Book Review : The Luminaries

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : The LuminariesThe Luminaries (The Luminaries, #1) by Susan Dennard
Published by Tor Teen on November 1st 2022
Pages: 304
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Source: NetGalley

From Susan Dennard, the New York Times bestselling author of the Witchlands series, comes a haunting and high-octane contemporary fantasy, about the magic it takes to face your fears in a nightmare-filled forest, and the mettle required to face the secrets hiding in the dark corners of your own family.
Hemlock Falls isn't like other towns. You won't find it on a map, your phone won't work here, and the forest outside town might just kill you.
Winnie Wednesday wants nothing more than to join the Luminaries, the ancient order that protects Winnie's town—and the rest of humanity—from the monsters and nightmares that rise in the forest of Hemlock Falls every night.
Ever since her father was exposed as a witch and a traitor, Winnie and her family have been shunned. But on her sixteenth birthday, she can take the deadly Luminary hunter trials and prove herself true and loyal—and restore her family's good name. Or die trying.
But in order to survive, Winnie enlists the help of the one person who can help her train: Jay Friday, resident bad boy and Winnie’s ex-best friend. While Jay might be the most promising new hunter in Hemlock Falls, he also seems to know more about the nightmares of the forest than he should. Together, he and Winnie will discover a danger lurking in the forest no one in Hemlock Falls is prepared for.
Not all monsters can be slain, and not all nightmares are confined to the dark.
"You'll want to get lost in the world of The Luminaries again and again.”—Leigh Bardugo, #1 New York Times bestselling author

When I saw that Susan Dennard, author of one of my few favorite young adult series The Witchlands, had a spooky new book releasing, I knew I had to read it. Though I wasn’t the biggest fan of the last book I read by the author, Witchshadow, I found The Luminaries to be a really enjoyable and fluffy read. Though it’s easy to see where the series is going, and it feels similar to other YA novels, this doesn’t make The Luminaries any less fun.


The story follows teenaged Winne Wednesday, an outlawed and former member of the Luminaries, an organization consisting of clans named after the days of the week, which guard a mystical and deadly forest full of monsters. Determined to get her family’s outcast status revoked, sixteen year old Winnie determines to participate in the Trials. Should she pass these tests, she can earn her place as a Hunter in the Luminaries and restore her family to their rightful place back within the clan. 


“She hasn’t told anyone she’s going to attempt the first hunter trial tonight. If they find out, they won’t let her….and they’ll find a way to intervene. But what they don’t know, they can’t stop. Plus, nowhere in the rules does it say an outcast can’t enter. Nons are forbidden, sure, but there’s definitely no mention of outcasts.”


I thought the entire premise of The Luminaries was really interesting. It almost reminded me of a mix between The Hunger Games and Divergent, with a teensy bit of Twilight thrown into the mix. Though I was very interested in the forest and how the Luminaries organization, as well as their arch nemesis organization the Dianas, formed, there was not a whole lot of time spent on world-building, sadly. I would honestly say that almost the bare minimum of world-building in The Luminaries is provided. I had more questions about the world—how were these organizations formed and how do they stay hidden from the rest of the world, and what the world outside these clans is like—than answers. 


I was particularly perplexed that the town in which the Luminaries resided in, Hemlock Falls, had its own news station. Winnie remarks that this station (along with the town and the organization) is kept secret from the rest of the world, but it is never explained how it is kept secret or what the rest of the world is like outside of the organization. This really itched at my brain, as there are no witches working for the Luminaries to keep the broadcast private, or hints that anyone had an “in” at a big broadcasting station or anything of the sort. There are also not many references to the rest of the branches of the Luminaries, other than to say that some of the newest members operating in this town came from other branches. These new members seem to fit right in with no issues or differences from the other branches of the Luminaries at large. It’s all a little too easy.


