Serena’s Review: “The Luminaries”

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Book: “The Luminaries” by Susan Dennard

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, November 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ALA, Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Hemlock Falls isn’t like other towns. You won’t find it on a map, your phone won’t work here, and the forest outside town might just kill you.

Winnie Wednesday wants nothing more than to join the Luminaries, the ancient order that protects Winnie’s town—and the rest of humanity—from the monsters and nightmares that rise in the forest of Hemlock Falls every night.

Ever since her father was exposed as a witch and a traitor, Winnie and her family have been shunned. But on her sixteenth birthday, she can take the deadly Luminary hunter trials and prove herself true and loyal—and restore her family’s good name. Or die trying.

But in order to survive, Winnie enlists the help of the one person who can help her train: Jay Friday, resident bad boy and Winnie’s ex-best friend. While Jay might be the most promising new hunter in Hemlock Falls, he also seems to know more about the nightmares of the forest than he should. Together, he and Winnie will discover a danger lurking in the forest no one in Hemlock Falls is prepared for.

Not all monsters can be slain, and not all nightmares are confined to the dark.

Review: I’ve been a bit hit and miss with Susan Dennard’s work in the past. I was first introduced to her several years ago at a panel at ALA, and I really liked what she had to say about writing young adult fantasy fiction. But I’ve never quite connected to her actual work. But it had been a few years since I’ve given her a shot, and I thought this new book sounded interesting. Plus, it had the kind of dark fantasy, spooky cover that I’ve been into lately.

When Winnie’s father was exposed as a spy and a traitor, her life went off the rails. Now, she sees only one way to restore hers and her family’s reputation: she must enter the Luminary trials and reclaim her place as a hunter of monsters. But the trials themselves are deadly, even without the fraught internal politics of the hunter families. And this year, something even darker is lurking in the woods. An unknown evil that no one has faced before.

So, I’ll just get it out of the way right away: this book wasn’t a hit for me. But there were also several factors involved that skewed my opinion, so I’m definitely not saying that it was a bad book in and of itself. For one thing, when I picked this book up, I somehow missed the reference to phones in the book summary and was completely taken aback to discover it was a contemporary/urban fantasy story. So maybe it was just a mood thing or my general preference for non-contemporary fantasy stories, but right of the bat I did struggle to immerse myself in this mash up of a world with an evil forest but also kids riding around on 4-wheelers.

Secondly, the book is written in third person present tense. This has to be one of my least favorite styles of writing. It ends up with the story reading in this bizarre tone where you have sentences like “Winnie tells Mom that she’s heading to school.” That’s…just weird sounding, not least because of the strangeness of the “Mom” thing. If you’re going to do third person, then do third person! Only a first person narrator would refer to the mother as “Mom” in the general telling of the story. So, yes, as you can see, I had a hard time getting past that.

But, of course, that wasn’t really the book’s fault, and readers who enjoy contemporary/urban young adult fantasy and don’t mind this style of writing will likely not struggle in the same way I did. I will say, the summary does an effective job here. You really know about all you need to know about the book from what you see above, and the story neatly checks off plot points as it goes along. I didn’t find much in the way of shocks or real twists to the story. I thought most of the reveals were fairly telegraphed early in the book.

If I did get caught up with questions, they had more to do with some of the mechanics of the world-building. For example, it is emphasized that maintaining the population of hunters who can fight these monsters is paramount, so everyone understands they are expected to marry and have kids early. But then, on the other hand, you have teenagers participating in these deadly trials. Which…just logically makes no sense. Teenagers aren’t fully grown physically, and they also, naturally, have less experience under their belts. If there are concerns about keeping up a dwindling population, it seems counter-intuitive to choose this age for a deadly trial system, an age that sets your own kids up for a higher mortality rate.

Anyways…yes, this book wasn’t for me. But I know there are a lot of fans of this author out there, so I’m also not saying this book won’t appeal to a lot of general YA fantasy fans. The story is action-packed, and I did like the commitment to the body horror of these monsters. There’s also the rather typical YA romance at its heart, which may also appeal to many readers. If you’re a fan of YA urban fantasy and like stories focused on trials and competitions, this might be for you! If so, don’t forget to enter our giveaway to win an ARC copy!

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Rating 6: Perhaps if it hadn’t been written in third person present tense, I would have liked it more. But I just found myself getting caught up on too many things to enjoy this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Luminaries” can be found on these Goodreads lists: SFF books with a forest setting

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