The Hunter is the second in Kerrigan Byrne’s “Victorian Rebels” series (I really enjoyed Book 1, The Highwayman, which was previously reviewed here.) This book is emotionally complicated, so my review is long. But fair warning: this book will definitely not be to everyone’s taste. The violence in the prologue alone will turn off anyone who is looking for a light, fluffy romantic story.
THE PLOT: Christopher Argent was born in his mother’s jail cell. As a child, he watches his mother trade sexual favors to the prison guards in exchange for better food. After he witnesses her gang-rape and murder, Christopher turns to a life of violence. Fast-forward to years later, where he is a cold, ruthless assassin in the criminal underworld run by Dorian Blackwell. He’s hired to kill actress Millie LeCour, but something about her prevents him from finishing the job. After two failed attempts, he instead promises to protect Millie and her young son from whoever is after them if Millie will spend one night with him.
Millie first spots Christopher in the audience of the play in which she’s performing. When she dances with him at the after-party, she’s immediately smitten. When she realizes he intended to kill her, she’s rightfully terrified for herself and her son, yet still oddly fascinated by him. When he promises to protect them from the danger, she agrees to his bargain. Millie is hiding a few secrets of her own, and those may be more dangerous to her than her would-be assassin.
MY TWO CENTS: I thought quite a bit about what to say in this review. I first considered who the character of Christopher reminded me of, and I came up with comparisons to Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer played by Ralph Fiennes in “The Red Dragon;” Edward Nygma on “Gotham;” and to a lesser extent, Dr. Horrible. What do these three have in common? They’re all villains who, for a short time, start enjoying a romantic relationship with their dream girl (or almost, in Horrible’s case); then, through some sort of emotional breakdown, end up killing or attempting to kill the woman.
I’m not saying Christopher ends up killing Millie. I’m saying it would have made more sense if he had. Each of the characters mentioned previously have some sort of deep-seated psychosis (okay, Dr. Horrible was just a bullied nerd, but that was enough to push him over the edge). And in each case, romance was not enough to heal that mental illness. Which is absolutely a fact, and let me repeat it: finding true love does not, in and of itself, cure mental illness.
Kerrigan Byrne does a fantastic job of getting the reader into Christopher’s head. He has been significantly damaged by the trauma of his formative years. He is a cold-blooded murderer whose only code is to not rape women and not kill children. He can’t sleep in a real bed. He’s got a huge mansion with absolutely no furnishings in it, isn’t interested in personal items, and has one person he kinda/sorta counts as a friend. There are many, many signs here that Christopher is a full-blown psychotic. Maybe the problem is that Byrne does TOO good of a job painting the profile of a serial killer. Admittedly, she provides an even more evil assassin to serve as a comparison to Christopher. This person enjoys physically torturing his victims, mutilating them, leaving “trophies,” and having sex with corpses. (So maybe HE is closer to the character of Francis Dolarhyde.) But just because the other killer is worse doesn’t mean Christopher isn’t bad. The other may just be beyond help. Which leads to:
Can a person with psychotic tendencies overcome them? Can a killer repent? Can a villain redeem himself? Sure, but it takes more than a pretty face to inspire it. To truly heal, Christopher would need years of therapy and possibly some medication, as well as a strong support system. One friend, one lover, and a legitimate job are NOT going to fix everything that’s wrong with him.
Now, I’m fully aware that Argent wouldn’t have benefited from what passed for mental health care in the Victorian era, but there might have been ways around that. For example, consider another fictional character from a similar time period: Kenshin Himura of Rurouni Kenshin. He was traumatized and abandoned as a child, trained as a samurai, became a notorious assassin in the Bakumatsu, and was eventually responsible for the death of his own wife. But Kenshin’s redemption begins at the end of the war, when he vows never to kill again. As a wanderer, he focuses on protecting people, makes many friends, and eventually marries again. But his redemption doesn’t happen because of Karou; Kenshin is able to love her because he has already worked so hard to change. He lets go of enough guilt to believe he’s deserving of happiness.
For me, one of two options could have made this book better. The first is that, like Kenshin, Christopher was already working on turning over a new leaf before he met Millie. He might have been portrayed as a repenting former assassin who found out Millie was a target, felt compelled to step in to protect her, and eventually fell in love.
The other option would require this book to be a psychological thriller and not held to the unwritten rules of romances. If it weren’t limited to approximately 400 pages, required to have a happy ending, and of course focused on romance, it could be called a well-written exploration of someone striving to escape his past and become something better.
At least the book doesn’t leave Christopher as a fully rehabilitated individual. He may be on his way, but the reader is left to believe it will be an ongoing process. I just wish more than love had been the catalyst for his eventual redemption.
BOTTOM LINE: Definitely not for everyone. If violence and foul language are not your thing, skip it. If you’re drawn to very dark anti-heroes and tend to dismiss harsh reality when reading, then The Hunter may appeal to you. I wish the well-written title character had been featured in a psychological thriller instead of a romance. I will still read the next book in the series, The Highlander, coming in October.
TEACUP RATING: Out of five teacups: two-and-a-half to three.
ON SALE DATE: Available February 2, 2016, in paperback and e-formats.
Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.