Between City of Stairs, The Goblin Emperor, Words of Radiance, the latest Daniel Abraham, and the debut of Brian Staveley, 2014 saw the release of a feast of remarkable fantasies—and whilst I find that playing favourites is a fool’s game usually, last year, there was one I loved above all others. The only complaint I found myself able to make about Smiler’s Fair was that there wasn’t more of it, but with second volume of The Hollow Gods upon us, there is now—and how!
At the heart of Rebecca Levene’s first fantasy was the titular travelling carnival: a cultural crossroads whose various visitors were invited, for a price, to indulge in their unsightly vices. There, they gambled and they drank; there, they fought and they fucked. For centuries, Smiler’s Fair was a welcome outlet for wicked impulses, as well as those desires disdained by the lords of the Lands of the Sun and Moon, in a place apart from the populace.
That was before it burned; before it was ravaged by a magical fire that left thousands dead and many more homeless. But it’s “best not to cry about what’s past. It’s only what’s coming that matters.” And what’s that, you ask?
In a word: war.
Before that sorry state of affairs is declared, The Hunter’s Kind has us spend some time with a few new faces, including Cwen. The first hawk among the Hunter’s hundreds—an orphan army whose mandate is to defend the people of the sun against the monsters of the moon—Cwen must put aside her principles and lead her lot into conflict when she learns that Yron, her god’s eternal enemy, has been reborn.
She’s assisted in this by Algar and Alfreda, a blacksmithing brother and sister who have crafted a kind of cannon that will change the way war is fought in the Lands of the Sun and Moon for ever after—if only they can iron out a few killer kinks in its construction.
Together, Cwen, Algar and Alfreda give The Hunter’s Kind a heart, for a start. None of the three are perfect people, but unlike the array of self-serving so-and-sos at the centre of Smiler’s Fair, they’re at the very least decent. That said, the survivors of said text are, to a one, rather less repugnant than they were way back when, not least in Sang Ki’s case. Here, the corpulent prince set on impressing his father by capturing or killing Krishanjit comes into his own in a major way, to the extent that I frequently found myself rooting for him over our hapless hero.
I was less in love with Eric’s role in the whole. As one of the travelling carnival’s so-called sellcocks, his inside perspective was essential in the first volume of The Hollow Gods: it both aided and complicated our understanding of Smiler’s former Fair. But that’s the kind of thing you can get away with once if you’re lucky, and he serves the same purpose with respect to a second setting—and not even a notable one—in The Hunter’s Kind. As an actual character, Eric falls flat, spending the vast majority of his chapters reacting rather than acting to affect his circumstances in any sense.
Happily, he’s the only weak link in this otherwise superlative sequel. Which brings me to Krishanjit, the moon god in mortal form. “He was barely even a man, still with the gawky awkwardness of a boy about him and the hollow-chested, scrawny look of the goatherd he’d been not so very long ago.” He’d almost certainly benefit from some time to find himself, but fate don’t wait, I’m afraid; Krish is just going to have to learn how to be a god on the job.
His job in The Hunter’s Kind, however, is to kill a king, and “to take the Oak Wheel of Ashanesland from his father, he needed an army.” Fortunately, a few forces are falling all over themselves to support him, but Krish being Krish, he keeps making mistakes—and the mistakes he makes these days don’t lead to lost livestock like they used to. The mistakes he makes these days leave entire landscapes decimated, and the tribes that called them home totalled. So it went with the Brotherband. So it goes in the Rah lands. But maybe, just maybe, things will be different in the city of mirrors, where the conflict Levene teases throughout The Hunter’s Kind is unleashed at last:
The sun blazed brilliantly down and shards of light lanced back, like a thousand fireflies hovering above the ground. Krish looked down, dazzled, and when he blinked the blaze away he saw Mirror Town.
At first he thought of Smiler’s Fair. It was the only other place so large he’d ever seen. But Smiler’s Fair had been made to move and, in the end, to burn. No fire could destroy Mirror Town’s huge, sprawling houses of marble and granite and every type of stone. Krish couldn’t see the city’s boundary, only broad street after broad street lined with vast buildings and narrower ways threading through green parkland. There were people everywhere, many dark-skinned and curly-haired like Olufemi and many more from all the nations of the world.
A melting pot Mirror Town may be, but it’s not the crossroads of sorts Smiler’s Fair was. Here, there be mages and slaves: mages who may be able to stand against the enemies gathering at the gates and slaves who, in time, could be trained to wield weapons in their service—assuming Krish doesn’t make an enemy of either party beforehand.
The war, when it’s waged, is massively satisfying, depicted as it is with focus, intensity and momentum—as are the action scenes in advance of The Hunter’s Kind‘s climax. But to be frank, kick-ass battles are something of a standard in contemporary fantasy. What sets Levene’s narrative apart from the pack is that the periods of calm before these chaotic clashes are equally appealing. An attention to sensory detail puts The Hunter’s Kind, like Smiler’s Fair before it, leaps and bounds beyond the bland or the boring, even during the story’s slower moments. Indeed, the novel is never less than compelling, not least because Levene knows when to intervene in threads that threaten to detract from the impact of the tapestry entire.
Character-wise, I can’t be so comprehensively complementary. On the one have we have the likes of Sang Ki, a second-rate soldier of little interest in the first volume of The Hollow Gods, yet so consequentially developed in The Hunter’s Kind that I find myself as invested in his tertiary quest as I am in Krish’s ultimate becoming. On the other hand, there’s Eric: a man I can only imagine Levene needs for some still-to-be-revealed reason, but who has nothing to do for now.
Similarly, with no shipforts to speak of, and Smiler’s Fair fallen, the series’ setting feels a little less special than it did to begin with. The Lands of the Sun and the Moon are absolutely enlarged over the course of The Hunter’s Kind, much as our cast of characters are, but bigger isn’t always better.
Fantasies as smart and subversive and surprising as Smiler’s Fair don’t come around all that often. Sequels like The Hunter’s Kind don’t either. It’s fair to say I found a few more nits to pick with it than I did its impeccable predecessor, but whereas I had no great expectations of Levene’s last, I took it on trust that the second volume of The Hollow Gods would be brilliant. And it is! But success is double-edged, thus those moments when its stunning standard sags are moderately more frustrating than they’d be in a less impressive effort than The Hunter’s Kind is as a whole.
The Hunter’s Kind is available July 2nd from Hodder & Stoughton.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.