The door leading to the hallway and the rooms upstairs slammed open without warning, and in came the missing patron. He was tall, thin, and wide in the shoulders. He had been lodging upstairs for the last three days, and always wore the same grey coat and cocked hat. In his gloved left hand was a heavy-looking leather bag that he never let anyone else touch. Apparently, he even took it to the outhouse.
“Listen to me!” he bellowed after letting the bag down and shutting the door. “And listen well. Until the sun rises, no one may leave this inn!”
Having just emptied a goblet down his throat, Moritz gave the man a look of dull surprise. “What is this? A robbery?”
“I’m afraid not,” the strange patron said. “If it were, we’d all have a better chance of getting through it alive.”
The inn is in an 18th-Century(ish) Germany(ish) country. The strange patron is Conrad Shast, the last member of a noble household turned monster hunter. That’s about as friendly as he gets. He goes from town to town, wherever he’s called to go to eliminate any one of a multitude of monsters on behalf of a shadowy organization that, well, let me let Shast tell it:
“Few refer to it by name, but it is called the Culling, and it’s been protecting the world from monsters and witches for as long as history remembers. From time to time, others have tried their hands at monster hunting, but it never lasted. In the long run, only the Culling has survived the test of time.
“Officially, no noble is under obligation to aid a hunter. But the consequences of rejecting a plea for help far outweigh their potential cost.”
The Culling is a busy group, it seems, there are monsters everywhere in this world (even overrunning some continents), and, as the man said, they’re the only game in town. Generally, they send one or two people to any particular place, but if there’s a big enough problem, they will send out reinforcements. During the course of this novel, Shast ends up working with two other hunters. It’s clear that no two hunters are alike—there’s a variety of approaches, specialties, backgrounds, and personalities (I was a little afraid it’d be armies of Shasts, Miller might have been able to pull it off, but I like this approach better).
Shast is a classic loner, a wandering knight à la Jack Reacher or TV’s David Banner (but with less of a sense of humor). He comes to down, gets his prey and the money he (and The Culling) is owed for that service and moves on. No friends, no family, no entanglements. The particular hunt he’s on when he takes over the inn is a little trickier than most (and will end up being a lot trickier in the end)—he eliminates the monster, but not the source of the infestation. The source has moved on and has likely infested at least one more city by this point. So he has to hit the road to track down the source.
One woman in the inn was so changed by her exposure to the monster that she can detect the hidden creature (not that she wants to), so Shast brings her with him to expedite the hunt. The city guard also dispatches a knight old enough to be her father to act as chaperone and guard. Eventually, they cross paths with another hunter after the same target. She’s into poisons, explosions (Shast prefers a good knife) and making sure her enemies suffer. She joins this grim band as they continue to track down the source, eventually reaching the capital city and discovering things are worse than they thought.
It’s not a smooth journey, and there are distractions and obstacles (both monstrous and human) along the way. The group is not united in any way, and most aren’t that willing to be participating, but there’s not a lot of choice offered any of them. Putting this in an 18th-Century(ish) setting is a great idea—you get a little bit of technology (guns, primarily), but not enough that swords, horses, traveling on foot and slow modes of communication aren’t the flavor of the day. You get a shifting prominence of nobility, a rising middle class, and a church struggling to survive in a hostile world, also. It’s a tumultuous time, not helped at all by the creatures plaguing the citizenry. It’s also a great change from the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Miller’s previous series.
And I wish I had time to give good descriptions of these monsters—and you’d be better to read them for yourselves anyway. The first one we see is simply disgusting and disturbing (and, boy howdy, am I glad we don’t get a bunch of them). Some aren’t that bad (relatively speaking, anyway), but a lot of them could be nightmare fodder is Miller used them a little differently. None of them are easy targets for the Hunters, but it’s only in large numbers that they’re a giant threat. We don’t seem to get anything that you’ve seen before (at least nothing I’ve seen before), which is great. Nothing against trolls, orcs, vampires, wights, etc.—but I appreciate seeing something new.
A common thread, it hit me this weekend, to all the books I read—Crime Fiction, SF, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, even General Fiction, Non-Fiction or Theology—is that the worst enemies, the greatest predators, the most dangerous threats to humans aren’t aliens, monsters, demons, or whatever external threat you can think of. It’s humanity, our neighbors, our leaders, those like us. And as horrible as the creatures that The Culling targets may be, there’s something hundreds of times worse. Miller using that reality, reflecting that in his fantasy, is my favorite part of this novel (the competition for that was stiff), it’d have been easy and understandable to make a parasite that can control its host—or some other creature—to be the ultimate evil that Shast and the rest contend with. But Miller took the better—and harder—road. Which speaks good things for this new series (and bodes ill for how things are going to go in future installments).
Speaking of future installments, I know he’s already getting things ready to release the sequel in a few months. I can see a lot of options for what that sequel will hold—Character A’s next hunt, or Character B’s hunt/attempt at redemption, Character C & D going forward (together or separately), or a completely new batch of characters in the same world. All of which are pretty appetizing—I’d prefer A or C and/or D to another group or B—but I can see any of those working. Miller’s earned my trust at this point, and I’ll take whatever eagerly.
This is the sixth work I’ve read from Miller (you can read about the four novels and one novella of The Nameless Chronicle here), and I love watching him grow and develop—he’s learned a lot from that last series, and is applying those lessons well. This is more assured and better executed than those—and I had few complaints about them! Jump on to this one at the beginning of what promises to be a great ride.
Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this novel by the author in exchange for my unbiased opinion.