Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Spoiler-Free Book Review: "The Iron Hunt: Hunter Kiss, #1" by Marjorie M. Liu

My reading project for 2014 is Speculative Fiction by Women of Color. To read more about this project, click here.

I love urban fantasy. I remember when I picked up Laurell K. Hamilton's "Guilty Pleasures" one day and got hooked, so much so that I could not read the Anita Blake books fast enough. Since then I've tried other authors, to greater or lesser success. My favorites are the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews; while I love Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson books, they sadly always seem to fall to the bottom of my to-read pile. 

So when I heard about Marjorie M. Liu's "Hunter Kiss" addition to the world of urban fantasy, I picked it up with expectations both good and bad: I expected a new twist on a by-now-well-known subgenre, but I also knew going in that the heroine, Maxine Kiss, would probably be tough but with a heart of gold, reluctant, but always doing the right thing. 

I was right on both counts.

This is far from the worst book in urban fantasy I've ever read; at least Liu isn't a lazy writer. She has clearly worked hard to create the world of Hunter Kiss, and it shows. Details are well-thought out, magic has rules, new types of monsters are introduced, and old monsters are given new twists. There's even a unicorn, something more urban fantasy needs to start featuring. Liu's strengths lie in set-up, setting, and in sticking to the rules she creates for her world. 

To that end, I can't say enough about how much I love the five little "boys" and how they work. Zee, Raw, Mal, Aaz, and Dek. Adorable little demons that live in Maxine's skin as tattoos from head to toe during the day, acting as sort of live-in body armor that renders her nearly invulnerable to weather and brute force; and in the dark they slither off, stick close and act as sort of pets/bodyguards/companions/familiars. The "boys" have done this for every Hunter in Maxine's lineage. Liu is clever enough to give each of the boys enough personality to make them distinct, but not so much they bog down the story. I wish I had my own little tattoo demons.

If this isn't the worst urban fantasy I've ever read, it's also not the best. I love the set-up, I love the concept, I love the boys. I love the idea of a demon-hunter. But Liu's execution is flawed. 

Her writing style is choppy and breathless, better suited to stream of consciousness or action scenes. Those of you familiar with genre writing know how action scenes read: imagine a whole book like that. The result is a book with action scenes that don't pop and quiet scenes that feel white-knuckled. This style of writing also lends itself too easily to lots of sensory description of Maxine's emotions, resulting in a confusing blend of metaphor and what's really going on. A quick scan of other reviews on GoodReads shows I'm not the only one who felt this way while reading the book: it's just too damn hard to stick with it after a while. Urban fantasy should be a fun escape, not one long gasp inside the MC's psyche. It's an exhausting read at times.

And while the world Liu created is very well-thought out, it's not very well executed at times. Characters keep popping up with little or no explanation as to how they fit in the overall story (the Tracker); there are too many demons and too many things going on with them (some possess the living as zombies; others are stuck in an otherworld prison veil; others are Maxine's boys); and the plot, at times, is just all over the place (travels through time; visions of other planets). Finally, Maxine Kiss is little more than a trope of urban fantasy heroines: she's kick-ass, she's tough-as-nails, she's cynical, she's world-weary, she is afraid of getting emotionally hurt yet can't help but care so deeply. That's pretty much every urban fantasy heroine.

I'll probably revisit the Hunter Kiss series at some point. I'm curious to see whether or not the writing evolves, like LKH's Anita Blake series did up to and including Obsidian Butterfly. I really hope it does. Not that I need things to always be an easy read, but it shouldn't be this confusing, either. 

Read my spoiler-free GoodReads review of "The Iron Hunt: Hunter Kiss #1" here.

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