From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

This is the second in a series of YA novels collectively called A Resurrection of Magic. I was very impressed a couple of years ago with the first book in the series, Skin Hunger. I should mention immediately that this is definitely a series you want to read in order—the second book won’t make nearly as much sense without having read the first.

Sacred Scars, as with Skin Hunger, is told in alternating chapters, from different points of view. One track follows Sadima, a young woman from a farming community who, in the first book, comes to the city of Limori and ends up staying with two young men: the aristocratic and cruel Somiss; and the much nicer Franklin, Somiss’s servant, with whom Sadima falls in love. Somiss is trying to learn as much about magic as he can, though it is illegal; and Sadima helps him at Franklin’s behest, mostly by copying the old “songs” that Somiss thinks may be spells. By the end of the first book, the three are driven from the city and hole up in a cave, along with several homeless boys Somiss has kidnapped, hoping to recruit them (by whatever means) to further helping him.

The second track, we realize, is set much later in time, though how much later is unclear. Hahp is a young boy from a rich family who has been sent to the Limori Academy of Magic. It seems that magic, while still mysterious, is in regular use, at least among the rich, and one dangerous route to prestige for younger sons is to become a wizard. But it becomes clear that the method of instruction is sadistic and that many, perhaps all but one, of the boys in Hahp’s class will die. Hahp has a certain magical talent, and he forms an uneasy alliance with his roommate, Gerrard, who has different talents. The leader of the Academy is Somiss, and the other teachers include Franklin and (we learn) at least some of the boys Somiss had kidnapped, now grown, of course.

Sacred Scars takes a long time to get going, and I do feel that the first half of the book would have benefited from some cutting. (Sacred Scars is considerably longer than Skin Hunger.) For much of the book, very little happens. In Sadima’s track, she continues to urge Franklin to break with Somiss, and to help her free the kidnapped boys and flee.

At the same time, Sadima learns more and more of Somiss’s cruel nature, which encompasses among other things a history of rape; and she begins to wonder how much Somiss is lying to Franklin about the magic he is learning—especially as it seems that in their different ways Franklin and Sadima may be more talented than Somiss. And on Hahp’s track, there are repeated examples of magical lessons, which are mostly of the “throw him in the water and hope he swims” variety. But Hahp does learn some magic, some of it remarkable. Nonetheless, his hatred for the wizards and their sadistic system of instruction remains fixed, and he urges Gerrard to support him in forming an alliance with all the surviving boys to try to counter the wizards.

Things speed up midway through the book, roughly, when Sadima at last gets up the courage to escape, and when Hahp starts to form further ties with his fellow students. There are some surprising and quite wrenching developments. The book ends, however, very much as a middle book: much has changed, but nothing is resolved.

After the slow start, I enjoyed the book immensely. Sadima in particular is a very involving character, and her fate is surprising and yet quite logical. Some of what I thought about the timeline of events as revealed in Skin Hunger turns out to have been wrong, and it’s clear that the next book will have some very interesting political developments to follow, as well as, doubtless, some wrenching personal changes.

This is a well-written book, full of well-depicted characters. Duey is tackling the right questions—the proper use of power; the question “can the genie be kept in the bottle;” responsibility for others, even enemies. That said, it is as I have implied very much a middle book. It is enjoyable to read, but its ultimate success will only be clear after the series is concluded. At any rate, as of now I can continue to recommend Duey’s books—I’m eagerly anticipating Book Three.

Sacred Scars
Kathleen Duey
Atheneum, New York
$17.99, hc, 554 pages

Rich Horton

Rich Horton

Rich Horton was born in Naperville, IL, and received his B. S. in Physics from the University of Illinois in 1981. He is an Associate Technical Fellow in Software for an Aerospace company in St. Louis, MO. Having been reading SF and Fantasy since before the Golden Age (i.e., before he was 12), he now writes a monthly column on Short Fiction for Locus, and writes regular columns and reviews for Black Gate, SF Site, Fantasy Magazine, and other publications. He also edits a series of Best of the Year books for Prime, and a new print anthology of the best online stories of the year for Wyrm Publishing: Unplugged.

Tagged as: