My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Length: 432 pages
Release date: 8 February 2018 (UK) / 6 November 2018 (US)
Every Christmas, Wren is chased through the woods near her isolated village by her family’s enemies—the Judges—and there’s nothing that she can do to stop it. Once her people, the Augurs, controlled a powerful magic. But now that power lies with the Judges, who are set on destroying her kind for good.
In a desperate bid to save her family, Wren takes a dangerous undercover assignment—as an intern to an influential Judge named Cassa Harkness. Cassa has spent her life researching a transformative spell, which could bring the war between the factions to its absolute end. Caught in a web of deceit, Wren must decide whether or not to gamble on the spell and seal the Augurs’ fate.
The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.
Her clothes were all torn, her shoes all worn,
We chased her all night, right through until dawn.
When I finished The Wren Hunt, I thought that I wasn’t quite sure what I’d just read, but I liked it. It’s very surreal, somewhat subdued, more memorable for its atmosphere than its plot. In short, there really is nothing like it that I’ve come across in YA literature. It’s that unique.
The atmosphere, the sense that you’re reading a story carved straight out of folklore, legends, and the spaces in between, is enthralling. The premise of augurs and judges drew me wholly into the rich Irish mythology. What I took away is that if you don’t know Irish and you can pronounce it, it’s not true Irish. The names are the easy part; when it got to the terms was when I had to pull out Google nonstop. Draoithe, nemeta, Bláithín and brídeogs–this book could really have benefited from a glossary.
Along the same lines, the start of the book throws you into the deep end right off the bat. For such a complex tradition that most readers will have little to no experience with, the exposition expects you to learn and learn fast. Entire folktales and concepts are explained once and then referred to and built upon throughout the novel without stopping to refresh your memory, and if you happen to forget what a certain term means, it’s no small task to backtrack until you find the first page it was mentioned.
I was rather confused for a long time about the more banal detail of how Aisling, Sibéal and Maeve are all related to each other–I thought Aisling was Wren’s sister to begin with, which isn’t the case. To be clear, I definitely prefer this treatment of readers over the opposite that caters to the lowest common denominator. I don’t see the assumption of a smart reader as a problem so much as something to be aware of and maybe prepare for.
Once you get ahold of the background, however, there are so many things to savour. The dual setting of Kilshamble, a (fictional) rustic village, and the city of Dublin creates a real contrast between the ancient magical feud and the modern world. The Wren Hunt reminds me of The Cruel Prince in its seamless integration of the two: this isn’t judges and augurs in 15th century Ireland, this is judges and augurs now. Not only is the latter much more relatable, it also opens up the narrative to consider what place tradition and the old ways should still occupy. Although this book admittedly doesn’t go there, the sequel, which will focus on a different main character and further explore the world of the judges, might.
There isn’t that much danger or action in The Wren Hunt, the few thrilling scenes we do get are punctuated by more calm character development. The slow burn isn’t for everyone, but as a reader who normally likes my fantasy novels fast-paced, I have no qualms with how it’s handled here. Wren, David, Tarc and especially Cassa are all interesting in their own ways, if maddeningly mysterious. Cassa Harkness is my new possibly problematic favourite. I look forward to finding out a lot more about her.
The ending is a little abrupt, leaving a trove of unanswered questions. This is one book for which I’m seriously thankful there’s a sequel. In the meantime, I might need to reread The Wren Hunt for all the little breadcrumbs I missed the first time round.
*Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*