PROS: Distinctive universe and cosmology; interesting characters.
CONS: Worldbuilding far too thin on the ground given the milieu.
VERDICT: A potentially excellent novel weakened by thinness of world design.
Conhaero. A young world, whose borders seethe with primal Chaos. A world where the terrain might change abruptly overnight, changing a gentle plain to a series of jagged hills. A world that a variety of peoples have reached through that same Chaos. A world where the previously dominant race, the Vaerli, have been overthrown by a singular being of power and vision, the Caisah, who now rules the land with an unforgiving tyranny. High among his servants is one of those self-same Vaerli, Talyn the Dark, the titular Hunter of the novel. And yet, omens and portents suggest that this situation cannot, and must not remain, or else the entire world is at work. Thus, Conhaero is a world ripe for, yes, change.
Hunter and Fox is the first of the Shifted World novels by Philippa Ballantine. Best known for her Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novels with Tee Morris, and her Books of the Order series beginning with Geist, Hunter and Fox brings us a new world.
Populating the world of Conhaero are a number of interesting characters. Foremost amongst these are the titular characters. Talyn the Dark, the Hunter for the Caisah, is seeking a way to undo the usurpation of the Vaerli — not only their temporal power, but their especial abilities, too. An extremely driven and uncompromising character, her alienness for all of looking and acting otherwise “human” is one of the best things about the book. Set against her is the other strong character of the novel, Finnbarr the Fox. Just who and what Finn is, as far as his race goes, is not precisely clear. However, his efforts to agitate and move the populace against the Caisah naturally bring him in conflict with the strongest single agent the Caisah has to bear: Talyn. The twist? Its not the first time they have crossed each other’s paths.
The plot of Hunter and Fox is a braided twist, as we hop across a couple of viewpoint characters that eventually intersect in unanticipated ways. A set of seemingly minor supporting characters, who appear to be at first only foils for Finn, turn out to be important and agency-seeking on their own, a neat twist of this reader’s expectations. There are other interesting characters as well, of lesser prominence but for the major part no less well-defined and drawn. From Kelanim, the Caisah’s primary mistress (and rival to Talyn in the Court of the Caisah), to Talyn’s long lost brother Byre, we get a variety of races, peoples and viewpoints to fill out the story. Their intersections with the major characters form a strong web upon which the novel rests. And there is always the sense that these characters have other connections, that their worlds extend beyond what we can see.
Some of the minor characters, though, seem somewhat murky to me in terms of motivation and delineation. I couldn’t quite make out the relationship between Talyn and her father, and how and why he so swiftly gives up on her in favor of her brother’s own efforts. The Caisah is a very remote figure as far as his nature, his powers, and just how and what he is about, more of an antagonist for the entirety of the novel to reflect and refract upon than a fleshed out character in his own right. Still, even given these quibbles, characterization is probably the strongest part of the book.
It may be more of an authorial style than anything else, but the weakest part of the novel is the part I had highest and greatest hopes for: the worldbuilding. The idea of a world that changes form, that has primal chaos on its borders, is one of the things that attracted me to the book in the first place. Readers of my Roll Perception Plus Awareness column on Exalted will understand that I kept seeing Conhaero in terms of a world bounded by Chaos. Alternatively, it reminds me much of the worlds of John Brunner’s The Compleat Traveller in Black or some of the Multiverse worlds touched by Chaos in the works of Michael Moorcock. And yet, for all of this potential in the worldbuilding, I felt it was more than a little underdone and underutilized. The shifting nature of the world isn’t really brought into play anywhere near as much as expected, and much of the book could have been in a far more traditionally secondary world for that environment’s underutilized use and impact upon the characters and their actions. Also, some aspects of the races and characters erupt without forewarning, leaving some head scratching
Additionally, while infodumping has hazards of its own, sometimes information about the world and the past of the characters is thin and hard in coming. I can appreciate one of the central mysteries of the novel and why that information is withheld, but other things are more frustrating than invoking a sense of wonder. To name one example: The overthrow of the Vaerli by this Caisah. How long ago was it? How and why did it happen? Even given some of the spartan clues, those are really not enough to make a solid judgement, and the answers to those questions matter. I can appreciate some of these questions, like the exact nature of the Caisah, seem to be set up as mysteries of the setting. But to not know how long it has been since the Caisah has taken over Conhaero is a key piece of missing information. And this is a question that sometimes made it difficult to appreciate the gravity of the situations and some of the character actions and motivations, especially Talyn.
As far as the themes of the novel, although not painted in strong color, they are drawn well. Themes of redemption, loss, regret and grasping at lost glories come through well in the actions and motivations of the characters. If Fantasy is a genre primarily engaged with the idea of Restoration, Hunter and Fox certainly plays on that theme hard. Restoration of the order of the world before the Caisah took command. Restoration of Talyn in the eyes of her fellow Vaerli, not at all happy with her working with the enemy. Restoration of the Vaerli themselves and their lost arts. And there are more than hints that this theme runs even further.
Overall, Hunter and Fox is certainly an entertaining novel. It is not quite what I hoped for, though. I am curious enough about Conhaero, and especially these characters, to want to know much more. I would like some answers to my questions, after all. I can hope the next Shifted World novel will provide some of them.