The writing is simply not as nuanced or as mature as Susan Dennard’s other works. It feels like The Luminaries is definitely geared toward younger YA readers than older ones. Parts of the world-building that were actually explained to me didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either. The clan leaders claim to their teenagers that they want them to survive more than anything, but then let them go into the forest filled with murderous monsters as soon as they turn sixteen. Honestly, I don’t understand the logic of actively putting these teenagers, without fully developed brains in these dangerous situations, and then claiming their survival is the number one priority. Wouldn’t it make sense to at least make the kids wait until they’re eighteen to go into the forest alone?


Nor does the heightened difference in difficulty levels between the three Trials feel logical to me. The first trial involved View Spoiler »This last test had practically no fail safes in place. 


“The rule is that anyone in the Luminaries—except nons who join from outside—can try to become a hunter during the month of their sixteenth birthday. If they fail, though, that’s it. No do-overs. No mulligans. The stakes are too high to risk anyone in the forest who isn’t a peak performer.”


This is even though we know that the Hunters, even the adult ones, have an incredibly high mortality rate. Wouldn’t procreation and the life of the next generation of Hunters be a top priority? Why is there such a rush to get these kids into the forest alone, without an apprenticeship or anything? Shouldn’t these children only be tested once their brains have fully developed and allowed them to make better decisions?


Perhaps, as an adult reader, I’m just taking this all too seriously and asking too many questions, but it was honestly just hard for me to completely believe the way that this society ran as a whole and how it held such conveniently conflicting ideals. I also couldn’t help but feel that The Luminaries wasn’t quite as dark and gritty as it should be for the world in which it took place. Though the novel starts with Winnie out on corpse duty extolling the virtues of kids getting used to being around brutalized bodies at a young age, none of Winnie’s classmates ever die or are permanently maimed and have to give up their dreams, or anything of the sort. 


And oddly enough, even though the entire society of the Luminaries revolves around the forest and hunting—even the children go to school late in the day so they have more time for corpse duty and training—there somehow isn’t a stigma against those who within the society who choose not to take up the mantle of hunters. I found this very hard to believe as the Luminaries don’t even let outsiders into their society without background checks, vetting, and interviews. It’s even harder to believe that it’s just fine for the children not to become hunters in light of the fact that Winnie and her mom and brother are constantly bullied and treated like dirt for her father supposedly being a traitor to the society. I don’t think the culture of the Luminaries and their acceptance is at all in line with one another—they’re cruel and callous when it suits them, and kind and accepting when it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for them to be. 


The Luminaries, I would assume would also be concerned about reproduction to replenish their supplies of Hunters, but that also doesn’t seem to be the case. Families seem to only have one or two kids, not a more reasonable seven or anything, to keep up with the supposedly high mortality rates—but again, readers don’t ever see Hunter deaths on the page first hand, just read about people speaking or remembering past deaths. The Luminaries also have no problem with LGTBQ+ romances, despite the constant need for more Hunters, which was a pleasant surprise for the type of militant society they are. Winnie’s brother is in an openly gay relationship and hasn’t had any issues with acceptance of his sexual orientation or relationship or pushy attempts to get him and his boyfriend to adopt children to train as Hunters. Again, this seemed almost too perfect to believe of the same society that fired Winnie’s mother as head Hunter and forced her to seek other means of employment, treating her like dirt beneath theirs shoes in that new job (waitressing), laughing as she barely eked out a living to support her family, calling her daughter names, and all because her husband might have been a traitor. 


I guess maybe I am viewing this society, which has children as Hunters (basically child soldiers), as a dystopian society, and maybe that’s not how the writer herself sees it. Regardless, I kind of wish Dennard had pushed the envelope more consistently on the behaviors of this society, which has no problem shunning former integral members or leading their kids to a slaughter, but is strangely accepting of almost everything else. While reading I often had moments of asking myself “is this the same society?”  Do the Luminaries actually care more about its survival as an organization to keep the forest at bay or the happiness and survival of its members? Most of the time, it seems like the former—especially with its treatment of Winnie’s family—but then instances of the latter are thrown in willy-nilly to make the society seem less awful or the novel more suitable for younger readers. Regardless of the reasoning behind these choices, it left me feeling like The Luminaries couldn’t quite make up its mind on what it wanted its shadowy organization to be or to stand for. 

