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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Skulk by Rosie Best

Skulk is an urban fantasy set in contemporary London. While a casual bookstore browser might be inclined to dismiss this novel, which features a teen protagonist and a cast of characters who can shape-shift into various creatures, as a bit of Twilight-inspired trash, such a judgement would be very wrong. Skulk is a fine mix of the familiar and the strange.

Skulk opens with Meg Banks sneaking out of her room in the middle of the night. Meg's mother is a Thatcher-esque British politician (Meg is named after Margaret Thatcher) and her father is real estate financier. Meg lives in a big house with servants and goes to a fancy school but she longs for more than shallow friends, conservative politics and always presenting the image of perfection. Meg goes out at night and expresses herself through graffiti.

On this particular night Meg's mission goes awry when she encounters an injured fox who, while dying shapeshifts into a man. The dying man gives Meg a mysterious gemstone and, unbeknownst to her, the ability to shift into the form of a fox.

As the story progresses, Meg learns of her ability to shift and the existence of other shifters, clans known as the Skulk, the Rabble, the Conspiracy, the Horde, and the Cluster. Each shifter group has its own gem and unique creature, so there are shapeshifting ravens, spiders, rats and butterflies as well as foxes. And there is also someone evil trying to merge all the shifting power into one super weapon.

What makes Skulk work as a novel is the character of Meg. She's not super-human or perfect. She's snarky at times, scared at others, and always human even when she happens to be a fox. The other people and creatures she meets in the novel are complicated and much more than props or gimmicks but it's through Meg's eyes that we discover this weird and wonder-filled world.

The book has flavor like that of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, a rich layer underneath the day-to-day that we think of as all that there is. Skulk opens the reader to a richer world.

Ironically, the strongest scenes are the least fantastic ones. Meg at her mother's "Party party", forced to make small talk with horrid boys and trying not to split the seams of her too-tight dress, will be achingly familiar to anyone who has ever been, or can remember, what it's like to be 16 years old and not what your parents want you to be. And while deadly fog and pecking zombie-pigeons are certainly creepy, I found Meg's tyrannical mother and her iron lady expectations to be the scariest of all.

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