Hunting is Andrea K Höst's latest release. Unlike the earlier books of hers that I've reviewed in the past (And All the Stars, The Touchstone Trilogy), Hunting is definitely fantasy, not science fiction. The blurb was what really got me keen to read this one.
I have to say, when I first started reading, I was a little bit disappointed. Not because it was bad, but because it wasn't as funny as the blurb sounded like it would be. Mostly, this is because things start on a sombre note, with Ash's aunt dying and Ash's circumstances being turned on their head. It wasn't boring, it just wasn't what I expected. But then! From about the halfway point it really picked up and I found myself laughing out loud several times. I enjoyed the second half a lot more. (If I rated them separately, I'd give the first half 4 stars and the second half 5 stars.)
Ash is a runaway who dresses as a boy. Before the opening of Hunting she was living with Genevieve, a herbalist who took her in when she was younger (she's now 20 but dresses as a 17 year old boy). When Genevieve is killed, Ash swears vengeance but isn't allowed to go at it alone, partly because others think she's an underage boy. She is taken in by a foreign noble, Thornaster, who is investigating a spate of herbalist murders, and becomes his page-like servant. A lot of the humour comes from the banter and interactions between Ash and Thornaster, and there were some very amusing moments. I also liked that Höst didn't make Thornaster a strict or cruel person, because that would have changed the overall tone of Hunting significantly.
The world Höst has built is detailed and not limited to the one city most of the action takes place in. It was a little tricky at first to keep all the places and titles straight in my head and I think the earlier parts of the book could have been improved with more backstory/descriptions. On the other hand, the full details of Ash's past don't come to light for a while, and I quite liked the circumstances in which the full story was revealed (and of course I had some idea of what was coming from hints earlier on).
An aspect I particularly liked was the way in which so many little threads all came together in the end. There were some things which I took in stride as "just" being part of the set-up or backstory which turned out to be relevant to the main story. Hard to say more on this without spoilers. Also, a small thing but the fact that the main character's mentor was female not male was gratifying. And even though Ash was a girl dressed as a boy in a male-dominated society, there were actual other good female characters in the story (and only one of them was a laundry maid) who showed us other roles women could play in the society without having to dress as a man.
There was one particular aspect of worldbuilding that I found quite fascinating and that was the matter of religion. The gods in the world of Hunting are associated with the sun and moon (the two main gods) and planets (the minor gods which aren't important). When people die, one of three things happens: their soul goes straight to heaven carried by the sun god's butterflies, their soul is taken by the moon god's moths for cleansing before later going on to heaven or the gods decide the person's soul is beyond redemption and they're damned — trapped on the mortal coil indefinitely, before eventually deteriorating into nothing. Somewhat painfully. What this means is that after you die, assuming you don't die alone where no one finds you quickly enough, everyone knows what the gods ultimately thought of you. There was one character who was a horrible person and, as part of the backstory, was damned when he died. The repercussions on the family members that survived him, who generally weren't terrible people, were not insignificant. This aspect made me think a lot about how people might change or police their behaviour if they knew there were real afterlife consequences for them. Food for thought.
Finally, there was a romantic storyline but it didn't start until a good chunk of the way in. I liked that there were several possible love-interests and that it wasn't until Ash realised she had a crush on someone that I knew which way it would go.
I ended up enjoying Hunting a lot and, as the length of this review may suggest, getting more out of it than I necessarily expected. I recommend it to fans of fantasy, particularly the kind of fantasy that is confined to one city. I'm tempted to call it "ye olde urban fantasy". I think readers of Tamora Pierce's earlier books (I haven't read her later stuff) will also enjoy it, although I admit my reasoning may start and end with the "girl dressed as a boy" element.
4.5 / 5 stars
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