Studying ‘The Hallowed Hunt’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

This is my third time reading this book. I am a fan of this series (The World of the Five Gods), but this book is my least favorite of the main-line trilogy. That said, I still enjoyed it enough to read it three times, so bare in mind that my critique of this book will be influenced by my baseline enjoyment. If I didn’t enjoy this book, I would not have read it again, and therefore I would not be reviewing it right now.


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • People who’ve read prior books in this series
  • People who like reading books with religious themes
  • People who want to read about the impact of colonization/cultural assimilation on a traditional ‘Western’ nation.
  • Adult, but someone who is 16 or older can read it.
  • High Fantasy, but not Epic fantasy. There are no vast sweeping armies, and no combat. There is conflict, but it is of a personal nature.
  • NOT Grimdark. There are dark moments, but this is a hopeful book.

READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I am in this book’s target audience. Indeed, this book and the rest of the World of the Five Gods series was MASSIVELY influential on my personal taste in fantasy, because I first read them at a formative period in my life. I like themes of religion and unwilling cultural assimilation. I like dark overtones in my stories, but not to the point of having Grimdark. I liked this book’s small scope. As a result, I enjoyed this a great deal.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (4.5/5 Stars)

(5 Stars= Perfect, 4=Great, 3=Good/Average, 2=Fun but Flawed, 1=Not Recommended)


SIMILAR BOOKS

  • The Dreamblood Duology (Similar religious vibes)
  • ‘City of Stairs’ Book Review (Similar interrogation of colonialist themes, re-interpreting the legacies of the past)

CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

This book is very much so the red-headed stepchild in the World of the Five Gods main trilogy. ‘Curse‘ and ‘Paladin‘ are legitimately some of the best Fantasy books ever written, with excellent plots, characters and pacing. Now to be fair, ‘The Hallowed Hunt’ isn’t bad- indeed, I gave this 4.5 stars based on ‘fun factor’. But because we have to compare it to two of the best Fantasy books ever written… well, it just doesn’t live up to the example they set. I’ll get into why I think that is later on in this review.

Concept: After a rape-gone-wrong, a prince lays dead and his victim Ijada is on death’s row for killing him in self-defense. Making things worse, it becomes clear that the rapist prince was attempting to perform black magic to compel Ijada into loving him, when Ijada fought back and killed him. Unfortunately for Ijada, the black magic was partially successful, resulting in her becoming host to a wayward animal spirit.

The protagonist Ingray is called in to find out what happened, and clean up the mess (read: hush up any potentially embarrassing details) left in the wake of the prince’s death on behalf of the embarrassed king. Ingray too is in possession of such a blasphemous animal spirit. Seeing her as a kindred spirit, Ingray decides to protect Ijada from the dead prince’s allies, and unravel an ancient mystery going back 400 years to the founding of their kingdom.

This concept is… a lot. I’m having trouble summing it up, which is part of the problem. It’s a lot of plot. I can’t summarize so many twists and turns in an easy to understand paragraph or two. Now, having a complex concept for you story isn’t a bad thing, but such a complex plot does make it more difficult for a reader to fully grok what they’re reading. I just finished reading this book for the third time, and I’m struggling to remember all the twists and turns. I felt that at moments the plot got away from the author.

Execution: Thankfully, Bujold is a master author. She took this weird plot involving, ghosts, demons, wayward animal spirits and a 400 year cursed forest and created a fun story out of it.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (C+)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

Bujold doesn’t struggle with writing characters. Think about Cordelia, or Miles, or Ista, or de Cazaril, or Penric/Desdemona. All of them have unique personalities who are memorable. Be it Cordelia’s action-mom vibe, or Mile’s frenetic-but-brittle energy, or Ista’s bitter resentment, or de Cazaril’s in-over-his-head-but-struggling-along affect, all are fascinating people to base an entire story around.

For me, Ingray was almost one of these fantastic protagonists. There is a sense of barely repressed violence around him, so much so that it’s constantly commented upon by other characters he meets. People fear him as a potential loose cannon, a bravo who can’t quite be trusted. It goes remarked upon that in the past Ingray would black out in the middle of battle and massacre dozens of people in a berserker rage. His berserking rage wouldn’t even stop after the battle is over- instead he’d go around after the battle killing prisoners who’d surrendered. That is a horrifying plotpoint, that an erstwhile sensible protagonist occasionally loses his agency and starts massacring people.

Unfortunately, none of this violence ever happens on screen. That would have been stellar as characterization, for the reader to experience first hand the protagonist losing agency and going on a killing spree. This book oddly lacked for Fantasy violence- there was no interplay of sword and steel. I say this is weird, because as a plotpoint in the history of this novel is a battle, 400 years in the past, and Ingray is supposed to be a warrior. Having combat during the events of the book would make sense in the context and theme of the novel, as would Ingray losing control to a berserker rage- especially since the loss of agency (in the form of both rape and mind-control magic) was already a theme in this novel. That lack of combat, especially with such a potentially violent protagonist, was an opportunity lost by the author.

