I think all readers have a phase, when they first discover a genre, wherein they read practically everything and anything as long as it’s vaguely connected to the genre in question, without giving any thought to the quality of what they’re reading until later. This, I think, is a natural part of learning what one does and doesn’t like about a genre, until the reader’s tastes are refined, and he or she is able to identify which authors and/or tropes they prefer. During this initial period there’s a lot of hit-and-miss when it comes to books, but usually the reader comes out all the better for it.
It was no different with me when it came to the urban fantasy genre. After American Gods I went digging for other books in the same genre, and while I found quite a few that I liked (Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series being a notable highlight, along with Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series), there were a few that didn’t quite meet my expectations: China Mieville’s Kraken, for instance, which felt like a pale attempt to replicate American Gods in London. Another one would be Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, which has become a little too preoccupied with sex for my taste, thus losing sight of the elements that drew me to the series in the first place.
My hunt for urban fantasy books has since slowed down, mostly because I almost dread spending money on something I won’t like, and there’s been a lot out there that I haven’t liked. The last time I’d lucked out on a series was with Aaronovitch’s books, and only because those were recommended to me by my good friend Hope. So when my mother pointed out the first book in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, titled Hounded, while we were visiting our favorite bookstore during December last year, I was reluctant to give it a try. I’d dithered over actually buying the book, until my mother, exasperated at my inability to decide, said it was either I buy it or she did. And since I’m loath to let her spend on books now that I’m earning my own money, I decided to take a risk and buy the book.
Since then I’ve put off actually reading the book, lining up a whole lot of other novels on my summer reading list just so I didn’t have to pick it up until I was reconciled to the idea of actually reading it. Finally I’d reached the end of my reading list, and I was pretty much staring at the cover without any other books in sight. In the end, I decided I might as well get it over with, and just cross my fingers that it was a painless read.
As it turned out, Hounded was not only painless, it was a really fun, lighthearted read, a pick-me-up that put a smile on my face after the drop in joy I’d experienced after reading The Mongoliad: Book One. And, more importantly, it’s restored my faith in a genre I was almost certain had been saturated with Butcher and Kenyon (of Dark Hunters fame) knockoffs.
Hounded is told by Atticus O’Sullivan, the last living Druid in the world, and two thousand and one hundred years old, though physically he looks only twenty-one. On the run for most of his life, he’s settled down in a little town called Tempe, in Arizona, where he runs an occult bookshop and tries to lay low as much as he can, so as not to attract any undue attention from anyone who might want him dead. Unfortunately, his worst enemy has finally tracked him down, and Atticus is forced to choose between fleeing – again – or fighting back to bring an end to the whole thing once and for all.
As I read through it, it was tempting to compare this series, and its hero, to Harry Dresden of Dresden Files fame. The urge is hardly surprising, since both series, despite being written by two different authors and being set in two different locations, are essentially cast in the same mold: first-person detective stories with a supernatural bent. Dresden fits better into that mold, though, since he actually works with the police, whereas Atticus just owns a bookshop. But they’re both trying to be as unobtrusive with their powers as possible, and mostly for the same reason: there are things out there that would like nothing more than to kill them.
Aside from that, though, Dresden and Atticus are very different. Though Dresden has a great sense of humor, just like Atticus, he tends to be more serious, to have more angst than Atticus does. I will likely be proven wrong, eventually, as I read more of the Iron Druid Chronicles, but I rather like to think that Atticus, despite being constantly in danger, has managed to handle the angst of being an immortal Druid pretty well. Dresden, on the other hand, has had so much trouble of the emotional kind happen to him that I rather do feel sorry for him, given how cruel the universe has been to him so far. This doesn’t mean Dresden is better, or worse, a character than Atticus; it just means that, now that the storyline of the Dresden Files has gotten heavier than it started out, Atticus and his relatively lighthearted (by comparison, anyway – there is nothing lighthearted about having one of the Tuatha de Danaan as one’s sworn enemy) concerns are a nice breather from the heavier, emotional concerns that Dresden has.
This does not mean that Atticus doesn’t have his own fair share of trouble, of course, or that he’s “better” than Dresden. He does have his own problems, and he deals with them in a way that are funny to the reader only because they are not on the receiving end of some of the things Atticus does to the people who irritate him. He might look and talk like a twenty-one-year-old, but he can be just as cantankerous as many septuagenarians and octogenarians out there. They are small things, really, nothing too terrible, but it’s quite obvious that, while Atticus is just as cautious as Dresden when it comes to using his power, he’s still not above using it in rather creative ways to get back at the people who irritate him.
Another interesting point of comparison between the Dresden Files and the Iron Druid Chronicles is that both Dresden and Atticus have sidekicks, allies and friends who can be counted upon (most of the time) to help get them out of scrapes and problems they cannot solve on their own. Dresden has Bob, a spirit that lives – or is trapped – in an enchanted skull that Dresden inherited from his uncle. Atticus doesn’t have anything quite as awesome as Bob, but he does have an Irish wolfhound named Oberon, who is just as interesting in his own right despite being a dog and not a spirit of knowledge trapped in an enchanted skull. Oberon as a character in his own right is exceptionally funny and interesting, and will be of interest to those who have pets of their own (especially dog lovers) and have wondered what it would be like if they could get into their companion’s mind and listen into their thoughts. While it’s true Oberon is not any ordinary dog, and so doesn’t think the way ordinary dogs think, those very same thoughts are still filtered through the many instincts that a dog actually has. It has the result, therefore, of giving Oberon an air of intelligence far beyond that of the average Disney animal without making him come off as “a human in a dog suit.”
Aside from Oberon, Atticus has a few other friends in his corner, most notably an entire pack of werewolves (who also happen to be lawyers), and a vampire who works with the werewolves at their law firm. How that happened is going to be a very interesting story (it’s already been hinted at in this novel), which means it’s likely to get told further down the line in one or more of the other books. Some of his more dubious allies includes the Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of war, who has taken a particular interest in Atticus and his doings for a very, very long time now, and the leader of a coven of witches named Radomila. Naturally those alliances – all of them – get tested, questioned, and in a few cases broken, throughout the course of the novel, and provide an interesting source of tension aside from the fact that Atticus is trying his darndest to stay alive.
The plot isn’t really all that different from the typical urban fantasy/detective novel mashup, but that’s only to be expected. What matters here is the way the world is drawn up, and I must admit, I really, really like the way the world of the Iron Druid Chronicles has been set up. In particular, I like how, despite there being a lot of gods and demigods and supernatural beings that have magic at their disposal because of what they are, being a Druid (or a witch, it appears) is really more a matter of study than anything else. While Atticus explains that a special tattooing ritual binds the Druid to the earth so that said Druid can draw upon the earth as the primary source for all magic, there is nothing that says a Druid is born. Druidry, then, is a learned skill, as is witchcraft. The trope of magic as learned skill, as opposed to birthright, is a trope that I always appreciate – and is a definite plus in favor of Hearne’s novel series.
All told, Hounded is a fun novel with just enough weight to it to make it a respectable read, but just light enough that the reader is easily engaged and doesn’t feel overly emotional at the end of it. Atticus O’Sullivan’s voice as the narrator is a fun and cheeky voice to listen to (an excellent bard, so one might say), while the supporting characters are interesting enough with great promise for future development in the later books. The plot is pretty standard, but this is to be expected in this particular genre – it’s still a fun ride regardless. This is a great novel (and likely a great series, but I’m withholding judgment until I’ve read the rest of the books) for urban fantasy readers who’ve become rather jaded, or who are looking to get someone else into the genre.