Butterfly Skin Review

Posted October 20, 2014 by Kierra Prince in Nerdy Bits

Written By: Sergey Kuznetsov

Translated By: Andrew Bromfield

Published By: Titan Books


Butterfly Skin is a book about a female reporter who starts a website focusing on the brutal murders of young girls in Russia. The girls have all been severely tortured and there’s also a heavy amount of evidence that these girls are being tortured sexually as well.  Yet as our hero keeps the site running, she begins to discover that her life may be in danger and that the killer might not be too different from her. The book has even been hyped as Russia’s answer to The Silence of the Lambs. So how does it compare? Unfortunately not too well.

The book itself isn’t terrible by any means, and the plot is fairly interesting. The story is more or less focused on Ksenia, our young reporter hero, deciding that she’s fascinated by the string of murders plaguing Moscow and that she should seek to end them. By starting a website, she’s now able to chat with thousands of people, compile all the data, and perhaps discover some small clue as to who the killer is. This stuff is fairly compelling and the parts focusing on serial killers in general were by far my favorites. Sergey Kuznetsov took the time to research actual serial killers and various conversations throughout the book gives us glimpses into the minds of people who kill. It’s a really interesting comparison between the facts of reality and the fact that fiction exists to sort of spook us, even though reality has its own share of horrors. Regardless of how brutal this book is when it comes to the tortures, we’re reminded throughout that we actually live in a world where people like Gacy, Bundy, and Dahmer exist.

In fact, there’s even a heavy amount regarding how much fact has influenced fiction. Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs was based on real killers, as was Norman Bates in Psycho. And as the book gives us critical characters asking why Ksenia has to make this website, its almost as if its asking us we we keep ingesting this kind of media. That we essentially turn our killers into celebrities. It’s an interesting thought.

However, instead of focusing on this killer aspect, we’re left to draw parallels between Ksenia and the killer. You see, Ksenia is huge into BDSM. Sexually speaking, Ksenia gets excited by whips and blindfolds and pain. Mixed in between Ksenia’s various erotic fantasies and memories, we get glimpses into the killer’s tortures and are made to draw parallels between the two. Ksenia enjoys being whipped, the killer is flaying girls down to the bone. Ksenia wants to be spanked until she’s bruised, the killer is beating women until their bodies are a bloody pulp and they can’t walk. It’s a rather odd image that makes us ask how fine the line between pleasure and torture is and the fact that some people consent and even get excited by things that many people don’t enjoy. It doesn’t do it in any kind of shameful way, it just makes it realize that some people’s pain is another person’s pleasure and that there’s various degrees to that.

This is also a very, very strange aspect to the story though. While we’re made to question the BDSM lifestyle (to a degree), passages featuring Ksenia’s erotic fantasies and her sex life are clearly meant to titillating. These passages are essentially erotica, even if they’re involving her causing herself severe pain. She masturbates, she has sex, and we’re treated to all the passages about how she can’t control her arousal and how badly she needs to get off.

But then a chapter later we get a firsthand account of how the killer can only get off to severe gore, torture, and murder. And it’s presented in the same erotic style. Listen, I’m no prude and the success of books like 50 Shades of Grey clearly shows that there’s a rather large audience that does find whips and chains exciting. But mixing that in with extremely graphic descriptions of children being murdered, women being tortured, and a man getting himself off to all that was off-putting in the worst ways. On one hand the book wants to arouse the reader but the next page its telling us how much a man was aroused as he mutilated a woman’s body. It’s rather gross and I have no idea who this audience is for as the explicit descriptions of murder/torture are sure to put off anyone who was genuinely interested in the erotica aspect of the novel.

