Gollancz, 2007, 231 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-575-07985-4
The recent explosive rise in urban fantasy (the new kind, with leather-clad heroines) has been one of the big publishing success stories of the past decade, and a lot of it has been fueled by a hybridization of romance with supernatural thrillers. The result, perhaps inevitably, has remained chiefly (although not exclusively) aimed at female readers, with the boys joining in for the thrill of reading about “kick-ass chicks”.
Now comes David Devereux with Hunter’s Moon, a self-conscious reactionary take on the same themes that reads like urban fantasy hammered by military thrillers. It’s almost ridiculously aimed at male readers, and has an admirable determination in fulfilling that objective. The results may not be entirely comfortable, but it’s a bit of distinctiveness in a fast-expanding field that seems determined to race to the broadest generic denominator.
The fun starts with the series tagline: “Magician by Profession, Bastard by Disposition”. Our narrator “Jack” may work for the British government, but he is not a nice man, and he means it. Like an authentically spicy dish in a small restaurant, his brand of nastiness has nothing to do with the watered-down bad boys that populate less determined thrillers: He knows magic and he’s paid to be ruthless. Not content with merely killing opponents, he’ll bring their spirit back from the netherworld and curse it so that even their souls will be lost. Now that’s hardcore.
It seems like overkill to set such a protagonist against a mere convent of witches bent on assassinating the British Prime Minister, but that’s as good an excuse as many to initiate readers to the twisted world of military operations and magical incantation that “Jack” inhabits. One thing that may catch readers’ eyes before starting Hunter’s Moon is Devereux’s forward note saying “All the magic in this book is fake. I made it up. The Principles are sound, but since I don’t want anyone out there trying to do the things that Jack does, I assembled his methods from a wide variety of incompatible systems…” If that sounds like a stronger variety of “Don’t try this as home, kids”, it’s no accident: A look at Devereux’s site reveals an authentic interest for the occult (his first book, an autobiography, is titled Memoirs of an Exorcist) and while we’ll agree to disagree on the existence of occult phenomenas, Hunter’s Moon does a splendid job in setting up a messy magical system that feels as if it’s got the patchwork consistency of an authentic discipline.
The rest of the book flies along at a snappy 230 pages as Jack infiltrates his target, depending either on military skills or occult knowledge to advance in his investigations. The twists and turns pile up, and there’s seldom a dull moment negotiating between national state secrets and black magic. There’s a lot of dark kink-friendly sex and even more neck-snapping violence, so don’t let the kids get a copy of this book unless they really, really want it.
This being said, one aspect of Hunter’s Moon left me quite a bit less enthusiastic. “Jack” may be an equal-opportunity professional bastard, but it’s hard to avoid noticing that his targets in this book tend to be overwhelmingly female. Blame my upbringing, but (even in targeting a witch convent) male-on-female violence tends to stick in my craw a bit more than the other permutations. The torture scene, with its strong overtones of dominance and submissive behavior, is about as bad as it gets (well, if you don’t count the whole excessive kill-a-housewife-then-destroy-her-soul bit mentioned above.) I suspect that other readers’ reaction to this material will vary quite a bit.
Others will argue that this type of discomfort is a good sign that this energetic, relentless urban fantasy is meeting its goals. If nothing else, Hunter’s Moon is a rarity in that it doesn’t have any fat nor mercy: it’s lean, it’s mean, and it’s a fast read. In most circumstances, it would be difficult to find anything more appropriate to say about it.