The two word phrase which best defines this novel, imo, is WELL LONG.
Seriously. It’s mega bloody long. And for the first 150 pages I honestly had no idea who the main characters were, what the plot was, and where any of it was going. Fortunately, I’m fairly used to this from adult sci-fi, and after a hefty hefty chunk of scene setting, things start to come together and a cracking story sets in.
The Skinner is set on the grotesque, watery planet of Spatterjay where, all animals and human colonists are biologically interdependent via a virus which affects their muscle tissue and renders them immortal. Yup. It’s actually a seriously effing cool idea. The leeches, perhaps the most basic and dominant life force on this word, spread the virus via their bites because it guarantees them a limitless food source. They might take massive chunks our of you body with their suckery mouth pits of yuck, but because of the venom, no matter how cut up you are, you’ll eventually grow all your bits and bobs back pretty much good as new — but even stronger. Then they can chow down on you all over again.
There’s only one problem. (I mean I would also consider being mega leech scran a problem but each to their own). If you hang around on Spatterjay too long, infected by the venom and without any pure, off world food to consume… you start to…. transform. This is the grisly origin of the eponymous (and very appropriately named indeed) Skinner.
Hang on, you think. This is messed up but also really cool. Are we going to go and hunt the Skinner or something?
BUT WAIT! Please ignore the book’s title for the next 400 pages!! Instead, Sable Keech, the intergalactic, undead zombie policeman has arrived, on his flying jetski-come-self purifying IV drip, to kick some butt, take some names, and…spend several chapters lying around hacking up lots of an unspecified black bile. Mary bless.
Sable Keech: please describe yourself in three characters/memes
But wait! Don’t forget the other protagonists: Janer, a ginger dude with a talking pet hornet who actually controls him, and Erlin, a mysterious odd-eyed woman who starts off cool and who ends up not really doing anything. Incase this is not wacky enough for you yet, the narrative also variously takes the POV of a slightly mad lady who lives in a private museum in the jungle because YOLO, and actually mad evil lady who wants to kill people because yolo, a talking ship sail/pterodactyl (yes really), a whole host of sentinent and foul-mouthed security AI drones, the actual world AI defence system, a group of really incompetent off-world assassins and a bunch of Spatterjay-virus infected sailors who are inventively and *helpfully* named things like Peck, Pock, Speck, Goss, Moss, and Dross (okay, I made most of those up, but you get the point). So about a hundred pages later, I was generally thinking ‘what the eff.’
Meanwhile, whilst lots of people are running around but nothing really is happening, there’s an extra mini story-serial contained in chapter intro paragraphs. These paragraphs describe a linear sequence of successive squelchy sea beasties being eaten by slightly larger sea beasties, presumably in an attempt to make us realise how TERRIFYING AND BLOODTHIRSTILY GROSS Spatterjay is. Actually, these sections are pretty underwhelming, and become predictable and pointless.
As it transpires eventually, the book is actually going to have a plot and structure. WHOHOO! This plot is that evil space lobsters (yes really) are trying to secretly nuke the whole of Spatterjay to cover up the fact that they did something really, really evil and really, really disgusting there during a historical intergalactic human vs space lobster war a couple of centuries back.
(Ps. If you really want a spoiler and to know what the lobsters did, follow this link and read the ‘Bugs’ section. Warning: it is effed up. Props to Asher, I actually retched several times when they went into details on this concept.)
Once it arrives, the plot is actually exciting and cool, allowing you to bury yourself the multi-layered detail of the story and the world without completely losing the thread of narrative. However, it’s a shame the beginning of the book wasn’t tighter. I know sci-fi novels love to indulge in world building, which is critical in this genre, but the novel as a whole could really do with losing fifty to a hundred or so pages of excess flab so as to pick up the pace.
For the second half of the novel, we basically follow a bunch of hench dude rugged old captains as they float around the sea, say ‘Avast me hearties’ and generally try to defeat impending space-lobster doom, and also, the Skinner.
The only problem with this is that the three captains’ ships — and indeed the three captains themselves — don’t have much to distinguish the one from the other, and these characters only become important in the second half of the novel, which makes keeping track of the different plot confusing. The ‘protagonists’ from earlier in the novel — Janer and Erlin — become ancillary bystanders towards the end, merely onlookers to the main action, which leaves Sable Keech as the only real character of consistent narrative importance. I’m all about a large supporting cast, but having so many POVs leaves character and relationship growth as perhaps the most undeveloped aspect of the novel. Other than Captain Ambel, and the long-suffering Sable Keech, who is definitely the stand-out character of the novel, I never really felt that we got to ‘know’ anyone. Furthermore, Erlin definitely becomes a useless surplus by the end, which was super frustrating when she was initially introduced as a badass.
Another frustration with this novel is that it was never quite as scary or vomit-inducing as I felt it should be, or at least as I felt Asher was hoping it would be, especially considering how this has definitely been marketed as a sci-horror in some imprints.
I think it had something to do with the fact that Asher’s prose is both sparing and matter of fact, leaving little room for the eloquent or emotive description which might have made key moments of dread and disgust– such as the first sighting of the long-awaited Skinner — actually arrive with the aplomb they were intended to. Some of the coolest aspects of Asher’s cyber-bio punk world actually fell a little flat as a result, which was a big disappointment.
Two other minor points bothered me. Firstly, the massive incompetence of both the supposedly ‘galactically reknown’ assassins who chase Keech around for much of the novel, and Rebecca Frisk, the greatest human villain of the book. She’s all cackle, and very little bite — all too easily manipulated by everyone else around her.
Secondly, was anyone else really distracted by the fact that her name was ‘Rebecca’? It seemed very incongruous and non-intimidating on a far-future planet full of made-up names like ‘Gosk’ and ‘Janer’.
Now I’ve done all my complaining, here’s two good little points. Whilst the cast of this novel is not entirely gender balanced, at least Asher had the brains to include more than one female protagonist and antagonist respectively. In comparison to the 1950s shite still being churned out by a lot of male SFF authors, it is definitely much better. I also really appreciated reading what was obviously home-grown SF, because all the AI swore cheerfully, frequently, and extremely Britishly.
All in all, I won’t be recommending this to anyone who likes their plots fast paced or their characters with powerful relationship development. But if you’re ready to sink your teeth into some great world-building, and enjoy getting lost in a mesh of characters and plot threads, this is the book for you.
I’m giving it a whole shiny four stars because despite the slow, initially messy narrative and slightly underwhelming writing, the plot and world are truly excellent. I also don’t know if this book has made big rounds, so if you’ve read it, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!