Charles de Lint’s new YA novel begins with high school student Josh Saunders transforming into a mountain lion to defend himself against an attack by his mother’s boyfriend. When he returns to human form, he’s shocked by the transformation, but not entirely surprised: for months, teens in the coastal California town of Santa Feliz have been turning into “Wildlings,” human-animal shape-shifters. They are targets of public scrutiny and ridicule, media hyperbole, and a government “orientation and training” program, and they are mysteriously disappearing
Josh entrusts his friends Marina and Desmond with his secret and tries to live a normal life, but his encounters with other Wildlings pull him in a different direction. Meanwhile, the police are following him, the FBI is involved, and his classmates are quickly becoming suspicious.
De Lint plays the material remarkably straight. While the bullying and ostracism faced by the Wildlings certainly bear similarities to racism and homophobia, de Lint is more interested in myth than in such obvious metaphors. The Wildlings refer to themselves as “cousins” and are related to the animal and trickster figures of indigenous myth, including Coyote, Raven, and the Mariposa de la Muerta, who is sometimes a butterfly, other times the angel of death.
Despite the folkloric overtones, de Lint roots his characters in the grittiness of the real world – a suburban blur of school, shopping malls, and broken families. The friends find their outlets where they can: playing in a garage band, surfing, and skateboarding. This verisimilitude provides a strong foundation for the mythic material, and there is barely a moment of hesitation as the story veers around unexpected turns.
Though it is the first in a series, Under My Skin is a self-contained work that satisfies at every level while leaving the reader wanting more. It provides a welcome introduction to de Lint’s fiction for young readers and will be devoured eagerly by devoted adult fans.