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“The Earth may feel as though she recovers to you, yet she continues to die. We seek to slow that decline. I fear you may have done too much as a species to stop it altogether.”

Threats to biodiversity, fading magic, greedy humans hunting fabled creatures for their own gain, part-thriller, part fantasy, part sci-fi, “The Skin” – Book One of the “Black Hinds Wake” duology – by J.E. Hannaford, is one of the most fascinating, unique, and marvellous Indie SFF books I’ve had the pleasure of reading so far this year.

I need to state upfront, Hannaford had me fooled, at the beginning of the novel. After reading the first few paragraphs, I thought I was in for more of a classic-type fantasy, and I was all in for it, especially after being treated to the author’s gorgeous prose, and the introduction to one of the main POVs in the novel, that of Selkie:

“Sun shone through jellyfish clouds, bathing the golden beach with Midsummer’s caress. It offered an invitation from our ancestors – one which Eryn and I eagerly accepted….”

Candidly, I knew little of Selkies, and found this to be such a wonderful choice as one the book’s protagonists. Selkies, known to be shapeshifters who can take either seal or human forms, have the ability to remove their seal skin to live as humans while on dry land.

These creatures are legendary as well for their haunting beauty and seductiveness, yet vengeful and frightening nature when crossed.

Early in the book, we witness Selkie altruistically sacrifice her freedom, to risk captivity, in an effort to save her sister Eryn. This leads her into contact with humans, for all their faults and positives.

It also sets off a chain of events that leads the brave Selkie to do everything she can not only to retrieve her sister’s skin, but to save the Old Ones – the other creatures like herself – and indeed, all marine life, and try to put an end to the pillaging and callous ways of humans who are destroying the planet, and banishing magic through their greedy and selfish ways.

Yet not all humans in the book are evil or callous. The second POV Hannaford gives us is that of Georgie. Georgie is part of the crew of The Black Hind, a vessel whose covert mission is to rescue as many of the Old Ones from their rich and influential captors as possible.

Georgie works for the charismatic and mysterious owner of The Black Hind, Lord Sal, who uses his privileged place in society to provide a pleasure craft for the wealthy and influential, all the while playing them for information and intelligence, so he can conduct more rescues.

The third POV is that of Lady Gina, Sal’s heir, who is an integral part of his rescue missions. Gina is an invaluable right hand to Saul, and she is deeply entwined in both the (front for other activities) pleasure barge business that Saul runs, and the real purpose of Saul’s enterprises.

It’s a shocking turn, how all three of these characters’ arcs meld, and that melding is brilliantly executed by Hannaford, in a way I certainly did not predict. Safe to say, these three protagonists will embark on a journey that will decide the fate of not only humanity, but the Old Ones too.

The character work in “The Skin” was fantastic. Hannaford presents us with the POVs of three indomitable female characters, who are strongly empathetic, fearless, and intelligent. But don’t cross them! For their vengeance is terrible!

I also really enjoyed the secondary characters in the novel. The crew of the Black Hind, like Sal and Zora, were an awesome (if disparate) collection of really dynamic personalities, who were like family to one another, united under their common goal of saving the Old ones from the private collections of entitled people who either mistrusted and scorned them, or simply wanted to exploit them, and keep them on display as curiosities to enlarge their prominence.

The worldbuilding is astounding. Bleak yet beautiful, focused on a nautical setting filled with magic and wonder, it is our planet, where as the result of rising sea levels due to global warming (referred to as “the warming” by the selkie), many parts of the world are underwater. Those left above water are dangerously crammed with human-life, and the glorious, mythical creatures such as sirens and selkies, that once were abundant in the waters, were in danger of extinction.

But the sea levels have begun to lower again, and ancient lost territories of the selkies are being reclaimed by them. Yet humans are still doing their best to ruin things for those non-human entities, with whom they don’t seem to acknowledge they are supposed to be sharing the planet with, rather than trying ceaselessly to dominate it, and hoard it for themselves.

Moreover, humankind seems incapable of escaping its worst impulses, and reverting to the barbarism, and avarice, of past feudal societal structures.

“There are many routes to power and still more methods to hold on to it. In any power vacuum there will always be those who seize it with force, those who retain it using fear. Self-styled kings who eliminate the competition and sow discord whenever opponents rise to challenge them. The lands north of the Terranian Sea were ruled by precisely that type of king, his crown handed down as the result of an ancestor’s power grab. He’d reverted to ancient methods of intimidation not seen in so-called civilised society for many hundreds of years. Vanquished – or simply ambushed – enemies were frequently mounted in pieces above his palace gates. It was thought that many of his soldiers were loyal only through fear or hurt to their loved ones.”

There are many compelling themes that Hannaford has chosen to embed in her brilliant work. Greed, prejudice, fear, betrayal, loss, revenge, loyalty, family and found family, inhumane treatment of animals, whether zoos are ethical, and more, abound in the novel.

However, clearly, the themes in “The Skin” that are most prevalent, centre around trying to stave off adverse climate change via global warming, ecological preservation, in particular our marine environment, respect and caring for non-human life, especially aquatic life, and re-iterating the dire warning that today’s scientists have already provided us, about the future that awaits us if we fail to do so.

If you’ve read my reviews, you know how I feel about prose. It is the lifeblood, for me, of every book. In the case of “The Skin”, the prose is delightful, enchanting. Hannaford’s ability to write in the beautiful style of the great epic authors, with flowery and captivating prose, and then switch to a more modern – and still elegant – prose to capture the sci-fi and modern elements of the books is astounding.

“Forest-covered, cloud-shrouded hills rose steeply to the narrow pass. The coast road would take me to my destination more easily than this narrow path which climbed through the wild landscape and wound through a cluster of ruins, all crumbled walls and neatly abandoned piles of rubble…the pull of he shady trees was strong than being near the water’s edge, where the dry barren coast rolled out before me, fringed by sun-sparkled sea.”

The book is fast-paced, with great action sequences, lots of dramatic and heart-rending moments, and some shocking instances of gore, revenge, and cruelty. While I would not consider the book dark in its overall tone, there are definitely some dark moments.

Overall, however, it is a hopeful, optimistic tale, that makes us believe it might not be too late for humankind, but that we need to help ourselves, and pay attention to what is truly valuable around us, such as our marine biodiversity.

So just the combination of the outstanding prose and phenomenal character work would have been enough to catapult “The Skin” into one of my top Indie SFF books I read last year, in 2023. Adding the exceptional prose, fantastic storytelling, and overall uniqueness of the story, all combine to propel it to near the top spot.

I would add a note here about the gravitas and authenticity that Hannaford – a marine biologist and educator by trade – brings in her depiction of marine life and life above and below the high seas. Her research about all things aquatic is impeccable, and it shows.

Finally, I need to mention the cover of “The Skin” (and for that matter, the second book in “Black Hind’s Wake”, entitled “The Pact”). In my opinion, the cover of “The Skin” is simply the best fantasy cover I’ve ever seen.

“‘I plan on leaving an exceptionally long shadow, filed with ripples of moonlight for those I helped, and darker than the worst nightmares for those who wronged us.'”

Indeed, “The Skin” does cast a long shadow, and it is a memorable book that has left quite an impression on me.

This book is the complete package, and I absolutely loved it! As soon as time allows, I’ll be moving onto the conclusion of the duology, entitled “The Pact”.

“The Skin” was one of the top Indie books I read in 2023. It was certainly in the running for my overall favourite Indie book of the year!



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