Review: The Luminaries – Susan Dennard
by Susan Dennard
Series: The Luminaries #1
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication Date: November 1, 2022
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
From Susan Dennard, the New York Times bestselling author of the Witchlands series, comes a haunting and high-octane contemporary fantasy, about the magic it takes to face your fears in a nightmare-filled forest, and the mettle required to face the secrets hiding in the dark corners of your own family.
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.
One of my pleasant memories of the pandemic was participating in the “Sooz Your Own Adventure” aka the book whose plot was determined by a daily Twitter poll. So when I heard the author would be releasing a novel version of it, I had some hesitation. After all, Twitter hive mind led to some occasional, uh, interesting choices, as well as lots of #ughJay hilarity. But this book is mostly completely rewritten, not to mention it’s only part of the story.
After her dad was revealed as a traitor to the Luminaries, Winnie and her family were banished from the order. The Luminaries are responsible for dealing with the creatures, called nightmares, that appear in the forest every night. Considering that nearly everyone in Hemlock Falls was involved in the secretive group, that made for a lonely past four years. Her only hope is to take the first of the Hunter Trials on her sixteenth birthday and convince them to take her back. But the forest is nothing like she remembers it and neither are the Luminaries. When Winnie sees evidence of strange things happening in the forest, no one believes her, except for Jay, the town bad boy and her former best friend. With a new nightmare lurking in the forest and little help, can Winnie survive the Trials?
Some of the world building as definite promise. The hunters are divided into families, each taking the name (and corresponding hunting night) of a day of the week. Each family specializes in certain things, whether that’s training the next generation of hunters, developing new gear, or managing the bureaucracy. While the Luminaries are focused on containing the spirit in the forest by ridding it of nightmares every night, another group, the Dianas, seek to use its power for their own ends. The Dianas were the weakest part of the world-building for me, as it’s never quite explained why they’re so evil. The “never quite explained” bit is unfortunately true of the rest of the world-building, though. How do they manage to keep their towns so secret? How do they manage family trees when literally everyone has one of seven last names? Why is the position of Lead Hunter so important?
“She belongs in the forest. She belongs as a Luminary. She belongs as a hunter.”
Part of that could be explained by Winnie’s character. At times, Winnie read a lot younger to me than sixteen. Of course, she’s suffered without any friends for the past four years, watching her family fall further into poverty while her mother works herself to exhaustion. But the Wednesday line prides itself on loyalty and Winnie never seems to question her family’s banishment, instead rebuking herself for not realizing her dad was a Diana. She trains by herself in secret and refuses to accept any future for herself that doesn’t involve her being a hunter. Of course she accepts the Luminaries’ worldview without any questions as she’s never known anything else!
“So what if last night didn’t go according to plan? So what if everyone was right and she hadn’t been ready for the forest? She still got what she wanted and what her family needed. There’s no reason not to keep going.”
It’s only when she passes the first trial that her thinking starts to change. After four years of shunning, the rest of the Luminaries suddenly act like the intervening four years never happened. She’s welcomed back into hunter training, the kids who were bullying her a few days ago now act like her best friends and her mom and brother get job promotions. It’s exactly what she wanted to happen, but the whiplash is too much for Winnie. Why does she have to risk her life – because Winnie does nearly die, several times – before they decide her dad’s actions don’t matter anymore? How could her supposed best friends have turned their backs on her four years ago? Why is she so unhappy even though she everything she thought she wanted?
“It is disconcerting that he can be so extremely well-proportioned while also being, ugh, Jay.”
After she’s welcomed back, Winnie also starts connecting (or reconnecting) with some of the Luminaries. Some of the other prospective hunters reach out to her, but there’s still a distinct chilliness between her and one of her former best friends, Erica, that leaves Winnie hurt and confused. But the biggest chunk of time is spent with her other former best friend, Jay – who’s also her former crush. There’s the barest start of a romantic relationship, along with a lot of anger and confusion, because he falls somewhere on the enemy to friend spectrum but she still trusts him, even though it’s obvious Jay’s keeping secrets of his own.
The plot was fine as well. What it says in the blurb? That’s exactly what you get, Winnie trying to make it through the three hunter trials. It felt like there was a lot of choreographing of future plot points. I’m not sure whether that’s because I knew the original plot (so I have a general idea of where this version might be headed) or if it really was that predictable. Some things were so blatantly obvious that I was banging my head against the wall going “ugh, Winnie”. All that – and the fact that it’s told in third-person present tense – could be forgiven because I honestly enjoyed the majority of the story, except for this last point. The ending was ridiculously abrupt, like I kept trying to turn the page on my ereader in confusion. In a way, it makes logical sense where the book ends, but the structure of the book and the pacing left me hanging. Most (almost all) of the subplots are unresolved, including one introduced near the end of the book. It felt unfinished in a way that really rubbed me wrong.
“You either trust the forest or you don’t, Winnie.”
Overall, 3.5 nostalgic stars. Without that nostalgia, this would be more solidly a three thanks to that ending. Either way, I know I’ll read the next book just because I want some resolution to, uh, any of the plot points.
Content notes: View Spoiler »Violence (including death and serious injury), PTSD (on-page), bullying, underage drinking, assumed underage drug use « Hide Spoiler