When Meg witnesses the dying moments of a shapeshifting fox and is given a beautiful and powerful stone, her life changes forever. She is plunged into the dark world of the Skulk, a group of shapeshifting foxes.The first aspect that had me enjoying Skulk was Meg herself. She comes from a privileged background with a (Tory) politician mother and a CEO father and goes to a good private school. Her mother is fairytale-level abusive, driven on by Meg being a little overweight, and her father is emotionally absent almost to the point of catatonia. She has friends at school (who come from similarly privileged backgrounds) but doesn't enjoy going out clubbing with them, preferring instead to stay home and later sneak out to draw scathing political graffiti around London. I first grew particularly attached to Meg when reading about her forays into socialising in situations she didn't want to be in, like at a club or her parents' political dinner party. It reminded me exactly of how I would've felt and acted as a teenager. (I have since learnt how to have a polite conversation with boring people, but I still have zero interest in clubbing.) It was nice to read about a socially awkward character without them being ridiculously awkward nor portrayed as the butt of a joke.
As she learns about the other groups of shapeshifters that lurk around London – the Rabble, the Horde, the Cluster and the Conspiracy – she becomes aware of a deadly threat against all the shapeshifters. They must put aside all their enmity and hostility and fight together to defeat it.
What really pushed this book into five star territory for me, though, was Meg's reactions to the horrible things happening around her. When someone dies explosively in front of her, she throws up (runs away) and spends the rest of the night trembling in the foetal position. Like a normal person. And during the climax when she's pretty much running on adrenaline trying to save the world without having time to stop and reflect on the horrible things that have been happening, she has a panic attack and collapses (luckily at a non-crucial moment), again, like a normal person. It was refreshing to read about a character who had realistic responses to the horrible things going on around her, especially since the body-count in this one was fairly high. Not enough YA books do this. Which, as I was discussing earlier on Twitter (with DarkMatterzine, Speculatef and StuffedO), does not say anything good about our culture.
Most of the book was about Meg dealing with her problems. Some of those problems were her mother's ridiculous expectations of perfection, and some were more along the lines of gaining the ability to turn into a fox. They weren't boring problems, but there wasn't an awful lot of room for secondary characters, except directly in relation to Meg's problems. That said, Best does an excellent job of introducing a broad range of secondary characters. One of the more prominent ones was Meg's love interest, Mohammed, who was introduced late but was brilliantly — albeit very coincidentally — set up. I don't like YA plots that revolve around love interests and this was not one of those. Meg is not looking for a boyfriend and when she does meet a boy she has a lot in common with, she recognises that she really doesn't have time for warm fuzzy feelings when there are lives at stake.
Among the others, including bit players, Best includes several minority characters (gay, trans, homeless, disabled) some of whom only get a few lines of dialogue, but I'm hoping they'll play more pivotal roles in the sequel, after the cast has had time to regroup. I was particularly pleased with the existence of the spider-shifter who had cerebral palsy and had to be carried around by her friend. It came up just after I had been wondering whether human disabilities and illnesses carried over to the shifters' animal forms the way cuts and bruises clearly did.
With all the positive points mentioned above, what more is there to say about Skulk? Well I quite liked the choice of possible animal shifters. Best chose urban animals which fit into her London setting. Not wolves, but foxes, spiders, ravens, rats and butterflies. Looking inconspicuous in animal form out on the street is not a problem for them. Not to mention that spider and butterfly shapeshifters are not something I've come across before. And the antagonist has an army of evil pigeon minions, which also seemed quite apt in an urban environment.
Also, Meg's graffiti hobby takes her and the reader into London nooks that are off the tourist track and possibly not obvious to the casually passer-by. I felt I learnt more about present-day London (a city I've visited a couple of times as a tourist) than from any other book I remember reading recently.
Suffice to say Skulk was an excellent read. I would highly recommend it to all fans of urban fantasy (YA or otherwise), particularly those after a different sort of magical premise. (Although I will say the saving the world aspect of the worldbuilding was a bit stock-standard — MacGuffins and all — but Best definitely made up for it with all the other elements.) I have very high hopes for the sequel, which I'm hoping will come out some time next year. Even if it doesn't exceed my expectations, I'm still looking forward to seeing what happens next to Meg, including some of the consequences of events in Skulk that didn't get revisited before the ending. This book made me happy. I hope other readers also enjoy it.
5 / 5 stars
First published: October 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: Yes, book 1 of ? (possibly 2)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley