HUNTED BY THE SKY by Tanaz Bhathena grabs hold of its audience and refuses to let go. This extremely action-packed Young Adult (YA) novel begins with violence and turmoil, and the events cascade with abandon from there. Gul, one of the main characters, gives us her first-person account in painful and direct detail that opens her fantastical world to readers through food, geography, customs, and the undercurrents of prejudice and fear in her world — as well as the hopes to change them. Her counterpart, Cavas, has alternating first-person chapters that similarly reveal a whole other side to the world of the novel. With scores of names and places, varieties of magic, as well as dozens of titles and honorifics to learn, readers will both appreciate the fast pace of the novel and feel immersed in the highly developed world Bhathena has created in HUNTED BY THE SKY.
Based on traditions and mythology from medieval India and Persia, the characters and events feel both historical and modern. The plot and relationships follow the YA story arc as well as detail themes of self-discovery, overcoming fear and self-doubt, and learning humility. However, Hunted By The Sky doubles the development with two main characters who each have secret backgrounds and abilities. Gul is believed by key characters (other than herself) to be the Star Warrior, who will reunite the land and bring peace between magus and non-magus. Cavas, who works in the royal stables and cares for his ill father, becomes entwined in Gul’s destiny and soon discovers more about himself than he ever believed possible. The alternating chapters from each point-of-view help the audience to absorb their worlds as we get to know each on their own terms.
The adventures and characters tumble out of the novel briskly, and readers need to pay attention to avoid missing key details. The travel between locations happens suddenly, and seemingly minor interactions end up having significant consequences later in the novel. Strong readers will enjoy being challenged, and emerging readers can take their time as the chapters are not cumbersome, and they include natural pauses.
The novel includes a diverse set of cultures within the world. Various religions, backgrounds, classes, skin tones, and sexual identities are all described. And the characters show a wide range of responses to the differences, from deep prejudice to total acceptance. Female characters are shown as everything from fierce warriors to loyal servants. The vivid details afforded the myriad characters and situations in which they find themselves bring the interactions to life.
Some caveats: There are several mentions of past or threatened sexual violence, indentured servitude and enslavement, and torture. While there are sparse details included, the long-term effects of rape and emotional abuse on magical ability and personality are described. One race of part animal-part human beings, the Pashu, have their wings cut off to control their abilities. In addition, there is a “flesh market” with rules about who can be put up for auction, but it’s clear that the required free will is heavily influenced by desperation and a tyrannical regime. Abuse of animals also occurs for sport. This violence embedded in the novel is rarely described in detail, giving readers the option to dwell on the violence or turn the page.
Overall, HUNTED BY THE SKY is a well-developed novel that will entice readers who want adventure and fantasy in addition to the interpersonal drama and identity journeys of young adult stories. What it adds is a rich world of characters and culture that will feel at once familiar and extraordinarily fresh.