REVIEW: The Iron Hunt by Marjorie Liu
Dear Ms. Liu,
I’m a fan of your Dirk and Steele series, so I’ve been looking forward to your urban fantasy debut for a long time. I’ve always found your paranormal romances to be very action packed so I assumed the transition to urban fantasy would be an easy one. Good thing I didn’t bet any money on that.
A long time ago, demons once walked the earth but through the combined efforts of demon hunters and godlike beings, they were imprisoned behind a veil that keeps their realm separate from our own. There used to be many wardens who kept the demonic prisoners in check but now there is only one: Maxine Kiss.
Maxine comes from a line of hunters whose progenitor struck a deal with the very same demons they fight. This pact is embodied by the tattoos that cover Maxine’s body. By day, the tattoos form impenetrable armor; by night, the tattoos come alive and her demon bodyguards take flesh. The only catch is that the demon tattoos are passed down from mother to daughter, and once the exchange is made, the now-defenseless mother often becomes target practice for the demons she once hunted down.
I have read the “Hunter Kiss” novella in the Wild Thing anthology and while I had mixed feelings about it, I didn’t let that deter me from picking up The Iron Hunt. I try not to let an author’s forays into shorter fiction prejudice me against their longer works because in the end, they’re different beasts that require different skill sets.
On the other hand, I shouldn’t have let my opinions about your previous work influence my expectations for your newer work. They’re in different genres and the Hunter Kiss series is told in a very different style from what I’ve come to expect from you. To be honest, I was put off by it initially. From early in the prologue:
It was not her fault. There was a blizzard. Six hours until sunset, lost on a twisting county road. Bad map. No visibility. Black ice, winds howling down.
I remembered. Slammed against my seat belt. Station wagon plowing into a drift, snow riding high as my window. Metal crunching: the edge of the bumper, the front tire, my door. Beneath us, a terrible reverberating crack.
Lodged. Busted. Dead on our wheels. More than dead. My mother showed me spikes packed into the snow and ice. Tiny metal stars, so sharp the points pricked my palm when I bent to touch one. She pointed out the tires, torn into scrap, ribbons of rubber. Told me not to worry. Called it a game.
I don’t know about other readers but I have a difficult time reading extremely choppy prose. And when a book opens with a barrage of fragments, I find myself unable to sink into the story. I’ll even admit it took me a couple tries to figure out what exactly had caused the car crash. Maybe that makes me a dumb reader, but it’s the truth. I have no doubt this was a deliberate choice to write in a terse style but I’m afraid it was overkill for me.
On the other hand, later in the novel, there were some passages that I loved and that I found more indicative of the writing style I’ve grown to expect from your books:
Later, I understood why my mother ripped those pages from her diary.
There were things I could never confess. Not to my daughter, should I live long enough to have one-‘and not to Grant. Not the boys, though I suspected they could read my mind. Some thoughts, the ones that lingered, were better left as ghosts.
Some things should remain beneath the skin.
I felt the prose became more relaxed as the book continued and while I’m certainly no judge of the amount of work an author puts into her writing, I couldn’t help but think the initial chapters felt labored and anxious, like they were trying too hard to make a splash. I found myself wishing the prose would just relax a little so I could fully enjoy the story.
I honestly wanted to like Maxine. Demonic tattoos that come to life? The stuff of speculative fiction, and I’m certainly down with that. Unfortunately, I found her character bland and boring. She is neither the kickbutt, if sometimes annoying, heroine we’ve come to expect from urban fantasy nor is she the reluctant hero that so often stars in fantasy novels. She was just there, flat and lifeless on the page with no good points or bad points to distinguish her from her UF peers.
In fact, I found myself more interested in the story of Maxine’s mother. Not only was she by all accounts one badass mama, she had to raise a daughter that wasn’t quite right and that even demons said she should kill and replace with another, all the while knowing that one day she would die because of that child. That story would have been different and interesting. We don’t have enough badass mamas in urban fantasy, in my opinion.
