Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine
Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine, A Shifted World Novel (PYR, 2012) introduces us to Talyn the Dark, a bounty hunter for the Caisah of Conhaero, Master of Chaos. She’s one of the few Vaerli to have survived the Harrowing, travelling the Chaosland on Syris, her nykur steed, killing as directed by her Master. Every time she kills, Talyn is paid with a new piece to fit into the Puzzle. She has a brother, Byreniko. The only reason they are both alive is that a minion of the Caisah separated them before they could die. Byre lives as a pariah in the world until he meets the Sofai of Mohl who foresees a quest to the city of Choana in the Great Cleft in Achelon.
In a different part of the land we find Finnbarr the Fox, one of the Manesto tribe, a talespinner who dares tell of the times before the Caisah when the Kindred and the Vaerli ruled the land. When Finn goes to the city of Perilous and Fair to tell his tales to a larger audience, he’s standing in the shadow of the gates leading into the Citadel where the Caisah holds sway and death awaits the uninvited. Fortunately, the Fox has as occasional friend Ysel, a child hidden away from danger, who can warn Finn when he’s at risk. Then there’s Pelanor, a new Blood Witch who must try to kill Talyn. . .
Summaries like this are always potentially misleading because, in the brief recital of facts, all you get is a flavour of the contents. From the opening paragraphs you might conclude this is one of these hack sword and sorcery fantasies in the Robert E Howard mould where a not-very-intelligent barbarian with a big sword, assisted by a thief and supported by a magician, comes good when the chips are down. Let’s face it, Talyn may be female but she’s an unstoppable killer with a sword. Except she emerges as an essentially tragic figure, burdened by the past, the detail of she has chosen to forget, and bound to a Pact with the Caisah she believes will ultimately save the remnants of her race. Taken overall, Hunter and Fox proves to be a fascinating allegory on the nature of identity. As mere humans, we always tell ourselves we’re the sum of all our memories. In theory, we learn from our past. We control our fears by remembering how we’ve kept ourselves safe through the years. Our hopes, dreams and ambitions are shaped by what we remember used to be possible. So we aim to become the best possible version of ourselves. In this allegory, it’s for each person to bring order to the potential chaos of emotions driven by long-held memories.
Yet here’s Talyn who’s deliberately chosen to edit out all the memories that fail to fit her current worldview. She uncritically accepts her bondage to an unaccountable ruler who uses fear and death to control the disparate races who populate the land. If we were to ask about her morality as a killer, she would no doubt reply that if she did not do the work, there would be many others who could take her place. On an individual level, she’s the best person for the work because she’s mercifully quick in dispatching the nominated victims. Taking the broader view, the remnants of her people will be redeemed when she completes the Puzzle and satisfies the terms of the Pact. The sacrifice of a few as the price is morally justified because redemption of the many is the greater good. That such arguments are specious would not occur to her because she’s not the person she used to be. In a different way, Finnbarr cannot be the person he appears to be. No other Manesto has magical powers, yet he can manipulate time and space to talk with Ysel, he knows no fear of Talyn, and he’s protected by the Kindred. In Byreniko we have a man who’s been raised outside his own racial group and so comes to the question of identity with a skewed perspective. His experiences have taught him to be submissive, but perhaps that’s not always the best way. And then there’s Pelanor whose life has been dedicated to the path of becoming a Blood Witch. That’s meant years cloistered away from the world, only knowing what her teachers have chosen to tell her. When she’s sent out into the world, she discovers the world is not as her teachers described.
Philippa Ballantine shows us these four primary characters are pale shadows of the people they could have been and challenges them to see how, if at all, they can adapt and change. The Jesuits used to assert, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Regardless whether this simplistic psychology was ever true, the four characters have been locked into their roles for many years. Talyn has been a willing tool for killing the defenceless, Finn has been spinning his subversive tales from town to town, Byre has been keeping a low profile while on the run, and Pelanor has been monomaniacal in her desire to become a Blood Witch. Since these four and others who become significant as the narrative develops are conscious beings, they should be able to influence their own futures. Yet this may not be practical given the capricious power of the Caisah to call down death on communities with impunity — his personal magic appears to make him invulnerable. So if individual change is possible, it may have to flow from self-sacrifice or the willingness of others to put themselves at risk for the greater good.
Hunter and Fox is a highly entertaining fantasy that tips its hat at the standard fantasy tropes and then exploits them to explore issues of moral accountability in an essentially unpredictable world. It’s not called the Chaosland for nothing. At the interface between the surrounding literal chaos and the emerging land, what’s gently rolling countryside one month may be a mountain range the next. The physical world only exists to the extent chaos can be tamed. It’s the same for the intellectual and emotional landscapes inside each person’s head. As to the language of the book, there are moments of slight archness, particularly in the relationships between Talyn and the women of the Caisah’s court, but the prose is rich and engaging. This leaves only one criticism. That the action stops so abruptly. I was being swept along and. . . a cliffhanger to take us on to the second exciting episode. It feels as if the author wrote a long book and the publisher decided to split it into two. For me, the next episode is a must-read.
The cover illustration by Cynthia Shepperd reminds me of the jacket artwork of Kelly Freas for Laser and other publishing houses during the 1970s, i.e. a striking woman in the foreground and the head of a faintly malevolent male in the background.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.