YA Weekend: The Luminaries by Susan Dennard
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of The Luminaries
Publisher: Tor Teen (November 1, 2022)
Length: 304 pages
For the Wednesday clan, loyalty is everything. Which is why, when Winnie’s father was found to be a spy for the enemy, she and her mother and brother were unceremoniously shunned by the rest of the town. Unfortunately, for a place like Hemlock Falls and its unique community, that can be devastating for a teenager’s social life and future prospects. For you see, all Winnie has ever wanted was to be a part of the Luminaries, an ancient order of monster hunters. They are also the elite members of Hemlock Falls, and to join their ranks, prospective recruits must pass a series of harrowing trials that test their skills in combat, survival, and cunning. Because the job is so dangerous, the stakes so high, you also only get one chance to pass.
Now that Winnie is sixteen, she is eligible to become a hunter, though being a social exile complicates things. While there’s no official rule saying outcasts can’t participate, Winnie can’t imagine the rest of the town taking too kindly to her in the hunter trials, but it’s the only way she can think of to prove her loyalty and restore her family’s status. For years, she has been training in secret in preparation for the big night, but when the moment of truth finally comes, Winnie realizes just how in over her head she is. Not only was the first trial more challenging than she expected, while she was alone in the woods that night, she also encountered a new nightmare—a powerful creature that is hunting the other monsters, and not even the Luminaries experts have any knowledge of it. Winnie knows she needs help, not only when it comes to surviving the other trials, but also to convince the town of the new nightmare threat. Reluctantly, she turns to Jay Friday, one of Hemlock Falls’ most promising young hunters but also a once close friend whom Winnie resents for abandoning her when her family became ostracized.
I decided to pick up The Luminaries because I’ve read Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series and was curious because this sounded so different. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this. Yes, it has many of the usual YA trappings, but instead of aggravating me, I actually found them to be quite fun. Of course, I do credit much of this to the genre and the writing style. Unlike Witchlands which was featured a fantasy setting, The Luminaries has got more of an urban paranormal vibe going. Winnie is a modern teenager who acts and speaks like one, and as such, we avoid a lot of the purple prose and flowery dialogue which I felt were the biggest issues with Witchlands. Simply put, a book that tries too hard will lose me, but an entertaining story can get me to overlook most minor flaws like cheesy tropes and cliches. That’s sort of where I am with The Luminaries, a light and fast-paced read that I found easy to dive into.
That said, I wouldn’t have minded more time spent on developing the lore and world-building. Readers aren’t given a whole lot of background information—just enough to understand what’s going on. The scope of the plot is entirely limited to the Hemlock Falls and the surrounding woods, and while there are references to other nightmare hunting communities in other countries and international visitors from these places, this still feels like a localized story disconnected from the rest of the world. This in turn leads to questions like, how do the Luminaries manage to keep themselves and all their activities secret? Do they just set up base where nightmares are more common? And if so, why are certain places hotbeds for nightmares and why aren’t they overrunning the world? For that matter, where do nightmares come from anyway? The story one offers some brief, passing insights into these questions, like how older civilizations tend to mean more time for different types of monsters to develop, but these tidbits are hardly satisfying as far as explanations go.
Dennard appears to be leaving a lot up in the air for readers to speculate, or she may cover them more in depth in a future book. An example of this is the situation involving Winnie’s father and the mysterious organization of witches called the Dianas of which he’s purported to be a part. Like everything else though, we’re given almost no explanation into their history or who they are. I feel like the author might be dropping clues for us, because out of nowhere there will be random details that seem out of place or purposely inserted for a reason. Winnie’s odd teeth clicking habit is one example, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s more than just a nervous tic—perhaps a behavioral characteristic ingrained in Luminaries culture or something, because no one around Winnie seems bothered by it or even notices when she does it, and she does it A LOT. God knows they have some strange traditions anyway, like shunning people as punishment but only for a given number of years (why?) or letting sixteen-year-olds apply for the most dangerous job they have (why?) and only giving them one chance to do it (wouldn’t letting them try again when they’re older and more experienced make more sense?) Like I said, so much felt glossed over and too many questions were left open that ultimately this gave a rushed sense to the novel.
Still, at the end of the day, I did have fun with The Luminaries despite its flaws, and I feel invested and curious enough about its story that I want to know what happens next. Weaknesses include a lackadaisical attitude towards providing details and explanations so that not much of the world-building will stand up to tough questioning, but the strengths like the plot’s fast-pacing, breezy entertainment value, and interesting ideas made me glad I read this.