I enjoyed Philipa Ballantine’s Geist very much (reviewed here) and have the sequel Spectyr in the TBR pile, so when an opportunity to get a review copy of her latest book arose, I took advantage of it. I’m glad I did.
This is different than any of Ms. Ballantine’s work I’ve seen to this point. I think it’s safe to say Hunter and Fox is different than most fantasy that’s currently out there. This is a good thing, although trying to pull off a book like this is a challenge for most writers. By and large, Ms. Ballantine is up for the challenge.
This is a hard book to describe because there are multiple story arcs that intertwine. I’m only going to give you an idea of the initial set up to avoid spoilers because there are plenty of surprises. The story takes place in a world where Chaos reigns, with mountains becoming plains or shallow seas, forests turning into deserts, a constantly changing topography, with the flora changing with it. Or at least it did until a despot known as the Caisah conquered everything and brought stability to large portions of the world.
This world is inhabited by a number of races, all of whom came there through the White Void at different times. The older races are the more powerful, and the oldest of all is the Vaerli. When the Caisah came to power, he performed a magical attack against the Vaerli called the Harrowing, which took away most of their abilities. It also caused any two Vaerli who happen to find themselves in each other’s presence to burst into flame. This was 300 years ago. Some of the races, including the Vaerli and the Casisah (whose race is a mystery), are effectively immortal. They can be killed, but they don’t age.
Talyn is one of the Vaerli. She is the Caisah’s Hunter, charged with tracking down and killing any enemies he decides need to die. There have been quite a few such individuals through the years. Talyn tells herself she’s doing this to help her people.
Finnbarr the Fox is a storyteller who happens to have some small magical abilities. He loves Talyn. At one time she loved him, but she’s discarded those memories. Being immortal, the Vaerli have the ability to excise memories to preserve their sanity. He’s come to find her. He’s also fomenting rebellion against the Caisah.
Finnbarr has three companions who are more (and less) than they seem. Talyn’s brother is out there somewhere. He’s been given a quest that will have major repercussions. Before the book is done the players will learn that there are greater things to fear than the Caisah.
This is an ambitious book, original and full of surprises. My understanding of what was happening changed throughout. Ballantine doesn’t foreshadow much. She simply drops information and revelations as she goes along. You need to be paying attention when you read this one because what you think is happening isn’t necessarily what’s really happening. There are a number of plot threads hanging and questions unanswered when you close the book. Who is the boy Finn communicates with through a cat’s cradle? What’s the story about a group of Vaerli sacrificing their children? I could go on, but that would be teasing. Also, many of the questions involve spoilers.
Don’t look for a happy ending in this one. The last line has to be one of the bleakest and most effective I’ve ever seen. It’s not so much that the ending is tragic or a cliffhanger, although the end contains aspects of both. This is a story that isn’t fully told, and I’m not sure wrapping things up in neat resolutions would have been the best way to tell this portion. There will definitely be another volume, and I hope sales are good enough that Pyr publishes it soon. I want to know how things get wrapped up.
The only complaint I have is the cover, for two reasons. First, it implies there’s a greater romance element to the story than there actually is. Second, Talyn is described more than once as being shorter than the average Vaerli woman, or any woman for that matter, with an olive complexion. The woman on the cover (that’s not a horse she’s riding, BTW) looks tall and pale.