would be off their leashes. Most were half wolf. All were underfed. (2.1-2)
The city sounds pretty unpleasant, right? If you've got enough money to get by, though, it's probably a nice place to live. Rich folks tend to live on Ferrin Hill, where we're betting things are pretty swank.
When Hahp is escorted to the wizard academy, he and the other boys and their families enter through a pair of giant iron doors—Hahp thinks they're so big that "A ship could have sailed through them" (6.3). Inside the doors are tunnels that connect various rooms and caverns to one another.
The boys are given rooms with cots and small basins in them. They're starved for a good chunk of their time there, they're not allowed to leave, they never get to see the sunlight, and they don't bathe until they can learn to magically manifest soap. In other words, this ain't Hogwarts.
There's more to the caverns than meets the eye, though, and Somiss is convinced, having pieced it together from the old songs and stories, that they're "the ancient home of magic" (65.14). It takes decades (if not centuries), but he manages to restore the spot to what it was in the past, since it's now the location of the academy. Hahp gets a glimpse of how mysterious the place is, when he's led to a forest:
We were standing in a sunlit forest beneath a black stone sky. (52.19)
How does that even work? We have no clue whatsoever, so we're chalking it up to magic.
Magic is also what lets the wizards use the Patyàv Stone (a giant, glimmering jewel) to manifest whatever they need: food, soap, and so on. Are there limits to what it can create? Where did it come from? The academy remains super mysterious, and we're hoping that we get to see more of its inner workings in subsequent books.
Our main viewpoint characters are all young folks (Hahp is eleven and Sadima is seventeen for most of the story), so we're not seeing brain-twistingly complicated phrases or concepts in this book. But there is a lot of violence and a whole lot of stuff that simply does not make sense. Why does Hahp have to learn to send his thoughts into different parts of his body? Why is Sadima helpless while watching Somiss exploit and use Franklin? Who thinks starving little boys in order to teach them magic could possibly be a good idea?
Between the book's mysteries and the events that are just hard to wrap your head around (assuming you're a moral person), this book's no walk in the park. But since the narrators' language makes everything easy to understand as it happens, you'll have front row seats to the atrocities and other weird crap that happens throughout. Um, yay?
Maybe it's because our viewpoint characters are young folks, but their way of narrating what happens to them isn't very complicated or fancy. Sadima, for example, notices the things around her and describes them in plain language:
Sadima woke before daylight, as she had all her life. But there was no sound of roosters, or goats bleating, no sleepy owl's homeward cry, and it took her a moment to realize where she was. (19.13)
Simple, clear, and unambiguous; we don't have to puzzle through polysyllabic words or wonder if she's hallucinating.
Even with Hahp's viewpoint, which does feature some freaky magical stuff that makes him question reality, we still see the same clarity and directness of style. Like when old-Franklin offers to help Somiss demonstrate something for the boys, Somiss just tells Franklin to leave:
Franklin looked sad, disappointed. For a few seconds they just stared at each other. Then Franklin simply walked away. No disappearing, no opening in the rock wall, no magic. He left the way we had come in. (20.14)
In addition to inspiring our sympathy (aw, poor Franklin), this quote shows just how uncomplicated the language the story's told in is.
Don't be a neigh-sayer—horses have a lot of rich meanings in Skin Hunger. Just consider the horses that Hahp's father breeds and raises, which are spoiled yet somehow broken… kinda like Hahp. Here's how the (flying) horse that pulls their carriage to the academy looks:
The stallion was immaculate, of course, his dark hooves rubbed with beeswax. He never got dirty anymore. Rainwater hadn't touched his skin in three years. His neck was arched and he tossed his mane. But his eyes were opaque—dead. It always happened with the training. (2.11)
And by "training," Hahp means that magical ordeal that makes the horses able to fly. Just so we're clear. Being made able to fly deadened the stallions eyes, which probably indicates that his soul is pretty dead too—and also nods at the stakes Hahp is about to find himself in at the magic academy.
Then there's the horse that Sadima buys from the men abusing it in Ferne's market. Sadima can feel "the raw edge of fear before she saw the horse" (9.47). The men trying to control it think it's dangerous, so they're eager to get rid of it—but it turns out that once Sadima reassures the horse that she'll take it away from the bad men, it starts to behave. This reminds us of how Sadima herself is misunderstood and could be seen as dangerous due to her ability to talk to animals—but when she's not feeling trapped, there's no reason to fear her.
When Kary Blae gives Sadima a lift to Limòri, Sadima is awed by her horses. Check it out:
They were finer than any she had ever seen—they were sleek and groomed and they held their heads high. She turned toward them and felt their pride and strength. They had not wanted to stop and were eager to go on. They were afraid of nothing. (15.16)
In this instance, horses are like people: when well cared for, they grow strong and proud.