I was also similarly surprised by other narrative choices in The Luminaries. The novel relies on Winne panicking and going into some anxiety-ridden verbatim recitation of what is in the monster handbook, known as The Compendium, whenever she encounters a forest denizen. Though realistic to someone in a life-or-death situation, it was literally such a buzz-kill to read. Instead of being surprised by what creatures were appearing and showing the detail of what they looked like, Winnie spoils the suspense again and again by telling readers what the compendium says about the monsters that are apparently appearing in front of her—before they are even introduced to the reader. A big part of horror or horror adjacent genres is that the imagination is usually worse than whatever the author describes, and giving time to show details of the monster before it appears, so the imagination can run wild, is a classic way to heighten the suspense. I find it so odd that The Luminaries constantly and consciously chooses not to do this. I don’t think readers are introduced to monsters in a more organic way even once in the novel. 


This way of telling the story took me right out of what was happening in the novel, which was a shame in what is supposed to be a moment of climax and heightened suspense. I suppose it was written in this manner as a method to make Winnie seem more relatable to readers, but I found it irritating. As was the egregious use of the phrase “teeth clinking.” I don’t know that it was necessary to write about Winnie’s anxious “teeth clinking” habit SO. MANY. TIMES. Also unclear what the “clinking” of teeth means, it is teeth grinding, chattering like when someone is cold, or what? Another thing that really threw me was that the entire novel was written solely from Winnie’s perspective, only for the point-of-view to suddenly switch to Winne’s ex-best friend for literally two paragraphs, just for it to then switch back to Winnie’s narration. I had to reread those paragraphs several times because I was so confused at what was going on, as this change in perspective wasn’t denoted in the novel in any way. 


Despite my concerns with world-building and some of the narrative choices, I really did enjoy The Luminaries as a whole. I always wanted to pick this book back up and I easily could see myself having been wild about this book when I was younger. As an adult reader, the developing romance between Winnie and her like-new-but-old-friend Jay was kind of vanilla and predictable, but as younger reader, I am sure I would have relished in how Jay is not only mysterious (even though it’s obvious why he’s mysterious), but there for Winnie when it counts. 


“He just stares at her with that gray intensity only he can have, and says, ‘You either trust the forest or you don’t Winnie. You have to make up your mind.'”


And Winnie herself is a likable protagonist. Though she is inwardly scared, she faces not only many life-threatening situations, but also family dynamic issues, clan conflict, and more with aplomb. It was easy to relish in her determination and successes. Though I wished Winnie were a bit more confident, bold, or even angry at times, her behavior is definitely in character for a newly turned sixteen year old.


Though I was more often than not annoyed at how the Compendium was utilized in the novel, I really was intrigued by the interesting ideas of the monsters, which often go beyond the typical basic monster descriptions of “vampire,” “kelpie,” and “banshee.” These are not the run-of-the-mill creatures of legends that readers see time and time again. And Winnie’s encounters with these foes are very tense and climactic, after that first Compendium-narrated introduction. I don’t know how any of these adults or teenagers, dedicate their life to hunting down these creepy creatures, and how there aren’t more kids actively choosing not to pursue that grim and terrifying future.  


All in all, The Luminaries is a light and spooky novel perfect for younger readers and those who can accept the nonsensicality of the organization of the Luminaries. This was a great read to get me even more hyped for spooky season. As the novel ended on a note somewhere between resolved and cliffhanger, The Luminaries left me both satisfied and ready to read more. I am planning to pick up whatever other entries in the series come out and hope future entries will answer more of my questions.


Book Review : The Luminaries - Blogging with Dragons

Posted September 7, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult


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