Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Skin Hunger, the first book in the Resurrection of Magic trilogy, tells two stories, centuries apart but mysteriously linked. The first is the tale of a rural teenager named Sadima, who lives in a world where magic exists but true magic is forbidden. At the time of Sadima’s birth, a “magician” assisting with the birth stole her family’s valuables and left her mother to die. As Sadima grows, she discovers a talent for speaking to animals, but conceals it for fear of arousing her father’s bitterness towards magicians. One day, an enigmatic visitor to Sadima’s family’s farm, introducing himself as Franklin, recognizes Sadima’s ability and offers to take her away to the city, but Sadima, frightened, declines. Secretly, though, Sadima yearns for freedom, and years later, she decides to seek Franklin out.

She locates him in the city, working as a servant to a brilliant but arrogant and ruthless young man named Somiss. As time goes on, her relationship with Franklin becomes more than just a friendship. Somiss, meanwhile, spends every day shut away in his study, working obsessively. Slowly, Sadima learns what he is trying to do: bring back magic.

The other plotline, which takes place centuries later, tells the story of Hahp, the son of a wealthy merchant. In Hahp’s world, magic has returned, but can only be used by a select few people, trained at special academies of magic. Hahp’s father sends Hahp to one such academy, where he hopes that Hahp will emerge from the school as a wizard. But Hahp soon finds that only one of the ten boys admitted to the school will graduate, and that the only requirement for graduation is survival.
At the academy of magic, under the wizards Somiss and Franklin, Hahp lives a terrible life. He and the other boys are starved, deprived of basic necessities, forced to perform meaningless tasks, and completely isolated from the outside world. As Hahp struggles to survive and learn the secrets of magic, he forms an unlikely partnership with a peasant boy named Gerrard. But they must exercise the utmost caution, for collaboration among the boys is punishable by death.

Skin Hunger is a riveting novel that tells a deliciously sinister story. Evil lurks in the shadows around every corner, innocent characters are caught up in a web of cruelty and spooky secrets. The whole tone of the book is very eerie, dark, and enigmatic, very different from that of other books I’ve read about magic. Quite refreshing to an evil cousin such as myself.

Skin Hunger’s two-story plotline is definitely unusual, but surprisingly, I didn’t think it detracted from the book at all, because both stories were so good. Reading the book, I searched for the connection between the stories of Sadima and Hahp, and did not find it; nor did I find answers to the many questions that still lingered at the end. Skin Hunger is by no means a complete story in itself. The ending is, somehow, very satisfying, yet leaves the reader hungry for more (no pun intended.) This book made me really want to read the sequel.

And of course, the greatest thing about this book was the compelling storyline. I was completely swept up in the sagas of Sadima and Hahp. I read the book in a single day because it was practically physically impossible to put down. The only thing I didn’t really like was the awkward semi-romance between Sadima and Franklin, which, although it was an interesting plot twist, I felt was rather unnecessary. Still, though, since it was a minor element, the overall book was excellent.

I award this wickedly clever book four and a half scintillating daggers.



The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

In Katherine Howe's new mystery "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane," Harvard graduate student Connie is working on her American History Phd dissertation when she gets roped into renovating and selling her grandmother's old house in Marblehead, Massachusetts. When she finds the name "Deliverance Dane" scrawled on a piece of paper tucked into an old Bible in the house, Connie looks the name up and finds that Deliverance was one of her ancestors, a woman who was involved in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Connie first begins researching Deliverance's story thinking it will lead her to a great primary source for her dissertation. But soon she becomes entangled in a 300-year-old mystery involving witchcraft, strange family secrets, and a mysterious "Physick Book" that once belonged to Deliverance Dane.

When Connie meets Sam, a fellow history fanatic who works repairing church steeples, the two join forces to search for Deliverance Dane's "Physick Book." It is no easy task to try and track where the book has gone for the past three hundred years. Connie and Sam must dig through numerous historial collections throughout Salem, Mass, trying to track the book's previous owners, and in the process, Connie discovers some surprising details about her family's past.

