Turnskin by Nicole Kimberling – Review

Rating: 8/10 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 
Title: Turnskin
Author: Nicole Kimberling
Genre: Paranormal Romance
URL: Blind Eye Books
Price: US$14.95 (available for pre-order before release in January 2008)
Other Information/warnings: explicit m/m, violence
Raised in a remote farming community, Tom Fletcher knows little of his Shifter heritage and less about the dangerous lives that others of his kind lead in the city of Riverside. For Tom the big city is a daydream of opening nights and bright theater lights.
But when Tom meets Cloud Coldmoon – infamous and handsome heir to a criminal syndicate – everything changes. Suddenly suspected of murder, Tom must flee to the only city where his kind are common.

My review:
This second publication from the publishing company owned by the author’s spouse and for which the author is an editor and manager, follows in the wake of the highly regarded Wicked Gentlemen. How, I wondered, would this novel stack up after such an impressive debut?

As it happens, pretty well, and I suspect the book may well have been accepted by another company had Ms Kimberling chosen to offer it elsewhere, so the fact it’s essentially just another self-published novel should be set aside. Like the previous offering, this novel is a slickly produced item with an eye-catching cover, this time by Sam Dawson, though the paper stock seemed a tad less high quality than Wicked Gentlemen. The similarities continue, in that this story is also set in a place very much like Earth (really a bit too much like Earth), and examines a highly stratified society where the underclass is suppressed because of its racial characteristics. Like Wicked Gentlemen, Turnskin is very much about identity, and transcending the societal determinations based on genetic inheritances. But where Wicked Gentlemen created a nightmarish Dickensian London-like environment where torture, demons, murder and horror abound, Turnskin goes for a lighter, more familiar world. Essentially it’s ‘Let’s put on a show!’ for shape-shifters, and most of the novel is set in the bright lights and artificial landscape of Theatreland.

Tom Fletcher is a half-breed shapeshifter, a prodigiously and naturally talented playwright (perhaps rather improbably), picking vegetables for a living and dreaming of Broadway (or the equivalent.) He meets another shape-shifter, the criminal Cloud Coldmoon, and his relationship with this man who is never who or what he seems, wrenches Tom from his squalid little existence putting on his own plays for fellow labourers, and sends him to the big smoke, where he meets the Turnskin Theatre troup, discovering his true calling and identity in a city where no one is exactly who they say they are.

The theme of identity is very cleverly and thoroughly explored in this novel – Tom is a half normal human, half Shifter whose natural form actually takes after his human father, but his Shifter mother encouraged him from an early age to stay in his furry form to avoid the discrimination dished out to mixed-breed children. This has ‘shaped’ his life and his experiences, since Shifters are the racially discriminated against minority in this American alternative universe. Coldmoon, on the other hand, spends much more time in his ‘human’ form, and so has access to experiences denied to Tom. Shifter abilities to imitate anyone’s appearance are both illegal and highly exploitable – and as Tom finds out, taking on another identity, whether as an actor or a ‘stand-in’, alters perceptions of and by, and interactions with, the human world. It isn’t just racial identity which is shifted back and forth – gender, class, and even clan labels all have power to claim and change, and this power is explored and rejected by a series of individuals Tom meets on his personal journey to become a successful playwright.

And there, to me, is the weakness of the novel. It’s a wonderful idea, a wonderful conceit – but too little is done with it. Tom’s ambition is not to redeem his kin or his society, just to put on his plays. Cloud wants to escape from his criminal clan, but he does so in a way which offers him an equally constrained, limited existence. Neither of them have big dreams or plans. The corruption, discrimination and violence of their society impacts on their lives in different ways, but in the end, remains utterly unchanged or improved. To me, it felt a little like someone writing a story about a telepath in the White House who uses their ability to make sure the President gets the right wine at dinner. The vision, while beautifully described in its realisation, is too limited. I kept waiting for the breakout scene which never came.

I felt the same way about the setting. Doubtless it was meant to be an ironic commentary on the state of American society, but what it looked like was the author sticking with what she knew and could describe, without considering just how having Shifters in a society would change it. Every time the 1950’s inspired TV shows were described and named, I winced. It jarred too hard against the much more original description of the mechanism of Shifting, for instance. Contrast this with the swooping grand vision of Ginn Hale’s twisted world in Wicked Gentlemen where everything familiar is perverted and changed, so we know from the beginning this is not our world, this is not our reality. I wanted the world in Turnskin to break free from its pedestrian chains. It never did.

The characters didn’t suck me in as much as I’d like, and so the central romantic relationship didn’t hold much suspense for me. The manner in which Tom and Cloud fall in love felt rather perfunctory, and Tom is rather childish in his clinging to his selfish, deceptive lover. The problem for me is that there was so much role-playing going on, with the characters forced to take on other identities, other lives for much of the story, I never really got to grips with who Tom and Cloud were, and so never particularly cared what happened to them. I confess that part of my problem with this is that I am profoundly uninterested in theatre politics or actors as people, so the things which mattered to them (entirely in keeping with them as characters) had little appeal to me. The very nature of the character’s professions (legitimate and otherwise) meant there was a lot of telling in proportion to the showing, which contributed to my sense of distance from the characters and their concerns.

I didn’t find the book a ‘funny, smart delight’ as Ginn Hale claims to (in the cover puff quote) – I laughed out loud once, but the rest of the time found it rather lacking in humour (which is one of the reasons I kept expecting something dramatic to happen with the plot – the climax just never came.) I found it interesting enough to keep me reading despite a heavy cold, but in the end, not that memorable. I was not left, as I was at the end of Wicked Gentlemen, thirsting for more about this world and the people, and didn’t particularly care what became of Tom and Cloud.

If I sound unenthusiastic, it should be borne in mind that I (a) read it while sick, (b) don’t have a lot of interest in the setting and (c) expected something rather different from what I got. None of that is the fault of the author or the book (though the teeth grinding I did when I saw “it’s” in place of “its” is entirely the fault of someone at Blind Eye.) The style is competent, the story mostly involving and fast-paced, and the intellectual playing with concepts of identity and self will resonate very strongly with readers who may have experienced some of the discrimination and questioning shown by characters in the book. I’d probably rate it an objective 8 out of 10, though it’s not a personal reread for me.