And then there's the toy that Hahp remembers from his childhood and manages to magically create while at the academy. It's a blue carved horse:
The stone it had been carved from was heavy and cool, even in the summertime. The horse was rearing, and the sculptor had carved its cascading tail in a way that formed a tripod with its hind legs. It could stand in dirt, on floors and deep carpets, pawing its little blue hooves at the sky. I had often pretended that it was galloping, racing through the pine trees. (26.24)
Hahp used to play with the horse all the time, and it represented mobility and freedom to him. As he remembers it from within the terrifying confines of the academy, the horse also represents his childhood—a childhood that left a lot to be desired in the dad department, but that was still better than his current situation.
Okay, we'll stop horsing around and get down to business: horses symbolize the human characters in Skin Hunger because people and horses are basically similar. If you care for them, you'll get a critter that's confident and hard working, but if you abuse them, they die on the inside and/or act hostile. Hahp draws this connection when he thinks back to the horses his father has enchanted so they can fly:
Would the ones who graduated end up like the flying horses? Able to do strange, wonderful things, but with cold, dead eyes, changed forever into something else? (28.22)
Looked at from this angle, it kind of seems like nobody gets out of the academy alive, right? While we know one wizard is supposed to emerge, it sounds like they get seriously compromised in the process. Pretty rough deal.
Horses also symbolize freedom, since you can ride a horse to get the heck out of a given situation. So make friends with a pony today—you never know when it could be your ticket out of here.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away… provided that you're eating other foods, too. With apples as with other things in life, you can have too much of a good thing.
Apples first become significant in Skin Hunger when Hahp is trying to use the Patyàv Stone to manifest food to eat. He vividly remembers eating apples while spying on a wizard enchanting his father's horses to fly:
I could see the beads of dew on the thin gold and red apple skins. I noticed the perfect curve of the stems, and I remembered rubbing my thumb across the puckered texture of the blossom remnant in the hollow at the bottom of the fruit. I saw them, I smelled them, I could taste them, and I remembered, very clearly, the sound of biting into them. (28.32)
Excuse us while we go grab some apples to nibble on. Hahp makes them sound oh so good.
Hahp successfully channels this perfect memory of apples into a magical act, and creates a crate of apples to share with the other boys. Right away, though, cranky old Somiss appears and calls them fools, asking, "Do you think he means to help you? Or keep you weak?" (28.37). So on the one hand, apples are these really desirable, nostalgia-heavy, delicious foods, but on the other hand, they can be used to manipulate or gain power.
Pro tip: Any time you see apples in a book, it's good to think of Adam and Eve and their exile from paradise in the Bible. Why? Because it all transpired over an apple. And tangled up in this biblical apple are knowledge and good and evil, amongst other things. When it comes to the crate of apples, who do you think is good and who do you think is evil? We think you could argue in either Somiss or Hahp's defense, even if Hahp is generally the more likeable of the two. It's not like he's an angel.
Soon Hahp learns the downsides of eating nothing but apples: "And eating nothing but apples, day after day, began to upset my gut. I shit water about half the time, and it was hard to sleep because of the cramps" (30.6). First, um, ew. Second, we're beginning to see the wisdom of a healthy, balanced diet. Third, we think that apples represent how holding onto something from childhood—a treasured memory in Hahp's case—isn't good for you in the long run.
Hair (or lack thereof) is a pretty big part of people's appearances, and in some cases, their identities. Sadima learns this the hard way when Somiss orders her to cut her hair, because he's feeling paranoid about being found:
Somiss reached out and pulled a handful of her hair. Sadima stood wide-eyed, like a kitten that comes upon a snake in the grass. "Anyone would remember this," Somiss said, tugging hard enough to make her wince. "Cut it short," he said. He glanced at Franklin. "See that she does it." (47.34)
This freaks Sadima out, obviously. She realizes that she doesn't want to cut her hair, even though it's a distinctive color of red and pretty long. Her compromise is to wear a "dull gray cap" (49.1) that Rinka gives her, which completely hides her hair, and also makes her look a little boyish.
We're thinking that Sadima's way of thinking about her hair symbolizes the way she thinks about herself in general: her hair stands out in a crowd, and so does she. She tries to accept that she's just different from most folks, and she looks for compromises (such as wearing a cap rather than cutting her hair). Maybe someday she'll stop conforming to what other people want from her (or her hair, as the case may be).
Hahp's hair also symbolizes something about him: his living conditions. Since he and the other boys go for basically a year without being able to bathe (there's water, but no soap), their hair mats up into something like dreadlocks. When Hahp finally figures out how to manifest soap, he takes his first real bath:
The water was icy and the rough washrag hurt as I scrubbed, rinsing the cloth clean over and over. It was harder to wash my hair, and I had no comb, so dragging my fingers through the tangles was painful. And none of it mattered. It was glorious to wash my stink down the drain. (50.18)
It's not like Hahp wanted to go without a proper bath for a year and get his hair all matted up, but the wizards pretty much forced him to. So his newly-clean hair represents him taking back control over part of his life… it may be a small part, but it's better than nothing.
Hummingbirds may be tiny, but they can pack a huge symbolic wallop.