But what begins as a simple search for a historical book becomes a race against time when it becomes apparent that someone is working against Connie--and it's putting Sam's life in jeopardy.

"The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" is unlike any other witchcraft story I've read because of its ties to history, and actual facts behind the Salem Witch Trials. It may be a witch-themed book, but the focus is not really on spells and magical abilities. Instead, as the book progresses, the reader finds more and more about Connie's family history, and what life was like for women in Salem in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Not only is "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" an intriguing mystery, but it really brings the victims of the witch trials to life, describing the emotions of them and their families as their friends and neighbors turned on them.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The author is really a very talented writer. My only criticism is that the story lacks action in places, and the plotline could have used a little more variation. You'll find this book very interesting if you're into history and mysteries, but if you're looking for a more traditional witchcraft/fantasy tale, this may not be the book for you.

I award this book 4 out of 5 daggers.


Godless by Pete Hautman

Jason Bock has had it with Catholicism. His parents are always dragging him to Mass on Sundays and forcing him to go to Teen Power Outreach (TPO), a "weekly brainwashing session for teenagers." In response to their overbearing religious authoritarianism, he decides to create his own religion with his own rules. Called Chutengodianism, it is centered around the idea that water is the source of all life. Therefore, the St. Andrew Valley water tower must be God because it is the source of water, and life. His first convert is his best friend Shin, a dorky snail-farmer. He also converts the strikingly beautiful, Magda Price, a preacher's son, Dan, and the chaotic and wild, Henry Stagg. As the religion grows, conflicts emerge. Jason struggles to control his own religion. Shin obsessives over the religion and begins neurotically working on writing a Bible. As Henry begins gaining power within the religion, he turns it from a harmless fantasy, into a dangerous reality. Before long, the Chutengodians are in grave peril, not to mention violating several city laws as they hold mass atop the Great Ten-Legged One. Jason seeks to control his new faith before it ends not just his friendships, but his friend's lives as well.

Let's start with the good stuff. This book is honest and refreshing. Jason is just a normal teenager who's questioning the existence of God and the importance of religion. In that sense, he's very easy to relate to. I would not go as far as to classify Jason as insightful because he does not truly understand certain things. Although I would normally dislike a narrator that lacks insight, I think Jason's lack of insight enhances the experience. It is his lack of understanding that makes him a good narrator. He is young, he is questioning tradition, and he is learning firsthand what can happen when you break tradition.

Another positive is Hautman's contrast of young vs. old. Chutengodianism is young, Catholicism is old. Jason and his friends are young, their parents are old. There is a clear dividing line between the ideology of the young vs. the ideology of the old. The parents are, for the most part, very religious. Jason's parents go to church every Sunday and Jason's dad is especially fanatic. Dan's father is a preacher. Magda's parents send her to TPO every week to help deepen her faith because faith is important to her parents. The children, on the contrary, tend to reject Catholicism for a variety of reasons. Jason doesn't really believe in God. Magda joins the Chutengodians because she doesn't like to be left out of things. Dan is just easily persuaded. Shin seems to latch on to the religion like a leech. I personally think that it gives him a sense of power over other people, which he falls in love with, which is why he so ardently believes in Jason's religion. All in all, their lack of common purpose further highlights their naivety.

On the negative side, I felt that Jason's crush on Magda, although totally common among teenagers, just wasn't all that important to the story. Sure, it highlighted the conflict between Jason and Henry, but their conflict over the religion and over control of the religion was much more prominent to the plot. Also, Jason sometimes imagines himself as doing something he's not, or being someone he's not. His fantasies are short and the story returns quickly but, they're awkwardly placed. I often found myself rereading a passage over again because of confusion. Naturally, it is a minor flaw, but I felt compelled to mention it. I am an evil cousin.

Bottom line (not literally), Godless contains a compelling storyline, an intriguing cast of characters, and a contemporary story regarding an ageless question, why be religious?

I give Godless by Pete Hautman a deadly 4 out of 5 daggers

Faithfully skeptically yours,
Gabriel Gethin