As it was, I had to content myself with the bland Maxine and her equally boring boyfriend, the former priest Grant. Never have I encountered a couple with so little sexual tension or attraction. As far as I was concerned, they could have just been roommates and it wouldn’t have made an impact on the story.
Combined with a plot that took a little too long to come together, a narrative that frankly lost me in places, and underdeveloped references to Sumerian myth that may or may not have been intentional (honestly, you can’t use the name Enkidu without me wondering if the character in question actually is the man-beast from the Gilgamesh story), I ended up sorely disappointed. I think readers expecting the UF equivalent of Dirk and Steele will feel similarly but maybe readers wanting a more middle of the road protagonist might find something to like here. C-
This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.
I’ll admit I liked the prose you posted. It captured the disjointed feeling of a car crash and caught my attention.
Unfortunately, it’s only available in Mobi format, so I’ll have to get it from the library.
That’s why I decided to post the excerpt. Liking or not liking prose is such a subjective thing, especially when it gets more stylistic. For example, I know many readers hate first person present tense but I love it.
I love your reviews, Jia, but I wish you’d read faster. Before I buy the book. :D
It seems as my tastes are pretty much equal to yours so I always read your reviews of urban fantasy with interest. It so happened I just picked up this book but haven’t dived into it yet. The first part will annoy me just like it did you. Even that short bit you posted “felt” exhausting.
And she’s not kick-ass? Since I’ve already purchased the book, I’ll give it a try but I’m sorry to hear the two main characters are boring and bland.
Thanks for your reviews! Read more urban fantasy! :D
I totally agree re: the prose. It really kept taking me out of the story.
As you say Jia, liking or not liking prose is very subjective. I actually really liked it. To borrow Lynn Viehl’s words about Iron Hunt:
Jia: I think overall that I liked this book better than you did, but my problems were the same. I love her D&S books. I had no expectations for this book – other than I expected it to be so darn good and I was disappointed.
Will I read the sequel?? Yes, I will. I have hope.
Kim: I do try to read the books before their publication date. Sometimes I’m not able to, and sometimes the reviews just don’t get posted as near the pub date as readers would like. (This was a case of the latter.) The problem I often encounter with NY pubbed books is that their release schedule is, for the most part, crammed within two weeks. (Usually the last week and first week of any given month, and typically on Tuesdays.) So at DA, we run into the issue of when to post reviews. Do we cram them all into those two weeks? But if we do that, what about the other half of the month? There’s no perfect solution.
Jane does send me the bulk of the UF books but then we run into the problem with my pickiness. And I harbor no illusions. I know I’m picky. And contrary to our reputation as Mean Girls, we really do try to read books we think we’ll like. But I’ll do my best.
Shanna: I think there will be many readers who love the prose, just as I think there will be many readers who find it impenetrable. I can definitely tell it was a deliberate choice on Liu’s part. This was not a case of the writer not knowing what they were doing. She knew. So I suspect this will become a polarizing book where readers will either really dislike it or really love it, with few in between.
From an objective standpoint, I admire that because it tells me the writer committed 100% to their vision. I vastly prefer that over a book where I wonder if the author is writing half-heartedly. It’s just a shame that in this case, I didn’t fall within the audience that loves the author’s vision because truthfully, I really, really wanted to. Can’t win them all.
I liked Iron Hunt better than the short story. In terms of passion between Maxine and Grant, I wonder if it was a specific choice to downplay whatever passion they have in favor of more buildup. Because clearly, while she is also a romance author there is a very different focus between UF and romance.
I admit, at parts I thought, that the predecessors sounded totally badass. The idea of her mother shooting while pregnant, her grandmother, all the way back to the first hunter it gave me all sorts of lovely ideas. My only hope would be that Liu delves into them further, I got the feeling that Maxine doesn’t know much about her background on purpose because there was a concerted effort to minimize the knowledge passed on to future generations. This of course allows us to learn it with her, and I see a deep well of… stuff.
