Lia Kahn was beautiful, popular, and rich. Her life was perfect — until she died, only to wake with her brain patterns transferred into a mechanical body. But society isn’t kind to Skinners, as downloaded people are called. She loses her status at school when her friends and her boyfriend abandon her. There’s a whole cult devoted to ridding the world of Skinners. Even her own family is uncomfortable with her. And for her part, Lia’s left wondering… Is she really Lia Kahn, or just a robot programmed to believe she’s a person?
A few weeks ago, Jess and I dropped by a signing at Books of Wonder, since it featured AV favorites Justine Larbalestier and Suzanne Collins as part of the panel of writers. We weren’t familiar with the other eight, but Robin Wasserman got as far as, “My book is a dark dystopia with a teen girl protagonist — ” before Jess leaned over to me and whispered, “So you’re buying it, right?” Right! Because possibly my favorite sub-sub-genre is dystopian science fiction about teenage girls! So I got the book, and got it signed (Wasserman was super nice, too). And last weekend I finally sat down to read, and positively devoured it.
Skinned is awesome.
The first thing is Lia’s character. Lia is great, largely because she’s not the sort of protagonist you get used to in this kind of genre. She’s not plucky; she’s not spunky. She’s not even nice — in fact, she’s very much a classic mean girl. But she’s still sympathetic. As a reader, I was cheering as much for her to regain her shallow, horrible status as I was for her to learn she didn’t need it, which is a very fine line indeed. Basically, I wanted Lia to win.
Next is the world. Wasserman mentioned at the signing that she hadn’t originally set out to write a dystopia, and instead was planning near-future science fiction with our current world taken to the next level. That it turned into a dystopia is a little scary, but the world is great. Post nuclear war, the rich live in luxury, genetically screened to not just get rid of any potential diseases, but enhanced to be beautiful or brilliant (or, if you have enough credit, both). They are plugged in all the time, constantly on a virtual network that makes up much of their real world. Most of them work, but life is easy. On the other hand, everyone else is stuck living in crumbling cities which are not only not connected, but have no power much of the time (let alone proper healthcare, which is a problem, given that most of these cities are still toxic from the nuclear fallout). The only alternative to cities is to basically sell yourself into slavery and work for a company. But the gap between rich and poor is huge, and the way the characters deal with it is pretty fantastic.
Lia has no concept of how people in cities actually live, and firmly believes the party line that anyone can move from city to corporation to wealthy by working hard enough. Meanwhile, the class nerd — Auden — is a total freak because he worries about conditions in the cities and thinks city people need help, but he’s never been to a city; and when he suggests the energy crisis is just a way the government keeps people under control, everyone laughs at him as a conspiracy freak.
And speaking of Auden, he’s also a great character. And I absolutely must sing Wasserman’s praises here, because the tangible awkwardness between Lia and Auden as they become friends and it’s obvious he has feelings for her that doesn’t return is so very real. It’s almost painful. And double points because, while Auden represents one possible future Lia could take, and a male Skinner named Jude represents another, Lia attempt to make sense of things never comes across as Lia choosing between two boys.
Finally, the book’s treatment of race completely floored me. I won’t spoil that for you — the sudden bluntness of it actually made me gasp when I realized — but we’ll just say that it isn’t a coincidence Lia’s mechanical body is white, blond, and blue-eyed.
Basically, the book is amazing. The tone is great; it’s dark without being overwhelming, even in the moments when the book makes some really unpleasant points. And the ending was fantastic, because it sets up to go one way, which would totally make sense and be fantastic — and takes a sharp left turn that is unexpected, but also fantastic. (Definitely did not see it coming.) Skinned is the first in a trilogy, the rest of which is not out yet. Since I will be buying them in hardcover the moment they are available, the book gets an obvious five cupcakes.