First published on Fantasy Faction
The Hunter’s Kind is a clever and multi-layered book, which builds magnificently on Smiler’s Fair, the first in The Hollow Gods series. Levene made a name for herself as a new generation fantasy writer, pulling up old tropes like weeds and planting the fresh, bright and compelling ideas that this genre needs to flourish. If you enjoyed the moral complexity and serious themes explored in Smiler’s Fair, you won’t be disappointed.
We pick up where we left off with the goatherd-turned-god Krish attempting to come to terms with the truth about his heritage. Krish is great, perhaps because he’s not easy to understand. As the story progresses, he seems to become more like the moon god, Yron, or the character people have ascribed to Yron. He’s odd, unpredictable and very addictive – I always looked forward to his chapters.
Warrior Dae Hyo still drinks far too much and sticks to Krish like a limpet, hoping his adopted Dae brother will bring him the vengeance (or redemption) he craves. Eric remains more or less a prisoner of the Sun’s Servants, and though surrounded by the frozen wastes of Salvation, he’s forming a plan of escape that’s bound up with his (and his unborn child’s) destiny. Eric is as likable a character as he was in Smiler’s Fair, open-minded, brave and inquisitive.
Skirting spoilers, sadistic Marvan is still around, but has far less to do in this book. Instead we have a lot of Sang Ki, the strangely sympathetic son of the late Lord Thilak. His story arc is so compelling that I went from disliking him to rooting for him. Other POV characters include Cwen, chief Hawk of the Hunter – the Sun Goddess’s right hand, Alfreda, a weaponsmith, scarred by events, and Olufemi, a mage of Mirror Town. One comment I had about Smiler’s Fair was the lack of female characters, but it’s the women in The Hunter’s Kind who shape the story, which is a nice change.
This book isn’t much longer than Smiler’s Fair, which I praised for its brevity in epic fantasy terms, and yet we get to explore a whole lot more of the world, ranging from the marshlands of the Rah tribe to the Moon Forest to the desert waste of Mirror Town. And each location is inhabited by disparate peoples. This really is the antithesis of traditional fantasy, which tends to confine itself to Medieval European territory and culture.
Among the many themes explored in this book is slavery. When Krish encounters the Rah tribe, he discovers that slavery is part of their culture. It’s enabled by Bliss, a drug that causes mindless happiness at the price of free will and an addiction that will kill its users if they stop taking it. Krish naturally finds it repulsive and seeks to free the slaves, but discovers that the situation is far more complicated than he anticipated. This is one of those occasions where the prophecy surrounding Yron, the moon god, is eerily upheld – it’s said that he will change everything and throw the lands into chaos. Levene nicely integrates this catalyst-instinct into Krish’s character; initially he admires the Rah for their angry, forward-looking ideology, juxtaposing it with the static life of his home village. Krish’s actions regarding the slaves, however, have devastating consequences and we’re left seriously questioning his decisions.
This moral complexity is what I so admired about Smiler’s Fair, and Levene leaves it up to the reader to decide who is right or wrong. It’s difficult to remain impartial; for example, Krish and Cwen are enemies (at least Cwen wants to kill Krish), but both are likable characters with reasonable ideologies and you don’t want either to die. It’s the perfect way to immerse the reader and get them to invest in the story. There’s no good or evil here, only acts and their repercussions. Every decision a character makes, every conflict, calls for perspective.
This is a bloody book, but I didn’t feel the violence was gratuitous or overdone. With a few choice words, the picture is painted and the reader’s imagination invariably does the rest.
Levene’s writing is visceral, immediate and a refutation of the fantasy where battles are depicted in broad brush strokes. She strips away the gloss so that there are no bombastic speeches or rays of sunlight sparking off upheld swords, just the awful anticipation of violence. On the cusp of a battle, Cwen notes that her fellow Hawks ‘stank of unwashed bodies and leather armour worn constantly over many days of waiting for this moment.’ The sordid consequences of violence are emphasised in the bodies, the blood – ‘the ground beneath them rocky with corpses’. (Just one of many great lines).
There’s something so uncertain in Levene’s world, so unpredictable. Perhaps it’s the magic, which sometimes succeeds, sometimes fails or doesn’t function as expected. It’s tempting to see magic’s capricious nature as a reflection of our own and I especially liked the duality inherent in the runes, i.e. it takes the opposite powers of the sun and moon gods to make them work as they are supposed to.
This polarisation lies at the heart of the story and raises some poignant questions about the idea of gods and worship. As the title of the series intimates, the gods are hollow, isolated things – more a collection of ascribed traits than real beings – and it’s rather their followers who are filled with zeal, who go out and commit acts in their names. Krish is ostensibly horrified at his followers’ – the Brotherband’s – slaughter of innocents and yet you’re never quite sure whether he is genuinely moved or even sorry. The Servants of the absent Sun goddess, Mizhara, are locked into a rule-bound existence that has no meaning and leaves no room for mercy or compromise.
I’ve taken a more thematic approach to this review firstly because there’s a lot of clever stuff going on. Secondly, I don’t want to give the story away. I can think of several awesome moments I’d love to tell you about, but it’s best if you discover them for yourselves. All I can say is: never grow complacent. This book will keep you guessing right up until the end with its brilliant cliff-hanger. And then it’ll leave you desperate for more.