My heart hurts to say this, but: Hunter by Mercedes Lackey was awful. I never thought I'd say that about any of her books. I adore the Valdemar books and am currently binge-reading the Elemental Masters series, so I know she is an excellent writer. Which is why I keep asking myself, "How did this go so very wrong?"
There are good elements here, and if Lackey had just written this in her usual style of tenacious heroines and not attempted to force her writing and ideas into some sort of "YA formula" (of which there really isn't one, since YA is an age group, not a genre), we would have had a really fun book. Instead, I had to suffer through over 360 pages of tortured narrative, a barely-there, lukewarm "romance," and enough infodumping to bury an Drakken. Add to that the frantic necessity of incorporating elements from every popular dystopian fiction/post-apocalyptic fiction book out there, and you have a gooey, lumpy pile of sludge masquerading as fantasy.
I found myself wondering if Lackey really wrote this, as the style is so very different, the voice so childish, and the plot so uneven that it's hard to believe a veteran writer with a backlist longer than my arm would put her name on something this poorly executed. Alas, I found several interviews online that indicated that she did, in fact, write this (or at least wished to take credit for it).
What killed the book, with all of its cool ideas and Lackey's signature animal/human relationships (which, even in Hunter, are exceedingly well-done. I don't think Lackey could write a poor animal voice if she tried!), was that it had been forced into what many readers and critics consider to be the Dystopian Novel Stereotype. Hunter tries to incorporate all of those stereotypical elements, even when they fit into the narrative about as comfortably as an elephant in a fishbowl. I just wanted to shake the author and say, "You have awesome ideas! I know how well you can write! You do not need a super-special-yet-humble heroine and a love interest who is in literally four scenes just because your agent said it would sell!"
Joyeaux* Charmand lives on the Mountain, where she is trained as a Hunter by magical Masters. She and her magical Hounds, to whom she is bound with mandala burns on her hands, hunt mythological monsters that cross over into our world (yes, all of the capitalization is from the book. In my review, I will use Sarcastic Capitalization, thusly, but the text is littered with randomly capitalized nouns and verbs).
Many years ago, a series of events occurred that ended life as we know it and opened a breach so that Otherworlders--magical creatures that hail from every mythos that ever existed--could come rampaging through and destroy society. California finally broke off from the mainland and is now firmly under the rule of the Folk (fae), and Yellowstone blew up. Then, the "Christers" set off a nuclear bomb in Israel to hasten the coming of the Apocalypse, which somehow made lots of other nuclear bombs go off (why???) and the whole world was kaput.
This is called the Diseray, and after the carnage, people discovered that some of them had magical abilities, and some of them had psychic abilities. Again, WHY? How? Does exploding nuclear bombs break the branes between universes and simultaneously give people magical and psychic powers? After the Diseray, the military takes over and fights back all of the monsters that pop through the aether to gobble up the humans. Humans are particularly tasty because they possess a reserve of magic called "manna."
*MILD TANGENT WARNING*
Given the total absence of Jewish people in this book and the disapproving attitude toward Christians, why call the magic "manna"? Is that kind of a kick in the face to people who read/believe in the Bible? Is it just because it sounds cool? I mean, "manna" means "What is it?" so I guess it's an appropriate name for this magical power that shows up in tasty humans that can be eaten by eldritch horrors ... yeah, I can't spin that to make it work. Sorry.
*TANGENT DISSIPATING. RESUME READING NORMALLY*
We start out with Joy traveling on a luxury train which is zooming along inside of an electrified cage to keep the baddies out. Joy has been summoned to Apex City by her uncle, the Prefect. She'd much rather stay on the Mountain with her Master and herd goats and practice meditation, but when your Very Powerful Uncle calls, you go. We learn about Joy's hyper-vigilance and super-special magical abilities in extreme detail during this train ride. It is the longest bookish train ride I've ever taken. Naturally, this can't just be a quotidian journey--not with Ultra Hunter Joy on board! They are attacked by a member of the Folk--the nasty type of tricksy killer fae that you'll find in a Holly Black book. Because she is super-special, Joy comes up with an ingenious solution to save the whole train full of people. Yay!
Little does she know that her actions are being observed, and that she's already risen in Hunter Rankings. There is a kindly steward (isn't there always) on board who explains to Joyeaux that all of the Hunters in Apex City have their own vid channels because they are basically rock stars. They have fans and are Ranked according to their Hunting abilities and personal style. Hmm, let me see ... sort of like how tributes are ranked before going into the arena?
When she finally meets her uncle in Apex, he warns her via Super Secret Hunter Code that they are being watched and that she must be careful. Oh no! Could it be that life in the big city is not as safe as it seems?
