I started my late teen entry into fantasy reading with girls who heard telepathic dragons and Heralds who rode blue-eyed telepathic horses. They whole telepathic animal thing quickly got to be a bit much, but I have to admit that I loved those books enough at the time to give any McCaffrrey or Lackey book more than half a chance -- which turns out to be a good thing. A fully realized story with no love triangle (shocking!) and a beginning, middle and END, this novel happily leaves a sliver of light at the edge of the door to enable a sequel or two to push through.
Summary: Joyeaux Charmand is a sixteen year old monster "incident" survivor, raised by Masters in a secret post-Buddhist monastery to be a Hunter. Joy loves the order and familiarity of her quiet life in the Colorado mountains, but has now been called to the Apex, the nerve center of the remaining, monster-free world, by her Uncle, the Prefect. In the twisted post-apocalyptic of Earth in which she finds herself, Joy is accustomed to using all of her skills to work alongside the "Cits," the citizen civilians who have no magic. Together with her Hounds, magical beasts who came into the world, along with the monsters, from the Otherside, Joy patrols and trains and does what she can. It's what Hunters do.
Having lived in rural and secret surroundings, Joy is an enigma to the tech-obsessed, city people of the Apex, where she has been sent to live. Though he is the Prefect of Apex, and allegedly in power, Joy's uncle is clearly wary of something, and keeps their relationship distant and cool - and Joy keeps her mouth shut, because the Masters at the monastery don't want to cede all of their secrets, magic and power to the Apex, and only sent her away to keep the whole settlement safe. They don't quite trust the government, or their intention to protect the people. Joy - and the reader - understands this only faintly at first. Joy's biggest understanding is that there are monsters to kill, people to protect, and having her own TV channel, signature color, rivalries with other Hunters, and a "trending" score for her fan following is just surreal. Especially since it seems like someone - maybe monsters working in eerie concert, maybe a political enemy of her the Prefect's? - is trying to kill her.
Peaks: Mercedes Lackey writes books of absorbing detail and drama. The class striations, the monsters, and the world of the monastery are rendered in cinematic definition. There's a great deal going on, the confrontations begin immediately, the allies are unclear, and the stakes are high. By the time Joy reaches the Apex, there's a sense of familiarity in this novel - as if we've read this book before, or seen the movie. However much an echo of the hollow pageantry of The Hunger Games the Apex seems, Joy, as the girl with all the gifts, is neither as humanly flawed nor cynically wary as the heroine of that tale. Joy's genuineness and desire for connection with people who truly see her allows readers an "in" to the story, and will have them cheering for her to change her world.
Diversity was a quiet positive in this novel, with characters varicolored and variously orientation. I was relieved to see the narrator's stated distaste for the "Christers" who allegedly kicked off the Diseray - or the Dies Irae, depending on who you ask - begin to be informed by actually meeting with and talking to a person - no matter how perfectly Joy is presented, she's still able to make assumptions and have prejudices which need confrontation with reality. This goes a ways toward making her a character readers can both admire, yet also appreciate.
Valleys: This book, as a first in a series, needs extra patience from the reader to maneuver through the densely packed first chapters, and the measured pacing to get to know the main character, find her spark, and root for her society. We have the disadvantage of only being able to see as far as the main character can see, in some cases - and then our understanding outpaces hers. While not being the sort of heroine who makes readers roll their eyes and point out the obvious clues she's missing to danger, readers may find themselves impatient with her methodical thought processes and lack of suspicion - and may find themselves guessing plot twists well before they happen.
Bluntly, the post-apocalyptic Chosen Child/Earth Savior role of the heroine is entirely overdone in YA lit. No one is perky, pretty, and competent at all times, scores all the goals and is thrifty, reverent and clean too - but it's a common YA trope to create the Perfect Girl for whom every guy in the school lusts, too. (And then comes the sparkly vampire. Fortunately, vampires are staked, in this book). Further, there is a GREAT deal of plot and detail overlap between this book and other successful YA post-apocalyptic efforts. While there's no new stories at ALL, the use of glamour and points and trending for fighters echoes the ridiculous world of The Capitol in THE HUNGER GAMES; the flying paparazzi cameras echo myriad other YA novels, including Dashner's THE MAZE RUNNER and Westerfeld's UGLIES series. The familiarity of these elements so soon after the success of the other novels allows the reader to think, "Okay, I've seen that before, I know there's no danger and that it will all be okay," which probably lowers the stakes and removes the tension in a way the author never intended.
Conclusion: Slow pacing and dense detail in world-building may challenge some readers while similarities to other recent post-apocalyptic novels may trouble others. However, if imitation is the quickest way to get readers hooked, readers seeking read-alikes may find this intriguing enough to begin, and then the original entertaining details will cement their interest.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Disney/Hyperion. After September 1, you can find HUNTER by Mercedes Lackey at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!