I liked virtually all the main side characters. The sorceress and her husband, the island prince and his polar bear, the demonic mage-turned-saint… all of them were well drawn side characters who exploded off the page and were fascinating to read about. Even the two Weald princes (both Baest and Boleso) were solid side characters. (To be honest, Learned Helena and Learned Oswin, as well as Prince Jokol and his polar bear, are some of my all time favorite side characters. I hope the author returns to them in the future.)

I didn’t like Ijada’s characterization. She seemed like Ingray’s token love interest, mixed with a barrier maiden devoted to breaking the 400 year curse. She didn’t have any hobbies, quirks, or passions which weren’t related to the main plot. To me, at least, she was a plot element who served in the advancement the main plot arc and Ingray’s plot arc. She wasn’t a true character with agency of her own. Not all characters need a ton of agency (I’d reference Yena from ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ by N. K. Jemisin as an example of a good, low agency character,) but I felt Ijada needed more individuality to set her apart from the pack of Fantasy protagonists.

SPOILERS BELOW

And finally the antagonist, the Hollow King. I love him as an antagonist. He is a man driven mad by immortality. Originally he was made immortal to become a great, immortal warrior to fight against a colonialist power invading his kingdom. However, he died before his immortality ritual was complete, trapping him in a state of half-life, half-death. Now whenever he dies, his ghost steals the body and soul of his closest surviving male heir- from father into son, uncle into nephew, the ghost persists through the ages. After 400 years of this, the Hollow King has become a concatenation of stolen souls, all hungering for death, but unable to find it. He’s a specter of an ancient culture, now long dead and forgotten. His pain was enough to drive him mad.

Because the Gods allowed his nation to be colonized and culturally repressed, The Hollow King has turned his back on the Gods. The Hollow King hungers not just for death, but for the peaceful oblivion beyond the Gods’ Heaven or the Bastard’s Hell. The Hollow King is a suicidal ghost, who wants to flip the bird to the Gods one last time, before fading into nothing. But since the Gods care about only one thing- redeeming people’s souls- the Hollow King can only revenge himself upon the Gods by doing the opposite of saving souls… he intends to defile and sunder as many souls as possible before he passes through the gates of oblivion himself.

This is a fantastic bit of characterization. The Hollow King is an old ghost so corrupted by his resentments and malice that he’s sticking around only to say F. U. to the Gods one last time in the most gloriously extravagant way possible. It’s easy for the reader to understand where this antagonist is coming from- he’s the last survivor of a forgotten civilization, lashing out at the Gods who allowed his culture to be wiped out. Who wouldn’t be bitter under those circumstances? And yet he’s going about his revenge in the only way he can- by targeting innocent people and unravelling their souls entirely. (For reference, this is in-universe viewed as a worse fate than even going to the Bastard’s Hell.)

The Hollow King is a compelling villain. He has a rational motivation. He goes about his villainy in a morally abhorrent way, making him easy to root against. I loved him as an antagonist.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B+)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This is the part where I talk about why I think this book is fundamentally worse than the other two main line books in this series. Simply put, the author employed a vastly different strategy when she paced this book. ‘Curse’ and ‘Paladin’ both had slow, plodding starts. In those books, the plot really begins after several dozen pages- if not several hundred pages. In ‘Hunt,’ it’s go-go-go-go from page 1. In ‘Hunt,’ the author loses no time introducing all the main characters, the magic system, the vital plot points, the hooks and the worldbuilding.

Part of the reason I fell in love with this series is how slow and steady the pacing was in those first two books. The pacing here wasn’t slow that at all. This book is all plot, all the time, and it feels relentless. There is no stopping to smell the roses, and for me that is a shame.

To analyze this book’s structure, I will be using the 5 act format.

Act 1: Investigating the Crime, up through Freed from the Geas

  • This act serves as the status quo of the novel. We learn about spirit animals, geases, demons and magic. It sets up important information later in the novel.
  • Ingray begins the book angry and resentful towards his father for cursing him with spirit animal magic.

Act 2: Freed from the Geas, up through meeting Wencil

  • We finally meet the primary antagonist, learn more about the past of the Weald kingdom, learn about the antagonist’s motivations.

Act 3: Meeting Wencil, through the Funeral

  • Ingray meets the Temple sorcerer-turned-saint, and makes a friend out of Prince Jokol and his pet polar bear. Ingray practices his shaman magic to control the bear using geas magic.

Act 4: The Funeral, through to the King’s Death

  • Ingray practices his geas magic again, freeing Prince Boleso from sundering and ghosthood, allowing him to pass into the hands of the gods. Ingray then rats out Wencil as the Hollow King antagonist… too late.

Act 5: The King’s Death, until the Epilog

  • The King dies, and Wencil the Hollow King acts. He steals the holy kingship from the now-dead king, and uses it to place another geas on Ingray and Ijada. They go to the Wounded Woods and lift the curse which granted the Hollow King immortality. The Hollow King succeeds in damning the souls of all the dead trapped at the Wounded Woods. Just when all seems lost, Helena, Jokol, Oswin, Baest and Learned Lupo (I think that was his name?) arrive, and save all those damned souls.
  • Ingray, having grown as a person, returns to where it all began for him as a child. He tries to save the damned soul of his ghost-father, using the knowledge he gained at the climax of this book. He ultimately fails, but he did the best he could. Ingray ends the book with more self-understanding, no longer resentful towards his long-dead father.

