You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Skinner

The Skinner is one of those books that is so different from anything else that it blows you away. Neal Asher is also the author of Cowl, which I read back in 2008. The style and action are similar in The Skinner, though the story and characters are totally different.

The novel's setting is the distant future on the ocean planet Spatterjay. Arriving on the planet is Sable Keech, a dead monitor (marshal or police officer) who is determined to bring justice to the last surviving member of gang of slavers. Keech is kept "alive" by cyber technology and preservative fluid flowing through his body. He is joined by Janer, a man in the employ of a was hive mind, bringing two wasps with him. They join up with Erlin, a woman returning to the planet after a long absence to seek her lover Ambel.

The life on Spatterjay has special longevity due to the virus that keeps creatures alive. Once infected, humans--known as Hoopers--become immune to most forms of death and live long lives. Wounds that would kill a normal human heal quickly on Hoopers. This is especially true of the Old Captains, who have been around for seven hundred years since the war that ended the slave trade. Long life gives the Old Captains skin that immediately closes over wounds, and also a wise perspective on life. The Hoopers live on the edge of Polity civilization, enjoying protection but largely living free.

The harsh life in the ocean is echoed in the vicious actions by some of the characters. The creatures continually feed on each other; anyone falling in the water soon finds himself covered in leeches. Some of the Hoopers can pull plugs of skin out of the leeches' mouths and push them back into the holes in their skin, though the skin of the Old Captains closes up too fast for that. As the reader learns over the course of the novel, the slave traders also used their human cattle cruelly. When one of the other slavers returns to the planet to kill Keech, she treats everyone as mere tools to her satisfaction.

Pain is an element in Hooper life. With the ability to survive great wounds, they still stuffer great pain. Part of what bring Erlin back to Spatterjay is to find a reason to keep going after three hundred years. The pain is a reminder for some that they are still alive.

In addition to the exciting setting of the planet, the characters are fun and well-drawn. Of course there is Keech, somewhat of an enigma but familiar as a determined lawman. The Old Captains and other Hoopers are all lively and full of spunk. They do not always have the same agenda, but they stick together. Aside from the living and undead characters, the AI characters are central to the story. The Warden is the
benevolent ruler of Spatterjay and its moon, controlling everything that enters and leaves the system. Sniper, one of its primary subminds, is an upgraded war drone with its own sense of humor and goals.

The virus brings to the story the theme of death and rebirth. In addition to Keech, Hoopers can be eaten by leeches but still return to life as long as enough of their nervous system survives. The title character is the old Hooper leader in the slave trade whose existence is somewhere between life and death, humanity and pure hunger. Asher does a great job of tying these elements together. Another slave trader is kept in stasis between sleep and wakening.

The entire book is filled with action from start to finish. It also has a good bit of humor with it. The back story gets filled in gradually, and we learn about all the characters' history as the plot progresses. Even with all the Hoopers, AI and aliens, there are no extra characters, no loose ends. Everything comes together in a satisfying finish--not an easy task with this many plot threads. The action is exciting without being overdone, and the characters all feel real. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. A

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