The characters are alright but there’s really only two within the book that seem fleshed out. Ksenia herself is crafted pretty well, and she’s genuinely a likable yet flawed character. Her insecurities are given to us in great passages and we begin to understand that her BDSM lifestyle is really just a way for her to control some inner pain and turn it outward. That’s not to say that everyone involved with BDSM is the same, but Ksenia is still presented to us as a strong character who just has trouble dealing with her emotions and has found an outlet to control them. And her friend Olya is crafted as a successful, older businesswoman who treats Ksenia like a daughter and deals with her own problems in her own way.

Unfortunately, every other character is essentially some awful trope that you never really care for. One of Ksenia’s colleagues is nothing more than a man she’s having an affair with whom we’re supposed to somehow pity because Ksenia decides she doesn’t love him, even as he cheats on his wife with her. Another one of Ksenia’s friends is shown to us as a previous sexually adventurous woman who only settled down when one of her various lovemaking sessions knocked her up. And while yes, these things do happen and are realistic, we never really see them get past these one-dimensional characters of “cheating husband” and “happy mother”.

As someone who reads a lot of foreign novels, I also wasn’t expecting there to be such a harsh realization that this book might not be that easy to read. The translation is rather rough and blunt and there’s a lot of references that people who aren’t Russian simply won’t get. Olya continually has passages about how she was supposed to be a “good girl from Saint Petersburg” (or something like that) and even though the book somewhat explains that (she was supposed to fall in love and get married and have a family and all that stuff) its also rather hard to comprehend. I imagine it would be like someone from another country reading a book where a character from America describes how they were used to “Southern hospitality” because it was culturally confusing. And as other male characters described the war and the times of communism and other things, we really don’t have much to compare to. We can’t truly understand what they mean when they describe the bleak feeling of seeing nothing but shelled and destroyed buildings and how Russia is still, socially, in war.

There’s also pretty much no real description of Russia’s use with familiar/friendly names that are only used among friends and are somewhat of an insult when people who aren’t close use them. So when Ksenia gets angry later on at the use of her familiar name by someone she barely knows, most readers are probably going to be left wondering why she’s so angry at the use of what we assume is nothing more than a nickname.

The translation, however, also seemed a bit off. While most of it ran pretty smoothly (albeit a bit choppy), there was a rather glaring problem I noticed in the beginning. After a few chapters we begin to see that any chapters from the killer’s point of view are always written in first-person. It gives us a glimpse into his mind and it also keeps his identity secret without having to resort to third-person writing just saying “The killer”. What’s rather odd though is that a few chapters in we begin to get other characters with chapters in first-person before you realize, 2 pages in, that it’s actually about Olya or someone else. I have a feeling that it was an accident, as the chapters end up reverting back to third-person later on, but its a fairly large problem as its a rough inconsistency that makes us believe support characters are actually the killer until we get some odd clue that it’s actually about someone else.

The climax was also rather poor and predictable and I’m severely disappointed in the way it played out. I wanted a really great thriller but its like the author was confused about what he wanted the book to truly be. And when we find out the killer’s identity, everything gets wrapped up within the next few chapters which makes you wonder why there was so much time spent with characters who ultimately didn’t impact or do anything for the story. The story, at heart, is about Ksenia dealing with her emotions as she tracks down a killer, and the killer ultimately being brought to justice. Why I had to spend three chapters with a married man discussing his devotion to Ksenia as he lays in bed with his wife, I really don’t know.

Overall the book is going to struggle to find an audience as it never really delves into any of the genres it incorporates enough. The mystery isn’t that much of a mystery, the erotica is bludgeoned by hardcore gore, and none of the characters are really interesting enough to carry the book as an introspective character piece.

Unless you’ve been wanting to read a book with some severe gore or have an interest in serial killers and what makes them kill (because in all honesty, those pages about real killers were the most interest parts), I’d say you could skip this. It’s not a terrible book but, at 356 pages, there’s a lot better murder mysteries you could be reading.


About the Author

Kierra Prince

Was born with a controller in her hand. Fan of all things nerdy and has a tremendous amount of love for RPG's, anime, and anything horror. She secretly wishes to be a mash-up of Catwoman and Sailor Moon.