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-