To some, Meg Banks’ life might look perfect – she lives in a huge house in West London, goes to a prestigious school, and has famous parents. Only Meg knows the truth: her tyrannical mother rules the house and her shallow friends can talk about nothing but boys and drinking. Meg’s only escape is her secret life as a graffiti artist.
While out tagging one night, Meg witnesses the dying moments of a fox… a fox that shapeshifts into a man. As he dies, he gives Meg a beautiful and mysterious gemstone. It isn’t long before Meg realises that she’s also inherited his power to shift and finds an incredible new freedom in fox form.
She is plunged into the shadowy underworld of London, the territory of the five warring groups of shapeshifters – the Skulk, the Rabble, the Conspiracy, the Horde, and the Cluster. Someone is after her gemstone, however, someone who can twist nature to his will. Meg must discover the secret of the stone and unite the shapeshifters before her dream of freedom turns into a nightmare.
Rosie Best’s Skulk was one of my Anticipated Reads of the second half of 2013 and while it took me long enough to actually read it, that label was completely justified. What drew me to the book were its London setting and the fact that its main supernatural element was shapeshifting. This sounded like it would be quite interesting and I was interested to see how Best would approach the shapeshifting, would she take the were-creature approach or go for something more innate such as the Japanese Kitsune. Skulk promptly delivered on my expectations and more; the book was an awesome read with indeed a fantastic shapeshifter mythology seemingly untied to any existing tradition.
The shapeshifting in the book took a completely different road from were-creatures or Kitsune-like spirits. The shapeshifters in Skulk can change at will and while their ability isn’t in-born, they aren’t infected through a bite or other violence. There is also a strictly limited number of sorts of shapeshifters. They can become foxes, spiders, butterflies, rats, or ravens. They each band together in factions, somewhat like a family, as there are always only six members of each faction. The story behind the creation of the shifters was quite cool. I loved the political manoeuvring of the different factions, some of them are somewhat neutral, others are outright enemies, but most of them have forgotten their origin and heritage. The different factions are given shape quite clearly with each having their own meeting place, which fits the character of their shifted shape quite well, such as the Tower for the ravens and Kew gardens for the butterflies. However, the people behind the animal shapes are varied and sometimes quite incongruent with the nature of their creature, such as one of the butterflies who turns out to be a seven-feet tall, massively muscled, and fit man; not exactly the type you associate with butterflies, unless you’re into boxing of course.
Meg’s character is fabulous and has a really distinct voice. I like that she’s a heroine with rough edges and that – to her mum’s eternal disappointment – she’s not your average teen in the looks-department, or rather she isn’t a size zero, instead at size sixteen she’s a little on the chubby side (if I’ve got my conversions right). Between a father who hardly seems to notice her and a mother who seems impossible to please when it comes to Meg, it’s a wonder she’s come out as nice as she does. Meg’s parents are awful; especially her mum is evil and abusive, though one might say that her uninterested and negligent father is even worse. Meg finds her escape in her graffiti art, which I really enjoyed, especially as it gives her something in common with Mo and made their rather fast connection more plausible. I found the way Best plays Meg’s desperate need to save her parents off her rather guilty relief at being free of her mum’s pernicious treatment done really well and I could completely feel Meg’s self-doubt when she realises her conflicting emotions. Because what sort of person wouldn’t want to save their mum, however horrible she treats them? The answer obviously is a very human one, because only a saint would not be conflicted, and I loved the Best let Meg go there.
Meg is surrounded by a wonderfully diverse cast, in character, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race. Mo, short for Mohammed, is a lovely chap and a great love interest. But my favourite character next to Meg was Addie. A scrappy, homeless teenager, I loved her independence and her spunk, while at the same time just wishing I could take her in and feed her up. She’s loyal and courageous and rather funny. Another wonderful supporting character was James. He was completely charming and the reason he is a bit of a magpie who prefers to remain in his fox form was quite touching. It made me rather sad that he’d think so little of himself, that he’d hide himself away. The bad guys were delicious and the true identity of the main antagonist was a complete surprise which I adored.
The one problem I had with the novel is the portrayal of Ameera and Jewel, who were made to look flighty and shallow, obsessed with looks and boys, which on its own shouldn’t be problematic, but it’s done in a way that is rather judgemental and condescending on Meg’s part. Given Meg’s background with her mum’s obsession with her weight and her social life it might be understandable in context, but it might be giving the wrong signal. I mean, it’s not really slut-shaming, but it’s also projecting a quite clear judgement on people who seemingly are more happy-go-lucky and – for lack of a better expression – in with the popular crowd.
That one critical note aside, I had a fabulous time with Skulk. Best has created a great version of London and an intriguing shapeshifting mythology and used it as a base for an exciting and intricate puzzle of a mystery. Skulk was just the first book in Meg’s adventure; its sequel Rabble will be out in the fall of next year and I’m really looking forward to find out what happens next.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.