Skinwalker, by Faith Hunter

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Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

skinwalkerSupernatural fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and I have a soft spot for strong heroines who can kick some butt when necessary; so naturally, I thought a book that appealed to both interests might be rewarding. But that didn’t begin to prepare me for how much I liked this one! In this opening volume of the Jane Yellowrock series, featuring a Cherokee Indian shape-shifter who makes her living hunting down and killing rogue vampires that prey on humans, Faith Hunter has created one of the most original and vividly-realized fictional protagonists to come down the pike in a long time, and established herself in my eyes as one of the genre’s outstanding contemporary voices.

The book trade classifies this as “urban fantasy.” Our setting is New Orleans, brought to life masterfully by Louisiana native Hunter, in one of the best evocations of place I’ve come across in fiction; but this isn’t quite the New Orleans we know. Here we’re in an alternate world similar to our own in most ways –but one in which the world has been aware of the existence of vampires (and witches –Hunter’s take on these is interesting) since 1962. “Civilized” (non-predatory) vampire clans, often with considerable wealth built up over the centuries, and their voluntary blood-servants and blood-slaves are a part of the urban ethnic mix. But shapeshifters aren’t generally known to exist, and that aspect of Jane’s life is one she keeps carefully under wraps.

Jane’s a supremely well-drawn, round character, with a personality and interior life that’s believable (and that’s some achievement, when you consider some of her characteristics!). She can shift into the form of any animal for which she has DNA handy, usually in the form of teeth or bones, etc. (Hunter handles the problem of differences in body mass in a really creative way!) Usually, though, she takes the form of the panther who’s bonded with her in an unusual way, even for shapeshifters, and which she doesn’t fully understand. There’s a lot about herself she doesn’t know (though some of those mysteries will be revealed in the course of this book); she remembers nothing before she stumbled out of the Appalachian wilderness some 18 years ago, at an age the authorities guessed to be about twelve, an apparently feral child.

For the next six years, she was raised in a Christian orphanage; and while she’s no plaster saint, she’s a practicing Christian. Her Christianity is of a low-key, not judging nor preachy sort, and not inconsistent with an openness to Cherokee spirituality. It also doesn’t come with the view held by some believers that women should be pacifistic doormats.  This woman’s trained in martial arts, knowledgeable about guns, packs a Benelli shotgun (as well as assorted stakes and knives) that sprays silver shot, rides a Harley, and doesn’t take garbage from anybody, human or vampire. She’s also a caring person with a tender heart, whom I’d be proud to have for a friend. (And she’s the kind of friend who comes through when the chips are down).

Jane isn’t the only round, lifelike character here; those qualities apply to the whole supporting cast (two-legged and four-legged; Beast is a masterpiece!). The plot is perfectly paced and constructed, IMO, with plenty of mystery to keep you guessing, not just the central mystery –who (and maybe what) is the rogue?– but the enigma of Jane’s buried memories, and the increasingly intriguing secrets of the vampires. Hunter’s treatment of the Undead is pretty traditional in most respects, and unlike many modern authors of vampire fiction, she doesn’t ignore or reject the idea that vampires fear Christian symbols (indeed, they’re burned by the touch of the cross), but not those of other faiths –why, Jane wants to know?

The author is a wonderfully descriptive prose stylist, one of the few writers (the late Ray Bradbury was another) who enables you to fully experience her world with all your senses: not just sight and hearing, but smell, taste and tactile sensations as well. And she does personal interactions wonderfully well, with insight, sympathy, and often real emotional power. Of course, since this is action-oriented fiction, you can expect some violence, and some of it’s gory; what the rogue does to victims isn’t pretty, and elementary school kids aren’t the intended audience for the book. But this won’t bother most tough-minded adults.

This is one series that I’m going to be following, and hoping to read in its entirety!

Note: There’s no explicit sex here, and very little implied sex, despite the fact that some of the minor characters are prostitutes. (Jane doesn’t engage in any sex.) Hunter is also relatively sparing in her use of bad language, though that doesn’t mean there’s none.

Publisher: Roc, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

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