Review | The Skin – J.E. Hannaford

About the Book

How far would you go to save your skin? 

I’m a selkie, trapped above the waves until I can recover my skin. Humans used to call us seal-wives many years ago – before they broke the planet. I thought that less humans, after the warming, would mean less danger. My kind believed our world was finally recovering.

We were wrong.

Up here, the magic is fading and Old Ones like me are being traded as trophies for rich and powerful humans to display in collections.

Without the Old Ones, the magic fades, without magic, the planet dies.

Humankind has gone too far and someone has to put a stop to it, I just wasn’t expecting it to be me.

As the selkie begins her hunt, far to the south on his enormous pleasure ship, Barge, Lord Sal hunts for missing Old Ones with a grand plan to leave his own mark on the world. Icidro and Prince Ulises are searching for them too, and this is a world where money talks louder than morals.

418 pages
Published on October 18, 2021
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It was the cover art that first caught my eye. It’s graceful, muted tones, mysterious yet hinting at more. I love the colors, the way it perfectly captures a sort of twilight/transition feel. It’s the kind of cover art that makes me want to know more. 

The book itself is quite enchanting and extremely unexpected. Here, we have the story of a selkie who has lost her skin. This isn’t really an unusual premise, however, it does pull on some mythological threads that run throughout the book. From this recognizable foundation, Hannaford takes her story in unexpected directions. Here, we examine human nature, good and evil, how experience and perspective can change a person’s view of both. Nothing is quite as simple as it seems, and with prose steeped in emotion and lush, visual descriptions, we dip a toe into Hannaford’s rich world, made even richer for all those threads from lore you’ll doubtless recognize as you read. 

But don’t mistake this as me saying the book isn’t unique because it is. One of my favorite things is when an author takes a recognizable story, and twists all those familiar elements making them uniquely the author’s own. What I mean is, most people will know what a selkie is, and the realism in the world Hannaford created is obviously based on real-world locals and real-world history. There’s a bit of comfort and familiarity in those aspects of the book. This was a story I was sure I’d recognize, set in a place that felt a lot like places I’ve visited. 

And then, right when I got comfortable, Hannaford grabbed the rug an pulled it out from under me. Quite honestly, I’m used to selkie’s being really depressing creatures in the lore I’ve read. I was pretty surprised by not only how this selkie never quite fell into that particular pit, but also by her level of autonomy, which is also something I wasn’t really expecting. Under Hannaford’s care, the plot quickly veers and the book propels itself forward as the protagonist joins a crew. Here, we get unexpected plot elements like swashbuckling and assassins, hijinks and complications. Mixed into this are mythology and lore that the reader will doubtless recognize, like sirens and elemental spirits, other things you’ll recognize from European mythology. Recognizable threads to use as guideposts as Hannaford takes you deeper into fantasy.

This is a heavily character-driven book, which what I tend to really enjoy. Selkie is a character who was crafted with obvious love and an eye for nuance and detail. As she learns to navigate this new world of hers, we see the strangeness, the wonder and danger of it, the dark and light, the moral quandaries from her unique perspective. This infused the work as a whole with a sense of wonder that really did it for me. Each word was chosen with care and consideration. Hannaford’s obvious knowledge of her subject and her world, mixed with Selkie’s wide-eyed awe mixed to create a lush book that is as engaging due to the story its telling, as it is for the way Hannford is telling it. 

In some ways, I feel like The Skin is about found families, love, and what it means to be human. Sometimes the lens through which we view these topics can be uncomfortable and raw, but it’s always unapologetically honest. The crew Selkie joins is unique, and each character’s motivations and aims are revealed as the plot progresses. Slowly, Hannaford explores some of the mysterious depths that make these characters as vibrant and dimensional as they are. One of the most surprising, well-done aspects of the book, in my estimation, was the crew. Each character is unique, and offers something different to the book that no other character can. They complement each other well, and the dynamic between the members of the crew always felt realistic and as complicated and messy as it would be in real life. 

Layered beneath her beautiful prose, are hints of darkness, spots that allude to grimdark potential, but it’s never overwhelming. The book moves forward the way it does everything: in its own way. One thing I was glad to see is the intimacy Hannaford establishes early on is never lost. Not even during action scenes. She made a very calculated choice to keep the story personal no matter how big the plot got, and it paid off in spades. By the time I’d finished the book, I felt like I’d lived it rather than just read about it. These were waters I could have dallied in a bit longer. I want more. 

The Skin was unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. Through vivid, lush prose, Hannaford’s world comes to vibrant life. This is a beautiful, nuanced book that tells a story we all need to hear, about love and loss and ultimately, our heroic quests to find ourselves. 

5/5 stars