As you might've guessed from the title, Skin Hunger features hunger and other kinds of suffering. Characters in the book are starved, sleep deprived, beaten, tortured, and generally made to suffer. There's emotional blackmail, slavery, and assault. Fun times, eh?
While these topics might seem heavy for a young adult novel, think about it this way: Harry Potter explored a lot of the same stuff, and showed us how magically gifted youngsters can rise above those circumstances to triumph over evil. Skin Hunger goes in a similar direction, though because there's a metric ton of suffering without an end in sight, we're a tad more pessimistic about the light at the end of the tunnel.
Franklin suffers the most in the book, as he bears the brunt of Somiss's rage and whims.
Hahp's suffering is comical at times, because he's so spoiled to begin with.
The fact that Skin Hunger is the first book in a series called A Resurrection of Magic should be a big hint that magic and the supernatural are major topics. Oddly, though, we don't actually see that much magic in action: Sadima's ability to share the thoughts of animals is pretty subtle and often flies under the radar, while the wizards that Hahp is stuck with at the academy don't do a whole lot of flashy magic. Seeing as we live in a world where there's zero magic though, any magic happening at all is kind of a big deal.
Oh—and this magic isn't all about pulling bunnies out of hats, either. Nope, its consequences can be downright grim and gory.
Given that the wizards in Hahp's time are such jerks, it would be better to live in a world without magic than to have those wizards around.
Magic in Skin Hunger is like technology in our world: only the rich can afford it.
The world Hahp and Sadima inhabit (though separated by many years) in Skin Hunger is one where social standing matters: the rich have it easy while the poor scramble to get by. Rich people in Hahp's time can afford magic to help with every aspect of life, while rich people in Sadima's time get by just like rich people in our world, using money to buy food, possessions, and services. Being born on the streets or into a small farming family basically means that you're playing on hard mode, so good luck with day-to-day survival issues like putting food on the table.
Gerrard's lower-class origins are actually helping him in the academy.
Somiss is incapable of understanding the suffering of others because of his noble background.
Skin Hunger is one of those books where magic works by reciting rhymes and songs. But there's another layer to it as well: after the last age of magic, when it seemed like magic had all but died out, it turns out that magic was preserved in the songs and rhymes of the Gypsies. Other nonsense phrases had been passed along to children as nursery rhymes. So language is both a vehicle for magic and the means by which it was preserved, which is pretty nifty if you think about it.
And then there's all the stuff about commoners not being allowed to read or write, and translations and copies being an important issue in the characters' lives, and so on. Lotsa language happening here.
Access to language skills (such as reading and writing) should be a universal human right.
Encoding magic spells in songs is the best way to make sure they survive in a hostile environment.
Skin Hunger is a book about magic, so you'd better believe that there are also issues of reality: how reality is shaped, why people seem to live in different realities, and when stuff happens due to magic vs. due to people messing with your head. That last topic comes up a lot in the academy, where it seems like the wizards are deliberately giving the students head-trips in order to break them down and mold them into obedient wizard-candidates. Which is, like, ew.
But even for Sadima, who's not (thankfully) in wizard-school, her version of reality is quite different from the lived reality of Franklin, who has to put up with Somiss's cruel whims. With all these conflicting accounts of reality, who's to say what's really real?
The wizards' strategies for dealing with the boys are reminiscent of interrogation techniques used in our world.
For all the ways in which Sadima has a hard life as a farm girl, she's actually too sheltered to understand what Franklin has gone through with Somiss.
Rules operate in Skin Hunger in various ways. Some rules come from the king and other forms of authority, like the laws that govern the trading of slaves and importing luxury goods. Other rules are made and enforced in smaller arenas: the rules of the wizards, for instance, or the rules that Somiss imposes on Franklin and Sadima.
Obviously not having any rules would be problematic, since nothing would get done in all that chaos, but we wonder whether the characters in Skin Hunger suffer from too many rules being imposed on them. Maybe loosening up a little would be better for everyone?
Somiss only likes rules when he's the one making them.
The wizards primarily use rules to terrorize and control their students.
Feeling isolated and lonely sucks, but it's something that a lot of the characters in Skin Hunger have to deal with.
Until Sadima meets Franklin, she's convinced that she's a freak of nature for being able to feel what animals feel, and Franklin, in turn, is isolated from much of the world because Somiss keeps him that way (and as a slave, he doesn't have a lot of freedom to choose who he interacts with and who he's close with). Hahp, along with the other boys at the academy, is pressured into isolating himself from the others, because that's what the wizards want (after all, it's easier to bully individuals than a united group).
So yeah, there are lots of lonely vibes in this book. Maybe some of them will be remedied in the next books in the series…
Being lonely forces a person to become more independent.
The wizards use loneliness as a punishment and to make the students in the academy easier to manipulate.
We tend to think of wizards as being crafty and sly, but in Skin Hunger the wizards are downright manipulative. The wizards who run the academy play mind games with the students, depriving them of sleep and food in an effort to weed out the weak and turn them against one another.
It should come as no surprise that the founder of the school, Somiss, is also quite manipulative. He keeps Franklin—and later Sadima—tied to him through persuasion and coercion. In other words, he's not a nice guy. But it's a trade-off, right? Learning to use magic requires sacrifices, and sometimes people have to be, er, persuaded to do things that they're not into at first. Our advice? If you encounter a wizard in this world, run the other way.
The best way to manipulate someone is to discover what (or who) they love and use it against them.
There are no limits to who or what Somiss will manipulate to get his way.