The Hunter's Kind
Hodder & Stoughton, 2 July 2015
HB, 468 pages
I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book through Bookbridgr.
When I discovered that Levene's Smiler's Fair was to have a sequel, I was delighted but a bit nervous. (I should warn you now that there are spoilers below for Smiler's Fair - if you haven't read it, stop now, get a copy and read it. Then come back and carry on... here.)
The titular fair had knitted together a large number of characters as it travelled the lands of the Sun and the Moon, some of them delightful, some horrible, none perfect - or utterly evil - all very human. However, most of them hadn't crossed paths and some - like the boy Eric - had been spirited far away from the main action. I was concerned that it would be difficult to keep up the unity of the story once the Fair ended up in ashes. (I warned you - spoilers!)
I needn't have worried. Levene picks up the story exactly where she left it - in the cooling embers of the Fair - but drives it forward with, if anything, even greater verve and unity than in the first book. And while that was largely an introduction to her characters - Krish, goat herdsman/ missing king turned moon god, Dae Hyo, drunken warrior, Nethmi, a bride who stood up against an abusive husband and killed him, Olufemi, the mage who started it all off, and many others - here... here stuff gets read and they really begin to be. We also get some new characters. There is Cwen, one of the Hunter's hawks. I don't think I can easily convey how amazing Cwen is: she takes nonsense from nobody but is also miles away fro the archetypical "strong female character". There are sister and brother Algar and Alfreda, a pair of itinerant metalworkers who have invented something Very Important... and more.
Mix them up - the lost prince, the mage, the warrior woman. Add some fantasy tropes: the Prophesy, the reawakened gods. Stir. Invert. make something new and different. You can see it happening but, like the best magic, you can't see how it happens. Before the reader's eyes, the characters come alive and shape their world. Krish is supposedly the reincarnation of the god Yron, the Moon, who was vanquished millenia ago by his sister Mizhara, the Sun. His dark creatures haunt the land, his underground servants haunt mines and caverns, killing and eating any humans they find (so metals are scarce and expensive). Cwen and the other Hawks hunt them down without mercy.
Yet despite the evil Krish is a real person, a good person. he hasn't asked for the role of god, has no idea what to make of it and it's not his doing that half the continent wants to destroy him because of it. (The other half wants to destroy him because he happens to be the heir to a great empire, whose king - his father - he's prophesied to kill. But that's not his doing either).
All this was there in Smiler's Fair, but here the consequences start to pile up. The book deals in shades of grey. Both "sides", if there are "sides" here, are trying to do their best: there are no fantasy Dark Lords or White Riders. Though there is plenty of darkness, it is a more human, recognisable darkness. Slavery. Poverty. Religious fanaticism. The slaughter and rape of the Brotherband as they pillage their way across the land. These things aren't just part of the background ("that's just how it is in fantasy"), they raise questions, pose challenges to the characters (especially to Cwen and Krish). What is one to do when one's trusted allies are slavers? What is one to do when calling together forces to win a battle leaves distant villages exposed to the Brotherband?
The book is full of forced, least worst choices, attempts to keep some morality, some light in an ever darker world.
Very much, I think, a book for now. A magnificent, brave book, showing what fantasy can and should be - a mirror to the world, but a dark mirror.