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Book Review: The Luminaries by Susan Dennard

Book Review: The Luminaries by Susan Dennard

Winnie Wednesday wants nothing more than to join the Luminaries, an ancient order that protects not only her hometown of Hemlock Falls but the rest of humanity too. Every night, monsters and nightmares rise in the forest and the Luminary hunters keep them at bay. But Winnie is officially an outcast, branded a traitor since her father was exposed as a witch. Her family have been shunned by the order and Winnie’s dreams of being a Luminary hunter seem further away than ever. Sick and tired of being ignored, jeered at and tormented, Winnie is determined to prove her loyalty. And the only way to do that is to take the deadly hunter trials. She’ll either restore her family’s good name, or die trying.

Winnie might have spent her isolation studying monsters and learning everything she possibly can to help her survive the forest, but her hunter skills are rusty. With few options, she reluctantly enlists the aid of the one person who stands a chance of helping her live through the trials: Jay Friday – aloof resident bad boy and Winnie’s ex-best friend, who abandoned her along with everyone else. Jay might be a formidable hunter but he also seems to know more about the nightmares of the forest than he should. And there’s a new danger lurking in the darkness of night – one that nobody in Hemlock Falls is prepared for.

The Luminaries is an absolute dream of a book for YA readers who love anything monstrous, mythical and paranormal – but with a contemporary, real world edge. Susan Dennard doesn’t waste any time throwing us headfirst into this story of brave girls, brooding boys and complicated family dynamics. It begins with Winnie on ‘Corpse Duty’, cleaning up bodies (nightmare and human) from the forest, and it only gets stranger and more mysterious from there. There’s everything from vampires to werewolves to banshees to basilisks to kelpies, evoking the supernatural teen spirit of The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf.

That’s why we’re called the Luminaries, Winnie: we are lanterns the forest can never snuff out.”

This is a genuine underdog story, so it helps that Winnie is an intrinsically likeable and unaffected character (even if she has the maddeningly incessant nervous habit of constantly clicking her teeth). She’s been deeply affected by her father’s betrayal, but even more affected by what it meant for the family left behind. Winnie’s mum was dismissed as a hunter and forced to take a job waiting tables in a town that hates her. Meanwhile, Winnie’s brother, Darian, had his bureaucratic dream of being on the Luminary Council dashed. Winnie mourns for her mum and brother, but she still has to put on a brave face and go to school. And we all know how cruel and unforgiving teenagers can be.

Running alongside Winnie’s hunter trials is her difficult relationship with Jay. She’s angry with him but she needs him too, more than she wants to admit, which causes some seriously conflicted feelings. Jay is conflicted too, but for different, less obvious reasons. He’s clearly going through something more than the usual adolescent angst and he might just need Winnie as much as she needs him. Experiencing the gentle thawing and burgeoning trust between them is one of the book’s highlights – and seeing how their fragile relationship evolves from here is something to stick around for.

Dennard has created an intriguing Luminary order, with different factions named after the days of the week, all with their own strengths and identities. She also populates her story with vivid, palpable imagery – forbidding and eerie and deeply atmospheric. It helps that the whole book is set within and on the outskirts of a forest, a mysterious, magnetic backdrop that’s as compelling as it is frightening, and as much a character as Winnie or Jay. For all you Twilight fans, there’s a bit of a Forks, Washington vibe to the setting; it’s rainy, misty and dense with forest. In other words, the perfect place for supernatural beasties to hide.

The only thing that holds the story back is the fact that this is very obviously a ‘first book in a series’ kind of YA novel. It’s high on introductions and build-up, prioritising world building over actual plot, and is low on resolutions and any real answers. Dennard is quite clearly saving everything up for the sequel, which is great for the series in general – promising plenty more trials, mysteries and struggles for its central heroine to overcome – but it does make the overarching plot of this book feel somewhat underdeveloped.

Saying that, this is still a really fun and thrilling fantasy book full of youthful energy, nightmarish monsters and a brilliantly creepy ambiance. There’s also the potential for an engaging slow-burn romance as the story progresses, ensuring that there are plenty of reasons for readers to look forward to returning to the world of The Luminaries.


The Luminaries was published by Daphne Press on 7 March 2023

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