Jia, in specific response to your comment that Maxine seemed flat, I felt like she was beginning to blossom towards the end of the book, then it stopped.
Thank you for the review, Jia. I was on the fence with this one after reading the excerpt on her website. I’ve been a fan of Liu up until the nose-biting incident in Soul Song… I love the premise of Iron Hunt but the disjointed, choppy prose is something I’ve never been able to get into. I just wasn’t sure it was through the whole book or just the excerpt. Ah well. I think this is one I’ll wait until a few books are out and hear the successive verdict.
I’m still reading Iron Hunt, but I think you’re being a bit harsh. So far it’s a B+ to me and I am slowly chugging along. (Mostly my schedule right now is holding me back.) As for the lack of sexual tension, if you knew having a daughter would kill you, how turned on would you get?
I’ve been wanting to try Liu for some time now…and it looks like this book is not the place to start. Any suggestions?
This was so interesting.
I’ve never read Liu before, but I received an ARC for The Iron Hunt from a good friend.
I enjoyed the book. I’m wondering if it was because I’d never read Liu before and because I was expecting an urban fantasy, not a romance.
I agree there was no sexual tension between Maxine and Grant, but since I wasn’t expecting a romance, I wasn’t disappointed. I found Tracker far more interesting than Grant and thought there was some promising sexual tension between Maxine and Tracker:
The only part I really didn’t care for was Chapter 15, that period when Maxine was in the Labyrinth. I found it draggy and pointless.
I thought the book’s premise was imaginative and Liu’s language frequently lyrical. I’m looking forward to the book’s sequel.
I talked about this with Jane and we came to the conclusion that, unless all the conventions are going to be flaunted, there will be something developing between Maxine and Tracker. I agree that he’s a more interesting character than Grant.
With the prior reference to Enkidu, I actually wondered if Maxine’s time in the Labyrinth was actually a reference to the descent of Inanna? It was obviously a chthonic ritual of remaking and rebirth regardless but still, I wasn’t entirely sure. It’s stuff like that which distracted me the most because I spent more time wondering if I seeing things that weren’t there than enjoying the actual story. My reader baggage, let me show you it.
Jia: See . . . that’s the difference between being a professional reader like you and being an amateur like me. [grin] I just read for the hell of it. If it isn’t working for me, I skip ahead, put it down or give it away. Guilt-free reading!
These days, I save my reader baggage for non-fiction and contracts. Oh, and cookbooks. You should see me trying to decipher recipes. Arghhhhh!
I enjoyed seeing another take on The Iron Hunt. Thanks!
I read the short story in Wild Thing story and liked it. To be honest, it reminded me a lot of a comic I used to read called The Darkness. The premise of the character is very similar. His power only worked at night and little demons who were the source of his power would come out and help and protect him. The Darkness power was passed from father to son. Once the demons left the father for the kid the father usually died. There were a lot of differences, the main character in The Darkness was a mafia hitman and the story was much darker but I won’t lie I kept thinking that Maxine is Jackie except a woman.
My reader baggage comes from comic books.
Start from the very beginning, Tiger Eye, the first of the Dirk and Steele series, and perhaps her most romance-y book. I love Marjorie’s writing voice and enjoyed the D and S series as well as her new urban fantasy.
Wow, I just bought my husband a PS3 game called Darkness. The set-up is very similar to how you described. Who knew it was based off a comic? Learn something interesting every day.
I downloaded the sample from Amazon and read it at lunch. Then I got so hooked I went ahead and bought the book. I may hate it in the end, but I have to say it grabbed my interest in that chapter and a half.
I have to say, I read the first Dirk and Steele Book ‘Tiger Eye’ because of how people raved about Liu’s writing style but I was quite horrified by the rambling prose. My husband picked it up randomly, and he was shocked that something so badly written could be printed. Anyway, I’ve just been reading ‘Iron Hunt’ and I have to say, I much prefer her writing in the later book. Clearer. More succinct. Punchier. Maybe it is practice or her forays into comic books since then, but I am one of those who fall in the thumbs-ups category.