Back at Hunter HQ, Hunter Karly, who starts out as the Gruff Mentor Type, shows Joy around and introduces her to other Hunters. There's the number-one Hunter Ace, who reminded me a lot of Prince Charming from the Shrek movies, and there's Hunter White Knight, a Christer everyone thinks is a nutter because of his religion. These are the only ones we really meet; the rest of the Hunters just move around like cardboard cutouts, popping up only when another character is needed in a scene.
Joy is paired with Knight to go out and Hunt, and they become friends (awwww) and kill Othersiders (oooooo!) and discover that the vids are constantly being edited to make people feel safer than they actually are. In like three scenes, Josh, the Psimon, takes her on dates and she falls in love with him, as a girl is wont to do with someone who can read her mind. There's also some sort of conspiracy to kill Joy. In order to protect herself, she applies to become an Elite Hunter. Honey, getting a promotion does not guarantee safety. But whatever. She does this sort of obstacle course thing, wins (obviously), and becomes Elite. And thus ends the book.
Probably the biggest shock to me while reading this was the amateurish writing. In an interview, Lackey says it's the first book she's done in first-person narration, and how proud she is of this one. That ... is an awkward thing to say when your heroine yammers to herself about how special she is and how excited she is to try "Pretzels"! instead of making me, you know, actually care about her. Plus, Joy's internal monologue includes zingy phrases like: "Oh, this is so not good" and "Inside, I was a screaming mess." Repeatedly.
Another thing that made me feel uncomfortable was that the diversity felt both token and appropriative. Joy's teacher, Master Kedo, is Zapotec. Her hounds are also Zapotec, but they have the names of Tibetan gods, which even Joy doesn't understand. The Mandalas that each Hunter has are described as "sort of like the Mandalas in some of the Buddhist or Hindu god-paintings at the monestary, but the language isn't Chinese or Sanskrit." Karly looks "very Native, with prominent cheekbones and a jut of a nose." And yet the main characters are all white: Josh the Psimon/boring love interest has blond hair and "crystal blue eyes," Ace has "white blond" hair, Knight is "very blond," and there's no indication that Joy isn't white. However, one of the main accessories of Hunters who compete for rankings is that they put feathers in their hair.
Thirdly, I'm unsure as to why Lackey felt the need to come down so hard on "Christers" in this book. In the Valdemar universe, people are allowed to believe and practice what they like as long as they don't hurt others, and tolerance is expected. I totally get being seriously mad at a group who set off a nuclear bomb to hasten the rapture, but condemning an entire set of beliefs because of the acts of a few radicals is a treacherous path to follow. It leads to witch hunts and so-called "holy wars." I was also a bit confused, because as I understand it, not all Christian denominations believe in the rapture, but Joy describes them as all wanting to be "sucked up to Heaven." I mean, she can personally believe that Christianity sucks, because yeah, Christians have done atrocious things in the name of religion, but it's a bit incongruous in a book that's supposedly about hunting monsters in a post-apocalyptic dystopia.
Finally, there was the Special Snowflake Problem. If I had to hear one more time about how nobody has/does such-and-such, but Joy does, I was going to scream. I know that I screamed internally many times. Let me give you just a taste of the ever-humble, "I want to serve the Cits and protect them with my life," Hunter Joyeaux is different from everyone else.
"This is a trick the Masters taught me, and so far as I know, I am the only Hunter who does this, though most of the Masters of all sorts do."
"I'm the only Hunter I know of with Alebrijes as Hounds."
"Mind you, it wasn't really noticeable, but I'm trained to catch little things."
Plus, she's the Hunter with the most amount of Hounds, and that number only increases.
Oddly enough, in spite of all of my objections (which, as you can see, are legion), the book was engaging and dragged me into the plot once I struggled through the quicksand beginning. No matter how hard she tried to dumb down the prose for teens (not necessary, by the way!), Lackey knows how to write Hunting scenes. The Hounds are fascinating, and Lackey's other strength, human/animal bonding, really shines here as well. I wanted to know so much more about Bya and the pack.
Very little is resolved in this book, and I really don't buy the love story at all, so ... I possibly would read the second one, just out of curiosity. I know it's completely counterintuitve, but no one ever said reading was logical. I'd much prefer it if, I don't know, Talia from Arrows of the Queen showed up, shoved Joyeaux out of the way, and kicked major butt while still being relatable and vulnerable.
Bottom line: Avoid. And if you've never read anything by Lackey, do not make this your first book. She really can write fantasy, I promise. Just don't look in the direction of Hunter.
*Why the heck is Joy's name the plural form of "jewel"? "Joyau" is a perfectly fine name, I guess. But her nickname is "Joy," so did the author mean to name her "Joyeux"? And if so, her name actually should have been "Joyeuse" because she is female.