The Hunt
by Anne Marsh, fantasy (2009)
LoveSpell, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-505-52824-7


Okay I admit it: I purchased Anne Marsh's The Hunt hoping for some cheesy good fun, without any concern whether the laugh is at the expense of the author. The back cover synopsis is horrible, suggesting that this story is about virgin women running around in dark catacombs while being chased by werecat alpha males in heat. "Lora Leigh goes on The Amazing Race?" was my first thought when I read that back cover synopsis. Either way, I sat down, open the book, and waited for some Thundercats-styled furry bodice-ripper extravaganza to hit me.

Okay, so the story is still pretty silly, but forget cheap laughs to be had. The Hunt is unexpectedly and wonderfully enjoyable. It's not even campy or so-bad-it's-good - it gives me a "Wow! I'm shocked! This is actually... good!" type of feeling. I'm floored because I never expected this book to appeal to me that much, not that I am complaining. If the author does this to me every time I open her book, I'd be a happy reader.

Yes, there are virgin women running around some catacombs as if they are auditioning for an X-rated movie. Set in a fantasy world called Egip - guess which country it is modeled after - we have the Guardians. The Guardians are actually spirits of some kind harvested by a mysterious being called Amun Ra (not to be confused with Mumm-Ra). The Guardians have no clear memory of what they were before they were brought to this world by Amun Ra and they also do not know what exactly Amun Ra is, and readers are not given specific answers, merely hints, as to what the Guardians and Amun Ra could be.

What is clear is that Amun Ra has struck a longstanding bargain with the ordinary humans in this fantasy setting where daemons and other supernatural folks run wild. The Guardians will guard the mighty temple that looms over the place called the Valley, protecting the Doorways that exist in various locations in the catacombs of the temple and preventing nasty Ifrits from the dimension called Qaf from crossing over to terrorize the locals. In return, every summer, the locals would send some virgin women into the temple for the Hunt - these women would be chased through the tunnels by the Guardians until they are caught and then "belled" (read: ravished) into becoming these Guardians' mates.

I know, the whole set-up seems awful. This is a mate-mate-mate book, make no mistake. But it's also a little bit more than that thanks to author Anne Marsh's cheerful subversion of various tropes related to the mate-mate-mate formula.

Miu, our heroine, is no virgin. Armed with daggers, magic, and what not, she poses as a demure virgin in order to gain entrance into the Temple. She is a thief, charged by her Master to retrieve a mysterious necklace from the depths of the Temple in exchange for her sister's safety. Miu in fact thinks the whole virgin-in-tunnels thing is ridiculous and she isn't even sure that the Guardians really exist. Nobody seems to know who or what the Guardians are and all she hears are rumors and legends. This explains why when she is joined by a mysterious but handsome stranger named Jafar in her adventures in those tunnels, she doesn't suspect that he is actually a suspicious Guardian charged by Amun Ra to discover what she is up to.

Meanwhile, as you may expect, Miu isn't the only one who realizes that now is a good time to break into the Temple for hanky-panky purposes as the Guardians are all busy ravishing maidens and what not instead of carrying out their duties, so Jafar and Miu are going to find plenty of unexpected company during their adventures.

The Hunt is fun, fun, fun. The characters are not the most well developed types, but because this is a fast-paced action adventure story laced with plenty of sex scenes, I'm not expecting deep drama. The sex scenes often take place at ridiculous moments, but then again, the whole set-up is ridiculous. It's how the two characters deal with the cards they are dealt that makes this story work wonderfully.

Miu is a walking example of cheerful trope subversion. You'd think Jafar is the alpha male here, but she actually calls the shots early in their relationship while in the more intense phase of their relationship, Jafar actually betrays his fellow Cats for her. You may call him a fool and I won't disagree with you, but I have to say that it's always nice to read a story where the heroine effortlessly tames an alpha male to the point that he breaks every rule to be with her. Oh, don't worry, Jafar isn't emasculated or anything here. He is actually an unusual kind of hero for stories of this kind: he has a sense of humor, he isn't threatened when the heroine calls the shots, and he really goes the extra mile for her, as far as defending her from his own people, even killing them in the process to keep her safe.

I have to warn genteel readers: some of the things the Cats do here can be pretty unnerving. [spoiler starts] For example, Jafar warns Miu that without his protection, Miu would be gang-raped and worse by other Cats, because these Cats love to toy with and torture their prisoners before killing them - part of their "intense" nature, you see. Jafar isn't joking or making false threats here. Take note that these Cats are going to be future heroes of this series... and that Jafar is also a Cat. [spoiler ends] There isn't anything pretty about a tribe of shapeshifters created and trained to kill without mercy. I personally have no problems with this but I can't promise that you will feel the same.

The pacing is great. While the sex scenes are often awkwardly inserted, usually at the most unlikely moments, they are actually steamy enough to make me feel as if I've been dumped in the middle of the Sahara Desert without even an umbrella. Miu is not a shy innocent selfless damsel in this regard. She loves having sex with Jafar and she isn't afraid to admit that - she is instead annoyed that her lust for him tend to get in the way of common sense. As far as the plot goes, I actually find the Master a very intriguing villain. Dare I ask that the author make him a hero in a future book? Oh come on, evil villains need love too!

The Hunt is a hybrid of sorts: it is set in a high fantasy setting, but the heroine's attitude and the language adopted by the author ("shish kebab", "backseat driving") are more appropriate for an urban fantasy tale. On paper, this story won't - shouldn't - work. Oh, but it does - amazingly, spectacularly, most entertainingly - and I'm a happy, happy camper as a result.

Rating: 92


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