‘Caitlin Hext’s first shedding ceremony is imminent, but she’s far from prepared to produce a Snakeskin clone. When her Skin fails to turn to dust as expected, she must decide whether she wishes the newcomer alive or dead. Worse still, it transpires that the Hext family may be of central importance to the survival of Charmers, a group of people with the inexplicable power to produce duplicates every seven years and, in the process, rejuvenate. In parallel with reporter Gerry Chafik and government aide Russell Handler, Caitlin must prevent the Great British Prosperity Party from establishing a corrupt new world order.’
Snakeskins tells three intertwining stories within a version of Britain where the country has closed itself off to the outside world, and where society is run and shaped by an elite few. Whilst this scenario may seem very, very familiar and has obvious connotations to what the country is going through at the moment, Snakeskins adds a sci-fi twist to the tale.
The world of Snakeskins differs from our own due to The Fall: an event that caused a branching history. A phenomena that resulted in a small group of people, called Charmers, gaining the ability to ‘shed’ every seven years, to create a duplicate of themselves that would allow them to rejuvenate. Whilst these copies, Snakeskins as they become known, usually only last a few moments we discover over the course of the book that this is not always the case.
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One of the main characters, Caitlin Hext, is drawn into a dark world of corrupt government and secret history when her Snakeskin doesn’t fade away. At the same time a journalist, Gerry Chafik, begins to look deeper into Charmer society, whilst a low level government aide called Russell Handler is recruited to investigate a possible conspiracy.
The three stories in Snakeskins are all incredibly well told, and could easily be the sole focus of the book, yet by combining all three of them into one bigger, more diverse narrative Tim Major not only tells very personal, human stories, but crafts a deeper world. This is a United Kingdom that is somewhat recognisable, yet has taken its own path, and for the most part feels like something from the past, rather than being set a year from now.
Whilst the world of Snakeskins is incredibly interesting, and there’s still enough left untold here that Major could easily write more books within this universe to expand upon these concepts, it’s the personal stories that really make the book stand out.
Russell’s journey over the course of the story is an enjoyable one, as he goes from a timid personal assistant to a government minister, to discovering that he has depths of bravery that he didn’t know existed. However, he never feels too brave, managing to avoid falling into the category of ‘hero’. He is more like a man who was doing what he was doing from a sense of duty and honour, despite being terrified the whole time. He manages to remain grounded and real throughout.
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The strongest character, however, is Caitlin. For Caitlin her first shedding ceremony isn’t just a milestone into becoming a Charmer, but acts as a gateway into her adulthood. Her shedding is the second one we see in the book, but it has an impact because of how emotional and heartfelt a moment it is. We ignore the spectacle of the Snakeskin coming into being and focus on the emotion it holds for Caitlin. Despite how big her story gets, and how it will go on to shape the world, we never leave this emotional journey, we follow the effects that her shedding has upon her, how coming to accept her Snakeskin changes her as a person, and how she grows and matures from this. Snakeskins might be a great sci-fi story with a conspiracy mystery at its heart, but it’s also an amazing coming of age story about a wonderfully written young woman.
Snakeskins has so much more in it than you might first imagine. It’s packed full of slowly revealed alternate history, it has mystery that unfolds at a great pace, and characters who aren’t superheroes but real people with believable motivations and personal stories. I read Snakeskins in one day because I couldn’t put it down, but the story, the world, and those who inhabit it will stay with me much, much longer.
Snakeskins by Tim Major is available now from Titan Books.