Hahp first encounters hummingbirds in one of the tests that the wizards administer fairly late in the book. Here's how it goes:
I had to sit in a glass enclosure with Servenian hummingbirds. They were in a little cage inside the enclosure. I was told to let them out. That was it. No other instruction. (62.3)
So Hahp does—and then when he realizes that they're in danger of killing themselves by banging into the glass walls, he finds a way to guide them out of the enclosure. That way, they can feast on the honeysuckle flowers nearby. Hahp's learned to pity anyone who feels hunger, now that he's experienced it, so the hummingbirds symbolize his newfound sense of empathy.
But it's a little ambiguous as to whether Hahp was supposed to let them out of the enclosure, or just the little cage. The supervising wizard, Jux, asks Hahp: "Why did you help them?" (62.12). In the academy, there is such a thing as being too helpful, and it seems like Hahp might've toed that line.
The next time Hahp sleeps, his dreams "were about hummingbirds falling to the ground and fluttering, too weak to rise, and a wizard with icy eyes was stepping on them, crushing the life out of them" (62.20). In a way, Hahp and the other boys are like hummingbirds: the wizards are caging them and killing them, and they're helpless to stop it.
In the chapters devoted to Sadima's story, we mostly see things from her perspective, but in the third person (so there's a lot of she and her). Of course, it's not 100% from her view, since the first three chapters in Sadima-land are from the viewpoint of her brother, Micah, while Sadima is being born/very young. Sadima's thoughts, though, tend to be transparent and simple, like during this moment when Micah is telling her a story:
She glanced up and saw Micah looking at her. She longed to tell him about the animals, how she could hear their thoughts sometimes. But she didn't dare. (9.29)
Then there's this tricky issue: Sadima's kinda telepathic, mostly with animals but possibly with people… so maybe the line between her thoughts and the thoughts of others is kinda blurry. It's just something to keep in mind as you read, y'all.
In the chapters narrated by Hahp, we're very firmly lodged in his head, with a lot of I and me statements. Since he's kinda self-centered and spoiled, we're always hearing about how much he's hungry, suffering, miserable, and so on. But because of the first person technique, we're really stuck in his head this whole time, and it makes it hard for us to ignore just how miserable he is.
For instance, we see Hahp feeling bad for himself after the boys fought to get magically-manifested food from in front of the faceted stone:
I had been among the first, I had been standing right in front of the tray. Why hadn't I thought to use my robe? I knew why. Because I hadn't been thinking at all. I had been desperate to get away from the fights, scared that I would get hurt. I had proved it again. I was a coward. (22.28)
Seeing this from Hahp's perspective makes us think that if he spent half as much time thinking of solutions as getting down on himself, maybe he'd be getting ahead in this rat-race. Or maybe not—maybe he's so mired in his own head issues, he wouldn't know a good solution if it bit him in the butt. That's the tricky thing about perspectives, yo.
Sadima's mom died giving birth to her because a selfish magician basically just let her die. This is why it's uncool that Sadima seems to have a magical gift for communicating with animals. At seventeen, she leaves her home to go to the big city of Limòri to be with Franklin, a dude who seems to understand her because he's on the same page with magical talent.
As an expendable second son, Hahp is packed off to wizard school. He's used to living in comfort, so the sudden regime of starvation freaks him out. His roomie is smelly and everything is the pits. Here's the kicker: out of the ten boys admitted, only one will survive and become a wizard.
Sadima likes being near Franklin, but his master, Somiss, is paranoid and secretive; he has them copying manuscripts in order to try to restore magic to the world. Sadima gets sick of being used and wants out—but Somiss threatens to take it out on Franklin if she leaves.
The boys begin to starve, and some even die. Hahp is pissed off at the wizards, and also at his father for sending him to this horrible academy to begin with. Still, Hahp begins to learn what he's supposed to, and he manages to magically make food appear so that he, at least, isn't starving.
Sadima resolves to convince Franklin to leave with her—and that's when she discovers that Somiss is locking up boys in cages in order to start an academy of magic. Yikes. Then someone sets their house on fire, so Sadima must flee with Franklin and Somiss into the wilderness.
The headmaster (Somiss) announces that he will starve all of the boys until they can properly recite songs in an old language. Hahp can't get the hang of it, even though he's become proficient at other tasks that the wizards have given him. Is it his turn to die? Or will he break the rule the wizards have drilled into them, and seek help from one of the other boys?
As they enter the forest, Sadima learns that Somiss is planning to take them into some tunnels he's discovered, which may well be the ancient home of magic. This might be her only chance to escape, but where would she go? And how could she leave Franklin?
Hahp finally bonds with his roomie, Gerrard, and together they vow to help one another and then destroy the wizards. Hahp realizes how much he'd been missing human contact—maybe that was one of the wizards' strategies, to keep the boys from caring about each other and banning together.
Sadima is stuck with Somiss for the time being, but at least it keeps her near Franklin. Somiss seems happy about it though, so it will probably end horribly.
Hahp is eating again, thanks to Gerrard's help. They study together, and Hahp realizes that for the first time since setting foot in the academy, he's not totally freaked out 24/7. Maybe he has a shot at survival, after all.
Sorry, Shmoopers, but since Skin Hunger is set in a made-up fantasyland, there aren't any references to stuff from our world, apart from plants and animals that exist in both (goats, peppers, and so on).