I think this structure works acceptably, but it is a bit confusing around some of the early plot points. For me at least, I never got a good sense of the story for the first half of this book. I don’t know what, but something about Acts 1 & 2 (before they arrived in the capitol) didn’t really work for me.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (C)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

The most fundamental problem with the plot, stakes and tension I had with this story was that the ancient history plot arc (aka lifting the curse upon the wounded woods) didn’t interact with the modern day story of who will become the next king after the old king died at the end of act 4.

Here’s an example of what I wanted.

  • The Hollow King represents a true, pre-colonization Weald culture. The modern Weald Kingdom is a post-colonization culture. I would have liked if The Hollow King was sponsoring a civil war to put a pre-colonization culture back in control of the kingdom.
  • In the book as written, the Hollow King didn’t care about the modern world at all. Because he didn’t have any plans to take over the modern world, so the stakes were kept small. His only goal was to damn the souls of the dead. This is a cool motivation, but it could have been even cooler if he planned to damn the souls of the dead and sponsor a revolt to revive his dead culture.
  • In my version of the book, the Hollow King would attempt to bring back the druid-style magics of the past, and fail. Then, in the epliogue of the book, Baest and Ingray could synthesize the pre- and post-colonization cultures of the Weald, and allow a natural hybrid of the two, reviving the old Weald magics and culture, but along with the reforms of orthodox 5 god worship. In this way, they would show respect to the Hollow King, conceding that he was right that it was unjust that his culture was wiped out, but they would not give in to his corrupt quest for revenge against the gods in the process.

Let’s compare this for a moment to ‘Curse of Chalion’ and ‘Paladin of Souls.’ In ‘Curse,’ the stakes were kept high at the end of the book because the protagonists had to not only triumph over the mystical curse, but also solve a civil war. In ‘Paladin,’ the protagonists had to not only solve a riddle of demons, but also prevent a foreign invasion. The spiritual is paired with the mundane. In ‘Hunt,’ the two are not paired- this book contained only the spiritual. The book feels empty for that loss.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (B-)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

Until this, third reading of this book, I never realized that this book was a colonization allegory. Books about such allegories are fairly common these days in Fantasy literature- you can’t go five feet without tripping over books like ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ or ‘The Traitor Baru Cormorant’. ‘Hunt,’ on the other hand, approaches the topic differently. Instead of inspecting the British Empire, or the Spanish Empire, or the French Empire, this book looks at Rome’s conquest of the Gauls, eradicating the original druidic religion in the name of Christ. I liked this different discussion on the topic. After reading what feels like a dozen ‘white people oppressing non-white people’ fantasy allegories, it’s nice to read a book about the same topic but through a different historical lens.

And finally, about the author’s prose. I enjoyed the author’s prose more consistently in this book than I did in the prior two books in this series. I feel like she did a better job of maintaining her narrative voice throughout in this than the other two.

I give the Authorial Voice: (A-)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

I’m not going to explain in depth why I like this setting’s worldbuilding, because I’ve talked bout 5+ other stories set in this setting and I dislike being redundant. If you want to know why I like this setting, check out some of my other reviews for books in this universe.

I give the Setting: (A-)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

The narrator Marguerite Gavin did a good job. She brought passion to characters when they needed to be passionate, she made them sound bored or petty when they needed to sound bored or petty. She was a skilled actor and I’m happy to have listened to her read this book aloud to me.

I give the Audiobook: (A)


LESSONS LEARNED

  • Show don’t tell about having a badass fighter protagonist. If you protagonist is a fighter, include fight scenes.
  • Make your various plotlines interact. This book had both a modern-day political intrigue plot, and an ancient curse plotline. They never interacted, save in the most barely touching sort-of way. It would have been better if at the climax they fully merged, so solving one solves the other.
  • In this book, the love interest character needed more agency and more personality. In the end, I felt as though she was included in this book solely to be a love interest and tool to advance the plot, and not to be her own person with her own goals and dreams.

SUMMARY

This is a good book, and at moments great. It has multiple of the best side characters I’ve ever read. But ultimately the plot is let down by it’s lack of scope. If the author expanded the goals of the primary villain just a little, I feel that this book would have amped up in awesomeness.


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Adult, World of the 5 Gods

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

A Critique of ‘Cordelia’s Honor’ by Lois McMaster Bujold
A Study of ‘Dragon Mage’ by M. L. Spencer
A Critique of ‘Empire of the Vampire’ by Jay Kristoff
A Review of ‘Red Rising’ by Pierce Brown
A Critique of ‘Sharpe’s Tiger’ by Bernard Cromwell
A Review of ‘Fires of Vengeance’ by Evan Winter
A Critique/Review of ‘The Song of the Shattered Sands’ series by Bradley P. Beaulieu
A Critique of ‘When Jackals Storm the Walls’ By Bradley P Beaulieu
A Critique of ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb
A Literary Study of ‘A Master of Djinn’ by P. Djeli Clark
A Review of ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015’ by P. Djeli Clark

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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