by Nicole Kimberling, fantasy (2008)
Blind Eye Books, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9789861-2-4
My friendly PSA of the day: Turnskin is not really a gay romance novel so you really should adjust your expectations accordingly before you read this one. There is romance, but it's not the main focus of the story. This is more of a story of a young man's adventures in his efforts to make a name for himself in the big city. Set in an alternate Earth where there may be TVs and cars but the cultures of the folks living in this place are very different indeed, we have two subsets of humanoids co-existing together. The Skins are the ordinary humans. The Shifters are not werewolves but rather, folks with the ability to change their appearances. Think Mystique from the X-Men comics, only with at least three times more body hair, and that's a Shifter. Shifters can even transform into members of the opposite sex although they prefer to live with the gender that they are born into.
Tom Fletcher, our hero, is not a typical Shifter in that his mother raised him in a very remote farming community where they are the only Shifter folks. When his mother died, Tom found himself feeling all alone in the world. He knows that he has some relatives in the big city of Riverside and he is thinking of searching them out when this story opens. Tom dreams of acting on stage and writing plays, you see, and it happens that these relatives of his work in the show business. However, it is not until he learns that a local cop is a Shifter and embarks on an ill-fated affair that ended with the cops looking for Tom that Tom finally leaves for the big city. Sure, he's wanted by the cops, but whatever - Riverside, here he comes!
Turnskin has an impressively detailed setting. I love Riverside. The Shifters are not as segregated as the poor aliens in Alien Nation but they have to face some degree of hostility from the Skins. Nonetheless, the Shifters have a rich culture that is not always pretty but nonetheless interesting, as revealed in this story. I appreciate the effort that Ms Kimberling has put into creating her brand new world and I love the end result. The theater come to life beautifully here while the red light districts of Riverside seem like a most enjoyable place to visit indeed. I feel as if I'm on a first-class trip to see the places described in this story.
As it sometimes happens when it comes to fantasy stories, in this case the setting ends up overshadowing the main characters. Tom's story starts out strong but the momentum soon tapers off. This is due to the fact that Tom really has it too easy in this story. His relatives accept him with open arms. His plays are brilliant and they attract the attention of the folks from the National Theatre without much effort on Tom's part. Tom is a good-looking man and love comes finding him instead of the other way around because good-looking people have it easy that way. Even when he has a run-in with the law as well as the mob, these matters are resolved quickly and easily. Nothing truly threatens Tom's plans in this story, just as nothing comes close to shaking my confidence that Tom can walk blindfold on a busy street only to make it to the other end safely and find a stray thousand dollar note in the process because he is the golden child of the story in exactly that manner.
Tom's boyfriend is a mobster who just happens to speak rather unrealistically like an emo kid who has watched Reality Bites one time too many. And for a mobster, that guy is as threatening as a half-dead gerbil. In other words, he's the classic "whore with the heart of gold" type of character and easily the most boring one in the story. I wonder why Ms Kimberling drops the more interesting secondary characters like the die-hard activist Righteous in the later half of the story for such bores like Tom's clichéd boyfriend.
I'm not saying that Turnskin is a bad book in any way. It's not a bad book at all. The story is very readable and the setting is richly detailed. As recognizable as Tom and his boyfriend are as standard emo tropes, they are still likable types. It also helps that Tom has the right attitude when it comes to love - he may be an emo in some way but he refuses to martyr himself in the name of love when his back is against the wall. Turnskin is a rich and enjoyable read. It's just that Tom often gets his way too easily in this story. Ms Kimberling has made Tom too invulnerable here. Reading the story, I end up feeling confident by the time I reach the midway point that nothing will truly challenge Tom's destiny for greatness in this story and, by the last page, I believe that I am proven completely right. In other words, I like this book, but it is not always possible for me to get emotionally invested in the story.
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