The story is set in the harsh and unforgiving fantasy world of Conhaero where the landscape can change from mountain to plain or lake to desert in a matter of minutes. The world is ruled by a tyrant king, the Caisah who has ruled with an iron fist since bringing about the Harrowing centuries before. The story arc of Hunter and Fox is reminiscent of Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay and Mistborn:The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson with civilizations destroyed through tyranny and corruption. These are two of my favourite novels and as I am a big fan of Ballantine so I was convinced that Hunter and Fox would also fit into my ‘favourite’ category. Ballantine creates mystery and tension by not fully explaining the Harrowing or how the Caisah came to power. The story is written from the perspective of three main characters, Talyn the Dark, Finnbarr the Fox and Talyn’s brother Byre. These start out as independent stories but they soon intersect as the characters become involved in their individual quests. There are quite a few secondary characters who both play a part in the three main plot lines, as well as, a few who deliver their own story while at the same time explain some of the history, cultures and races of Conhaero.
Talyn the Dark is the Caisah’s hunter, the very person cursed her people, the Vaerli when he brought about the Harrowing. The Hunter has been bonded to Caisah for over 300 years and for every bounty she brings him she receives a piece from a golden puzzle. The puzzle is the answer to a great secret, a secret that isn’t uncovered until the final chapter. With every piece she wins from the Caisah, Talyn loses more of her soul and self-respect. It is through her service to The Caisah that has made her a pariah to not only other Vaerli but almost everyone else. Talyn is not portrayed as likeable character and at first it is hard to sympathize as so little is revealed as to how she became the Hunter. I always appreciate when the author makes the heroine flawed in some way and it is especially brave of Ballantine to create a lead female character that was so cold hearted and ruthless despite the fact she is very damaged from her past.
Finnbarr the Fox is a story-teller and has chosen to tell a tale of life before the Caisah. This quickly brings him to the attention of the Caisah and he finds himself as Talyn’s next bounty. Finnbarr is drawn to Talyn and he soon finds himself in her custody and on the run from the Caisah. The reader only discovers near the end of the story why he has risked his life to be with Talyn. I liked the twist that Finnbarr was a story-teller rather than a bard, which is the type of character most fantasy authors use to tell the backstory or to advance the plot. Ballantine gives the reader a big surprise with a plot reveal at near the end involving Finnbarr and Talyn.
The final main character was Byre is Talyn’s long lost brother. He has been in hiding since he was a child and finds himself on a perilous journey to find more about his people and what happened to them. Brye’s story intersects with nearly every other character in the novel and because of this the delivery of his story is more fragmented than the others and not as easy to follow.
Ballantine creates an exotic and turbulent world in which to base her story. The races, cultures and relationships are very complex and scenes flit from one character to another in relatively brief chapters. The author isn’t afraid to make the reader work to uncover the character’s past, the history of the races or their relationship to one another. History is teased out throughout the novel and Ballantine relies on the reader to use their imagination and to accept the fact that not everything will be spelled out for them. My one small criticism was that the description of the different cultures and races was somewhat piecemeal and it was very easy to forget who was who. This meant that it was sometimes necessary to go back and re-read parts in order to put pieces of the back story together. The story ends with a cliffhanger for all the characters and only a relatively few of the mysteries resolved. This does however, set the scene for the following novels. Hunter and Fox is a rich and vibrant story dealing with love, loss and the desire to regain a stolen past. Each of the characters were driven to uncover the secrets of their past and they were prepared to risk everything in the process. The word, epic could easily be used to describe this book and I am certain, the series will be.
Hunter and Fox was very different from Ballantine’s other fantasy series, Book of the Order both in the complexity of the world and in characterization She actually wrote this book before the Geist which is evident in the way that she evolves the characters over the story along with the multiple plot lines. Her characters in the Book of the Order series are slightly more developed but there are fewer of them which may have contributed, in some way to how they were written. Ballantine has a prodigious talent for developing interesting characters with complicated stories to tell. She keeps a fast pace to the story to ensure that you are kept engaged, if not just to find out whether Finn can win over the dark hearted heroine Talyn. I was kept guessing until the very end and almost fell off the cliff that Ballantine left on the final pages. My only problem now is wondering when book 2 is out.
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